Ad Astra is the latest “thoughtful science fiction” film to hit the cinemas, in the same sort of general vein as The Martian or Interstellar or Arrival, which attempts to use science fiction ideas to tell intelligent stories that explore what it is to be human and–while not necessarily avoiding them outright–are not reliant upon classic action sequences to create interest.
Some minor spoilers are coming, with major ones at the end (I’ll give another warning before then).
The story concerns Brad Pitt’s Major Roy McBride, who in the future is on earth when a series of technological disasters begin to take place. He is informed that the situation may concern his father, who disappeared on a deep space mission to find evidence of life beyond our solar system years ago. McBride must travel to the moon and then to Mars in order to try to send a signal to his father (who was lost near Neptune) in the hopes of stopping a disaster which threatens all life. Throughout this, McBride must come to terms with the impact that his father’s distance and disappearance has had on him, which has resulted in him being emotionally stunted and detached.
So there is an interesting human story lurking somewhere within Ad Astra (Latin, apparently, for “to the stars.”) Unfortunately, the movie completely fails to construct a meaningful or coherent story around those ideas, making it impossible to stay immersed in the film.
The vast majority of the film’s exploration of McBride comes through a ponderous series self-reflection sequences, where McBride tells us in so many words that he is emotionally disconnected from the world around him. He does this both in tired-sounding voiceover narration (surely one of the laziest ways to reveal information cinema) and through a series of computer-guided psychological evaluations that he must do at various stages of the mission. Sometimes these two devices are even used back to back.
I guess he has to talk to himself because the movie works quite hard to contrive to keep him on his own. In fact, whenever there are other characters entering his life, the film suddenly delivers a cool action sequence revolving around a potentially interesting world-building concept, which results in those other people being either dead or shut out of the picture. For example, one scene introduces pirates on the moon; another involves baboons which have gone hyper-aggressive due to some sort of space experiment; and there is yet another which shows that SpaceCom, the governing body which McBride works for, is actually kind of totalitarian, willing to lie and manipulate to achieve its goals.
However, none of these concepts receive any further development in the movie, on any level whatsoever. It seems their only purpose is to provide an obstacle which McBride must overcome, but which nobody else is able to.
In between this, there are three other characters (or sets of characters) who pop briefly into McBride’s life (the military commanders who send him on his mission, a friend of his father’s who accompanies him for a bit, and a woman with a secret connection to his father), who all do nothing but deliver some exposition at the right time, before fading from the picture.
All of this is placed on the backdrop of some absurd science fiction that jars with the believable tone the movie seems to be after, a few massive plot holes, and lots of unanswered questions. All of this meant there were too many mental gymnastics that I was constantly performing to stay connected with the events on screen to actually enjoy the movie. This is a pity, because it actually looked quite good, with a well-developed sense of visual style.
See, if it had looked cheap, I’d feel no difficulty laughing at it, like something you’d watch in an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. But the movie had a lot going for it, including a cast that should have been great to watch–Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, and Donald Sutherland, to start off. But also Ruth Negga, an actress I’m not familiar with but who played one of the most relatable characters, and less known actor named Loren Dean that I really liked back in Apollo 13.
So with the strength of the cast and the visuals, the film’s failure becomes all the more disappointing and frustrating. Note to everyone: insightful psychology and good visuals do not turn a bad story into a good movie. And set as it is in a bad story, I’m not convinced the psychology is really all that insightful.
Now at this point, I’m going to say if you are still interested in watching Ad Astra, that you probably should stop reading here, because the “Review” portion of this article is really over. What follows for the remaining 70% of the words is my going through the movie’s plot point by point, drawing out all of the absurdities that I came away with, as a way of both venting my frustration and also remembering them for later.
So, Major Spoilers from here on in.
As I said, the story centers around a series of electromagnetic disasters that start hitting earth and its colony stations on the moon and Mars. The local authorities–“SpaceCom” believe they are coming from a long-lost mission to the outer parts of the Solar System which was under the command of a legendary astronaut named H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones. The purpose of their mission was to get past all of the interference of the inner Solar System in order to get a good look at the planets in other parts of the galaxy, to discover where they might hold life. The mission went on for 13 years before all contact was lost–16 years previously–with everyone assumed to have died but hailed as heroes.
