heart of darkness is one of the most successful novels in English. Published 1899 by Blackwood’s Magazine, the novel initially received little attention from critics, but has since become one of the most discussed works in literature. It tells the story of Charles Marlow, a sailor in the Congo Free State in the later years of the 19th century, who embarks on a two-month voyage down the Congo River in search of a mad ivory trader named Kurtz, who has deceived a group of locals into believing that he is a godlike figure. The trek exposes him to the most heinous acts a human can commit and becomes a thorough examination of the human psyche and the power of suggestion. Despite its author Joseph Konrad Considering it is one of his smaller works, it has become by far one of his most popular creations. And as with all acclaimed works in literature, it wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking. The most notable of his adaptations, Francis Ford Coppolas apocalypse now, masterfully updated the story into an allegory for the brutality of warfare during the Vietnam War, becoming one of cinema’s most acclaimed films in the process. While any attempt to surpass such a classic would be the first step towards insanity, there is one film that comes within a hair’s breadth of legendary status.
The film in question is Ad Astra, James Gray‘s sci-fi epic that proves there’s always a new angle to dissect a classic. Despite several changes to its source material, the film retains its core premise and themes heart of darkness so elaborately explored that it becomes one of the best examples of how to update a centuries-old novel without forgetting who it owes its life to. It’s both a fascinating retelling of the acclaimed original and a compelling piece of sci-fi existentialism in its own right, and Gray’s ability to pull off both deserves praise.
taking place at the end of the 21st century, Ad Astra follows the honored Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) while investigating a series of mysterious electrical surges that threaten all life in the solar system. Its origin dates back to the Lima Project, a mission to discover intelligent life that lost contact after it reached Neptune sixteen years ago. The project was initiated by Roy’s father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who, despite being presumed dead along with the rest of the Lima crew, appears to be very much alive now. This revelation leads Roy on a galaxy-spanning quest to stop the waves and bring his father home, while grappling with his own delicate state of mind in the process. Despite obvious changes, the film sticks to the basic structure heart of darkness: A mentally damaged character is sent on a possible suicide mission through a hostile environment to deal with an insane madman who has defected from his commanding officers, with the majority of the narrative consisting of brief vignettes of increasingly violent encounters that the Protagonist discovers throughout their journey as the brutality of their mission begins to severely compromise their mental state. The set dressing may be different, but this is still Conrad’s story, with all its psychological anguish.
But there is still much more to do Ad Astra than copy heart of darkness. Instead, Gray uses it as a basis to explore new concepts and offers a fresh perspective on the novel that avoids getting overly involved in the original’s plot. For starters, changing the environment allows for a whole new range of themes for Gray to explore, all of which feel like natural extensions of what Conrad had previously tackled. The film’s depiction of space, for example, is only a stone’s throw away from the criticism of European colonial rule in heart of darkness. While most films view humanity’s ascension to the stars through a positive lens, seeing it as our chance to escape the harshness of Earth and live a more idyllic and tranquil life, Ad Astra takes on a bitter tone. Franchises of our favorite fast food restaurants cover the surface of the moon, sharing space with the endless disputes over territory that often erupt in violence. The scourge of imperialism has spread its wings to embrace the solar system itself, and Ray laments the state of affairs in his persistent voiceover.
Despite the film’s plot, which stems from the search for intelligent life with which to justify the actions that have done so much damage to our society, there is a constant feeling that humanity is far from being at peace with itself to find, and even if we did find new life, we’d probably just subject it to the same atrocities we’ve tormented ourselves with. heart of darkness was an early example of a rejection of the notion that colonialism benefited those it conquered, with much of the latter half of the novel condemning the injustices committed in Africa by western nations. Ad Astra expands on this topic on a much larger scale. Both serve as ruthless critiques of imperialism, and while these studies work well in isolation, together they offer a far more powerful picture. Two hundred years separate the events of heart of darkness and Ad Astraand though the background may be different, human nature remains as inhuman as ever.
This reinvention extends to the film’s characters as well, with Roy and Clifford McBride serving as fascinating modern reinterpretations Heart of Darkness central duo, Charles Marlow and Kurtz. Much like the protagonist of Conrad’s novel, Roy exhibits many of the traits associated with the standard hero archetype: he is tough, brave, and more than capable of handling himself in tense situations, as evidenced by the casting of Brad Pitt in the role is reinforced role. But this is just a facade to hide a more fragile interior, whose cracks become visible the further he advances in his mission. Roy’s ability to never get his heart rate above 58 beats per minute might seem like something a macho hero would be proud of, but it lasted longer Ad Astra As it progresses, it becomes clear that this is just a coping mechanism due to trauma related to his family. Additionally, he also shares Marlow’s role as the audience surrogate, his blank stares and emotionless tone serving as the perfect vector to introduce the viewer to this harsh world. His unwavering determination keeps the story moving, the film never leaving his side as he sinks deeper and deeper into both psychological and mental isolation. He’s a cold character, but one who feels right at home in this grim depiction of the future.
The film’s antagonist, Clifford McBride, also has his fair share of comparisons to him heart of darkness counterpart. Like Kurtz, he sees himself as a divine figure who refuses to abandon the Lima Project’s mission, even after a mutiny that leaves him the sole survivor. Clifford’s role in this event remains ambiguous, but the emptiness with which he regards humanity is more than a powerful implication. While he lacks the pomp and ceremony of Kurtz, the grandeur of his ideas places him right next to the caricature of the evil genius, as does his blindness to all the damage he has done up to his final moments. As in heart of darkness, Clifford believes in an ideology diametrically opposed to that of his superiors, with Roy existing as an intermediary between the two. His indifference to the various heinous crimes he encounters on his journey to Neptune (some of which he is responsible for himself), combined with his stoic exterior, suggest that he sympathizes with Clifford’s goal of creating a new (and better) to find life. but despite everything, he has one foot firmly on the side of humanity.
The decision to make them father and son, a radical departure from the source material, adds an exciting new dynamic to the process. By throwing such a big wrench into the works, Gray brings a unique twist to the story that allows his film to stand on its own, rather than always being captivated by the 120-year-old novel to which it owes its legacy. It also serves to add significantly to the suspense as Roy grows ever closer to reuniting with a father he hasn’t seen in almost thirty years, an ingenious method that allows the story to explore its central concept of two strangers who meet in an inhospitable country, even when they are as closely related as two people can be.
Ad Astra is definitely a looser adaptation of heart of darkness than other films. apocalypse now, for example, keeps the name Kurtz for its antagonist, in addition to much of the novel’s dialogue. But Gray cleverly avoids that route, opting for a more personal approach that uses the novel not as a bible to hold on to at all times, but as a foundation on which to build a standalone project. It would be perfectly reasonable to watch Ad Astra without even recognizing his parentage heart of darkness, the perfect sign that Gray has achieved his goal, but looking at them together you can find a whole new level of interpretation. Suddenly, the surly portrayal of the future looks even worse, giving Conrad’s original text an even grimmer ending as we see his wish for a more optimistic future has not materialized. Ad Astra is a brilliant example of how a filmmaker can put a unique twist on a classic while maintaining its core principles, and should serve as inspiration for anyone wishing to undertake a similar endeavor.