Ad Astra: Apocalypse Now in space

Ad Astra movie poster showing an astronaut helmet and spaceship in space with planets in the backgroundThe movie Ad Astra is a strange mix.  In many ways, it’s a visually stunning film with excellent production values.  And it has first class name stars, most notably Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones.  But the plot has serious issues.  On balance, I enjoyed it, but this is a case where your mileage may vary considerably.

I mentioned in the title that this is largely Apocalypse Now in space.  I’m not spoiling anything with that description.  It’s been discussed in public by the director in various interviews.  It succeeds in capturing the stark tone and bleakness of that other story.  Pitt plays a character, Major Roy McBride, who is mostly emotionless, a man supremely competent at his job, but has seen his relationships whither, and seems to be largely going through the motions.

McBride’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Jones) is an astronaut revered as a hero who pioneered human exploration of the outer solar system.  But by the time of the story, Clifford has disappeared on a mission to Neptune and has not been heard from in years.  He and his mission are presumed lost.

But suddenly intense and dangerous power surges have started arriving throughout the solar system.  Roy is almost killed by one.  The surges appear to be originating from Neptune.  The authorities believe Clifford is still alive, and want Roy, his son, to travel to Mars and from there send a message to him, in the hopes that he will respond.

What follows is a quest across various locations in the solar system meant to have a similar feel to Captain Willard’s trek though Vietnam in Apocalypse Now.  The solar system is not a happy place.  There are pirates on the moon, man eating primates in spaceships, and disillusioned Mars colonists to contend with.  And, of course, the whole time Roy is wondering what the deal is with his father.

There’s no real explanation given for the state of the solar system.  Things are just dangerous.  And apparently the authorities are not to be trusted.  In Apocalypse Now, the setting is Vietnam, a brutal war zone, so no explanation is needed for the stark landscape or dysfunctional leadership, but the situation throughout the solar system in this movie begs for an explanation, one that I never caught.

The movie does make an effort to be more scientifically accurate than your typical space movie.  Spaceships blast off from surfaces with rocket stages, but switch to long range drives (presumably ion drives of some type).  Ships are seen accelerating and decelerating.  And crew members are in zero gravity during the non-thrust phases.  And the overall look, both in interiors and exteriors, has a very authentic feel to it.

The movie does ignore the low gravity conditions on the Moon and Mars, but I’m willing to give them a pass on it, given how difficult it would be to accurately portray the dynamics of those environments.

One nice touch is the lack of sound in vacuum.  Action sequences on the moon and in space take place in silence, except for the occasional sounds transmitted through vibrations of touching suits and equipment.  The result are surreal haunting sequences that other movies could have tapped into long ago, if they’d just refrained from sound effects.

That said, the movie is far from scientifically rigorous.  And it has its share of outright howlers.  For instance, it taps into the common misconception that venting atmosphere causes bodies to explode.  And it’s never really explained why Roy needs to travel to Mars to transmit his message to Neptune.  (I’ve seen speculation that maybe the Sun was in the way, but presumably signal relays would still be a thing in the future.  In any case, it would have been quicker to wait for the Earth to move enough in its orbit for direct line of sight.)

But the biggest scientific fail is the eventual explanation for the power surges.  Surges propagating throughout the entire solar system with the dangerous intensity portrayed, would require, well, astronomical power.  Catastrophic solar storms might do it, but the eventual explanation provided is utterly inadequate.  Granted, the power surges are just the movie’s McGuffin, but it seems like a modicum of effort could have provided a more coherent motivation.

And the movie’s conclusion makes a philosophical statement that, while I actually suspect it’s (partially) true, will be seen by many as hopelessly pessimistic.

So, an interesting mix of quality and problems.  This poignant mix is shown in the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes scores.  Critics give it high ratings: 84%, but audiences are far less impressed: 40%.  I enjoyed it, and if you’re a space nerd, you might too.  But the story had serious problems, and the stark tone and pessimistic outlook will turn a lot of people off.

Have you seen this movie?  If so, what did you think of it?

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21 Responses to Ad Astra: Apocalypse Now in space

  1. Brett says:

    I liked most of it, although I think the “realism” is definitely over-stated. It’s another space movie that uses space as a metaphor for someone isolating themselves from human connection, with the return to Earth being when they open up again and rediscover their humanity (Gravity did the same thing, but better).

    I really liked the “anti-twist” with Clifford at the end. It turns out to be so much more pathetic and less than the space horror build-up got me thinking, and it worked – it fits with what we know about the character, about his estrangement from his family and Earth.

    Like

    • That’s a good way of describing it. And the ending is driven by what his father found in the darkness, a finding that highlighted the importance of the human connections.

      I was less taken with the end than you were. Maybe I was too preoccupied by the lame explanation for the surges, but the whole effect for me felt anticlimactic. I will agree that Clifford’s statement that he never cared about his family, instead preferring to be isolated in deep space, did seem pretty pathetic.

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  2. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Yet another data point confirming it’s a movie I should avoid! The score is now all-to-none.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. john zande says:

    I’m looking forward to it. Great review. We did this NYT’s Anatomy of a Scene a few weeks ago, which you might like.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Steve Morris says:

    I have never enjoyed any movie with Brad Pitt.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. J.S. Pailly says:

    I saw this movie a few months ago, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. It definitely sets a mood, and I thought the music was outstanding. The visuals were on par with other space movies, I thought. But the science was wildly inconsistent. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be so very scientifically accurate about this, and then hand-wave science away for that.

    And the ending did bother me, not because it was pessimistic but because it was absolutist. We’ve confirmed there is no life anywhere else in the universe. Absolutely none. How can you be so sure?

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Sorry, I should have flagged this comment as a spoiler alert. But the ending struck me as the movie’s biggest scientific error. They draw a huge conclusion about the entire universe based on what cannot possibly be sufficient evidence.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, with the ending (spoiler alert), they could have been a little more precise on what they were saying. They found no life within observable distances, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any further out.

      I noted in the post that I thought it might be true, but that was in reference to intelligent life. I actually suspect primitive life is out there, and more rarely, complex life, but our nearest neighboring civilization is probably very far away, effectively making us alone.

      No worries on the spoiler. It’s pretty common for them to come out in the comments. You advertised a sentence ahead that you were about to start talking about the ending, giving anyone concerned a chance to look away.

      Liked by 1 person

      • J.S. Pailly says:

        Thanks! And yeah, if they said there’s no intelligent life within ten thousand lightyears of Earth, or something like that, that would have been fine. I would have walked out of the movie theater pondering how lucky we are to be here, which is I suspect what they wanted me to be thinking about. Instead, I walked out of the movie theater thinking about all the ways the Lima Project could have missed something.

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  6. T. Stauffer says:

    I just saw the movie, and I was a bit of two minds about it. Like you, I really enjoyed the fairly accurate and picturesque portrayal of space and space travel, but I was terribly frustrated with the plot. They could easily have kept all the locations and events with a minimum of rewriting. The movie’s attempt to copy Apocalypse Now turned it into a mess. I think that the producers chose this screenplay because they were frightened that an original plot would have alienated audiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that it seems like they could have made the story more intelligent. Given how accurate many of the details were, it makes me wonder if the overall plot mess wasn’t due to late changes, edits imposed by someone maybe concerned the original story didn’t have enough punch or something. Who knows. But it made the movie a jumble of delight and frustration.

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