Now, however, the SpaceCom generals tell McBride’s son Roy that they believe his father is alive, and that his mission is somehow responsible for the “Surge”–the name given to the reoccuring disasters–which threaten to destroy all life on earth. Why do they think this? Because the Surge is connected to some anti-matter that seems to be near Neptune, where the older mission was last known to be. It’s not discussed, but it seems that nothing else in SpaceCom uses anti-matter, because no other theories are considered.
They also believe that the elder McBride is alive and has been deliberately not contacting home. Later, we learn reasons why they should think such a thing, but at this point nothing is disclosed, not even the fact that they have reasons they are not disclosing. This is fine from a cinematic point of view but it’s baffling that McBride himself doesn’t question it more thoroughly. Instead, he agrees to help, even though he thinks they are wrong.
This help involves traveling to the moon via commercial space ship (“to avoid rousing attention”, apparently, although there’s no indication of whose attention they are concerned about) and then taking a spaceship to an underground facility on Mars–the only such one not to be impacted by the Surges. There, he is to send an audio message to the general vicinity of Neptune in order to plead with his father to answer. They need him to answer so they can actually pinpoint his location and then send another mission to find him. Getting to Mars is actually quite complicated, yet nobody suggests the idea of McBride just recording his message right there and then sending it to Mars through normal communication channels (clearly they can still transmit data signals, so you’d think an .mp3 file would not be a big issue). But whatever, security is high because of those vague, unidentified security threats, so maybe that has something to do with it.
On the moon, McBride for some reason has to take a moon buggy from the place where you land to the place where you take off for Mars. He is provided a special escort because of the threat of moon-pirates (this, we are told, is a thing). Of course they attack, and McBride’s escort proving completely ill-equipped to deal with the threat they are specifically there to deal with. They all are killed, and McBride only survives by oddly driving his buggy off the side of a giant crater and still landing safely. The pirates are then blown up by some sort of missiles from the moon headquarters, which makes one wonder what the pirates thought they were going to get away with.
McBride finally boards a rocket to Mars, but along the way the crew receives a mayday from a Norwegian science ship that was conducting research on animals. McBride is reluctant to pause, but has no choice to follow protocol. He and the Captain of the ship do a spacewalk to the other ship where they discover that the Norwegian crew has been killed by some vicious killer baboons! No explanation is given for this, but one presumes that the Norwegians were experimenting to find out what the effect of weightlessness is on baboons, and were startled to realize that the effect was to make them unstoppable killing machines. The Captain is killed, but McBride escapes and returns to the ship.
During this bit, one briefly entertains hope that the movie is actually a secret prequel to a new Planet of the Apes franchise, but that alas turns out not to be. Instead, the whole sequence has no bearing on the plot whatsoever, except to be part of the movie’s general contrivance to keep McBride alone as much as possible.
On Mars, we are briefly introduced to the local commander, Helen Lantos (played by Ruth Negga) who will later provide McBride with important information. For the moment, though, McBride just goes into a recording studio with some unhelpful military types and sends his message to his dad, something he does over multiple days when no answer is received. Finally, the reactions of the others indicates that a reply is heard, and suddenly McBride finds his usefulness is at an end. We never, incidentally, find out for sure if they got a response, or what the response was (a reasonable question considering what is coming up).
It’s here that Helen Lantos comes into play, as it turns out her parents also were on the elder McBride’s mission. She has information that McBride senior faced a mutiny by his crew who wanted to go back home, so he killed a bunch of them, and in so doing killed other crew members who were not mutinying. Indeed she has video of the elder McBride announcing this back to SpaceCom, just before he stopped communicating. This is super-secret video, and there’s no explanation of why she has this when the rest of the human race doesn’t know it. One presumes its because she’s a big shot on Mars, but you’d think she’d be exactly the sort of person SpaceCom would have purposely avoided telling.
Anyway, Lantos goes against the orders of SpaceCom to help McBride get on board the space ship that is actually going to Neptune, which turns out to be the same ship he was on before even though they are 1) down a man and 2) shown to be not really competent. McBride breaks into this ship mere seconds before it launches, after a really slow sequence of him swimming through a giant underwater lake on Mars and then climbing up the outside ladder of the ship while the rockets are firing. Apparently, in the future, it’s easy to open the doors to spaceships while they are in the middle of their launch sequences, making it easy to come on board a second or two before the ship takes off.
