The 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?