WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Ad Astra, in theaters now.
Director James Gray's Ad Astra has been well-received by critics for its emotional story about Brad Pitt's Major Roy McBride as he sets off to Neptune to stop a space station that's creating electrical surges throughout the galaxy and endangering planets.
It's a tumultuous journey in which Roy fends off space pirates on the Moon, sinister NASA officials on Mars, baboon test subjects on a Norwegian space station, and a familiar face who's running the Neptune hub. However, throughout Roy's cosmic journey, there are far too many similarities to Christopher Nolan's Interstellar that can't be ignored and which, at times, detract from the plot.
The first thing that stands out is the theme of family, as the person responsible for Neptune is none other than Roy's father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who walked out on his family years earlier for the space expedition known as the Lima Project. Roy has been searching for him ever since, at least metaphorically speaking. However, that turns physical when he starts sending communiques to his father from Mars to try to track him.
It's similar to Jessica Chastain's Murph trying to find her father, Matthew McConaughey's Joe, when he left for a mission to save Earth. But in Interstellar, Joe isn't selfish, and actually cares for his family. That said, the bond of bloodlines and legacy runs strong in Ad Astra, with Roy wanting to know why his dad left him, even following in his job, akin to Murph growing up angry that Joe was so selfless and using NASA as a means to spiritually connect. There's even a family reunion at the end of Ad Astra, although it's more dour, as Roy and Clifford are placed at odds as Gray crafts a message like Nolan did of love transcending space and time when Joe meets an older Murph.
Apart from the emotional beats beneath the surface of Ad Astra, the music and editing style are similar to Nolan's movie too. Interstellar's soundscape was so moody, meant to evoke the vacuum and isolation of space, with Hans Zimmer's score making you feel claustrophobic and in danger. Composer Max Richter carbon copies that style for Gray, using electronic beats and symphonies to mimic breathing, pulses and racing heartbeats as Roy encounters various levels of danger too.
What's all the more intriguing is Ad Astra's cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who also worked on Interstellar. The framing, lighting and atmosphere are so similar, both feel like the same movie.
Now, this is all aesthetic, and could be down to sheer luck, or maybe a homage to Nolan's high standard when it comes to galactic traipsing. But these comparisons have to be noted as dramatic, grounded space movies like Gravity don't have that much in common with Ad Astra, bar a few space walks here and there. By contrast, however, Interstellar feels like the chief inspiration for Gray's vision.
The icing on the cake, though, comes in the leads, with Roy and Joe so tortured, even giving a dramatic crying scene as they yearn for family. Ultimately, while they're flawed, broken men who miss their wives, they know that saving the world matters more than anything else. They're all about the mission and, as protagonists, they're as sympathetic and human as we could get. Gray makes it obvious Roy is obsessed with heading to the stars just as much as Joe was in Nolan's film, because at the end of the day, they're humanity's last hope -- something both men sacrificed for and embraced wholeheartedly when the stardust settled.
Directed by James Gray from a script by himself and Ethan Gross, Ad Astrastars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Nega, Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland, in theaters now.