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