Alarmed at McBride’s unauthorized presence, SpaceCom orders the crew to neutralize him. Rather then wait until the dangerous launch process is complete to do this, they try right away, which results in one of the crew members stupidly dying. A second stupidly dies in a knife fight with McBride. And the third fires a gun–inside of the rocket!–accidentally causing a poisonous gas to leak, that stupidly kills him as well. Thankfully, I guess, this guy had the presence of mind not to fire a hole in the side of the rocket itself, which would have resulted no doubt in its destruction. There’s a reason that shows like Star Trek and Babylon Five don’t use bullets in space.
Sadly, that was the guy played by Loren Dean, so it wasn’t much of a treat seeing him, as all he got to play was basically incompetent.
Anyway, McBride is once again alone on his journey to Neptune, which takes several months and is told in a strange fever dream of images which seem to indicate that the ship is passing by Jupiter and Saturn on the way to Neptune! No mention is made of the fact that maybe it’s this strange alignment of the planets that is causing the doomsday scenario that the earth is facing. Also, no mention is made of the fact that only thirty years earlier, this same trip took McBride’s father over a decade to do, and now he can do it in about 1/52 of that time, without even having to use that troublesome anti-matter. And for some reason, even though there has been such fantastic advances in technology, no previous attempt has been made to send out other ships to Neptune to check out what happened.
McBride eventually finds his father’s ship, but continues to suffer from the mysterious Surges. He comes on board with a nuclear device, with the mission to blow up the ship. Everyone in SpaceCom is convinced that this will stop the Surges, even though nobody has any idea what is actually causing them. On board, he finds his father, alive, alone and generally well– even though he’s been living in a weightless environment for nearly thirty years (earlier, it was stated that several months of weightlessness would be enough to have terrible physical and psychological effects on him). McBride’s father reveals that the Surges are the result of his last crewmembers, who hadn’t mutinied earlier, deciding to mutiny after all. They had a fight which seemed to result in all of them dying and the anti-matter engines being damaged (he probably shot a bullet into it), and releasing the Surges.
This is literally all the explanation that is given for these things.
How is a damaged anti-matter engine near Neptune causing a technological disaster on earth and on Mars that will eventually destroy all life? Why will blowing it up actually stop it (and not just, say, cause one really big Surge? Why don’t the Surges do the same sort of damage on the ship they are coming from that they do everywhere else? Apparently, none of that mattered to the filmmakers, so none of it should matter to you.
What does matter is that McBride’s father announces that he didn’t care about his wife or his son; all he cared about was finding other life in the universe, which he totally failed to do. McBride tells him he didn’t fail, he just showed there was no other life in the universe…which I think is pretty much the same thing. He sets the bomb to go off and takes his father with him out of the ship. Then and only then does the elder McBride decide to kill himself in a way that nearly kills his son as well, causing the two of them to float away from the ship, tethered together. This forces theminto a tragic but highly cliched and predictable, “Let me go, son,” moment. McBride does and his father drifts off into space.
McBride’s shuttle was damaged previously so he has to use his space suit to fly back to his main ship, using a panel from his father’s ship to act as a shield from all the rocks in the rings of Neptune that are in his way. My brother pointed out that his little air-pack that he flies around with (something the movie seems to deliberately avoid actually showing us for a good way along his journey, making us wonder how he is directing himself at all) is almost certainly not designed to propel astronauts through something that will cause resistance. For whatever reason he arrives at his ship flying at quite a fast speed, and is only barely able to hold on to a protruding piece of equipment to keep himself from flying past it into the depths of space. Even more fortunately, this piece of equipment turns out to be the door handle, so he’s able to get back in easily.
Once on board, McBride sends a signal to earth to let them know what has happened, points his ship to earth and uses the explosion to propel him toward earth, because apparently he didn’t have the fuel to get there. I guess those guys were on a suicide mission, although that isn’t ever spelled out. Maybe SpaceCom just didn’t tell them, Machiavellian creeps that they are.
McBride returns to earth (even though he left from Mars), and rather than anyone putting him in jail for disobeying orders, stealing a space ship and causing the death of a bunch of people, he is apparently fine to go and try to reconnect with his estranged wife (played by Liv Tyler, in a role even smaller than the one she had in the second and third Lord of the Rings movies). He repeats a bit of speech from the beginning of the movie (from his initial psych evaluation) but with some pertinent changes that reveal he’s ready to rejoin the human race.
Argh! So frustrating.