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Ad Astra

Review: Ad Astra

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Ad Astra
Directed by James Gray
123 minutes
Rated PG-13

Over the last couple weeks, at space industry events and other encounters, I’ve had several conversations along these lines:

“Hey, Jeff, have you seen Ad Astra?”
“No, not yet.”
“Don’t! It’s terrible.”

Over time, those comments seem less like helpful advice and more like a dare. How bad could this movie be? So, this weekend, I spent two hours and $12.99 to find out. And, dear reader, they were right.

The combination of acting talent and special effects can’t save Ad Astra from a ponderous, confusing plot.

At first glance, the film has all the ingredients for to be an entertaining movie. A talented director! A-list stars like Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones! Stunning views of the solar system, from the Moon to Neptune! Skydiving from the edge of space! A moonbuggy chase with space pirates! Homicidal apes! An underground Mars lake! The search for alien life!

But, just because you have the ingredients to prepare a delicious meal doesn’t mean that what comes out of your kitchen will be tasty, or even edible. Similarly, the combination of acting talent and special effects can’t save Ad Astra from a ponderous, confusing plot. (Spoilers—or perhaps warnings—follow.)

Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut for US Space Command (more like a US Space Force, with no sign of NASA) who is summoned for a secret mission. A series of electromagnetic surges have been wreaking havoc on Earth, which they’ve traced back to Neptune—the last known location of a mission commanded by Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), and long presumed lost. Space Command believes that Clifford McBride may be alive and his ship the cause of the surges (something to do with leaking antimatter.)

So Space Command sends McBride not to Neptune, but instead to Mars, which they say is the site of the last secure communications link (sure, whatever) to send a message to his father in hopes of ending the surges before some kind of planetary cataclysm takes place. That trip to Mars, of course, goes through the Moon (evidently not heeding the advice of Robert Zubrin to avoid the lunar tollbooth), with a stop along the way at a disabled spaceship with the aforementioned homicidal apes on board. At Mars, Roy transmit the messages and then, finding out Space Command plans to send a ship to Neptune to nuke his father’s spacecraft, commandeers it and meets up at last with his father.

All well and good, except that, in general, the plot doesn’t really make much sense. Clifford McBride went to Neptune apparently to look for evidence of life beyond our solar system, but there’s little reason to go out there: the movie mentions in passing a desire to get beyond the heliopause, but that does little to affect searches across the electromagnetic spectrum, and Neptune is well inside the heliopause anyway. That the ship could somehow trigger massive electromagnetic pulses using antimatter also makes little sense, as does the rationale for going to Mars (by way of the Moon) just to send a message.

The encounter with pirates on rovers speeding across the lunar surface is mildly entertaining, but is also nonsensical: if McBride and others needed to get from the main lunar base to the facility where their Mars rocket awaited, and pirates on rovers posed a threat, why not just fly there? Most movies require some suspension of disbelief, but the amount needed here is beyond belief.

Ad Astra is arguably not really a science fiction movie: instead, it is a drama about a damaged father-son relationship. Roy McBride is almost a caricature as a cold and aloof man with a resting heart rate that would make a marathoner jealous, preternaturally calm when dealing with space pirates or malfunctioning Mars landers, yet unable to sustain any close personal relationships. Such dysfunctional relationships are a staple of fiction, and putting it into a sci-fi movie that spans the solar system doesn’t make it particularly novel or any more compelling.

At the end of the two hours you feel neither entertained nor enlightened. Even though the fate of the planet, if not the solar system, is in the balance, you never feel much dramatic tension.

There are some beautiful visuals in the movie, and some attention to detail (Lockheed Martin was an advisor to the film, and a few company logos do pop up.) But that doesn’t mean there’s technical rigor in the film. For example, Roy McBride’s ship is able to get from Mars to Neptune in 79 days and yet, for all those advances in propulsion, he had to rely on intravenous feeding for a trip that is only a small fraction of the time of stays on the ISS. Once he boards his father’s ship at Neptune, he explores an interior that includes, on one wall, a “Speed Limit 17,500 mph” sign. Clearly the movie’s set designers parroted the interior of the space station, even though that sign makes no sense on an interplanetary spacecraft.

The film also attempts a little bit of commentary about space commercialization as Roy McBride travels to the Moon on a Virgin Atlantic (oddly not Virgin Galactic) spaceship, arriving at a lunar city with signs for DHL, Applebee’s, and other current-day brands, while be warned about the free-for-all outside the city competing for mining unnamed resources. His father, Roy laments in a voiceover, wouldn’t approve. (Maybe he was more of a fan of Chili’s.)

These flaws could be overlooked if Ad Astra was an enjoyable film, but in the end it is not. At the end of the two hours you feel neither entertained nor enlightened. Even though the fate of the planet, if not the solar system, is in the balance, you never feel much dramatic tension, or much interest in any potential rapprochement between Roy McBride and his father. The ingredients never come together into a palatable dish.

But, as disappointing as Ad Astra may be, it may not be as bad as another space-themed movie, Lucy in the Sky, arriving in theaters now.

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