Numerous spoilers for “Ad Astra” ahead…
Halfway through James Gray’s pensive sci-fi / dad-feels film Ad Astra, a distress call leads Brad Pitt’s character, Major Roy McBride, and another astronaut to a small spaceship that they note has been approved for “animal research.” When they try to respond, no one answers. When they enter, no one can be seen or heard. They split up.
When Major McBride loses communication with his colleague, he makes his way back towards him. After passing by ominously shredded padded walls, he finds the man shaking strangely, the front half of his body obscured. A long second passes, and then the theater I was in let out an audible gasp as a rageful baboon peeks over the unfortunate astronaut’s shoulder, blood smeared on its face. In the fight scene that follows, Roy is able to get the upper hand, killing the baboons and escaping with the human body — though it turns out to be DOA.
The film quickly moves forward in search of Roy’s apparently demented father, who he’s just learned is still alive after he went dark from an alien research project on Neptune 16 years before. En route, after the attack, McBride checks in with his daily psych eval, noting that he has some sympathy for the space baboons. “I understand their rage,” he says.
In Film Comment, Jonathan Romney described the scene as “deranged” and “utterly incongruous,” but I found it believable, heartbreaking, and directly linked to the central themes of the film — so much so that I couldn’t stop thinking about the baboons whenever I thought about the not-so-distant future that Ad Astra presents.
In the real world — in the recent past, rather than the “not so distant future” presented in Ad Astra — 32 primates, and hundreds of other animals, have been caged, trained, strapped down, and flown to space, many of them sent by the United States.