'Ad Astra' director uses space to show that 'humanity is what matters'

·Editor focused on markets and the economy
Ruth Negga and Brad Pitt, in "Ad Astra"
Ruth Negga and Brad Pitt, in "Ad Astra"

“Ad Astra,” the space thriller starring Brad Pitt which opened Friday, features a trip to Mars, a fight on the moon’s surface, and radioactive energy that threatens life on Earth.

Just don’t be surprised if it comes off as far more sentimental than a science fiction movie should.

The critically-praised film, which The New Yorker called a “masterwork,” functions as both universe-spanning epic and comeback vehicle for Pitt, who’s already getting Oscar buzz for his emotional performance as Roy McBride.

Pitt plays an astronaut whose search for alien life becomes a simultaneous searching for his long-lost father and a quest to save the world.

Yet according to director and producer James Grey, “Ad Astra” is also an exegisis on the complexity of the human condition — and how earthlings strive to reconcile their existence with an increasingly chaotic environment.

Grey believes that task is being complicated by technology that gives society everything it wants, but makes humans more emotionally isolated than ever.

“Our lives and essence [are] underrated because we’re obsessed with technology and we think it holds the answer,” Grey told Yahoo Finance in an interview this week. “Ultimately the earth is what matters, and humanity is what matters.”

Neither dystopia nor utopia

A scene from "Ad Astra," starring Brad Pitt.
A scene from "Ad Astra," starring Brad Pitt.

Set in an unspecified future, “Ad Astra” highlights the progress of space exploration and interstellar commercial travel: One scene shows McBride (Pitt’s character) catching a Virgin Galactic shuttle, while paying for an in-flight perk using a biometric implant.

But despite technological advancement having carried mankind to the moon, the red planet and Neptune, themes of despair, conflict and alienation suffuse the narrative. According to Grey, it underscores how “human progress is real but human progress is not inevitable nor is it clean.”

In modern history has produced figures like “Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but you also have Josef Stalin and Hitler,” Grey told Yahoo Finance. “It’s neither dystopian nor utopian, but a complex world.”

In other words, the universe depicted within “Ad Astra” shows humanity hasn’t evolved that much. The same technology that’s life on earth easier isn’t necessarily making humanity any better.

That sentiment is perhaps best captured by a photo exhibit that went viral this week, showing how people would look in everyday situations if they were robbed of their smartphones.

“People are relying on their telephones, but we’re not happier and the world is not more peaceful,” Grey said, linking that to “Ad Astra’s” themes.

“There are things that are really screwed up” such as divides over politics, inequality, gender and race, he explained. “It’s a difficult pill to swallow and people really do not make investment into our emotional lives and people don’t think about that the way we should.”

In “Ad Astra,” McBride’s quest to save the world doesn’t end the way he expects — but it does drive home what Grey said was a recognition that “the true terra incognita is the human soul.”

The director added: “You can look for intelligent life and aliens, but that’s not going to give you the answer.”

Javier David is an editor for Yahoo Finance. Follow Javier on Twitter: @TeflonGeek

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