Ad Astra

Having just seen a standout performance by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was keen to see his latest film Ad Astra.  I saw some rave reviews by film critics that perhaps raised my expectations a little too much, because while I enjoyed the film I had some problems with it also. Here is a quote from one review: “In a mesmerizing, minimalist performance, Pitt forms the gravitational center of a film that takes its place in the firmament of science fiction films by fearlessly quoting classics of the genre (as well as those outside it)”.

It pays homage to many classic science fiction and other films, and the central journey to Uranus is very reminiscent of 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Brad does give a great “minimalist” performance as the icily competent, pathologically controlled astronaut, Roy McBride, whose heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute, even in the opening sequence when he is falling from near space out of control, after an accident on the world’s tallest antenna.  I did really enjoy his many psych evaluations where he made verbal reports such as:

  • “I’m unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and love.”
  • “I’m steady, calm, ready to do my job to the best of my abilities. I will remain calm. I will remain focused.”
  • “I’m calm, steady. I slept well, eight point two hours, no bad dreams. I am ready to go, ready to do my job to the best of my ability. I am focused only on the essentials, to the exclusion of all else. I will make only pragmatic decisions. I will not allow myself to be distracted. I will not allow my mind to linger on that which isn’t important. I will not rely on anyone or anything. I will not be vulnerable to mistakes.”

I even looked some of these up to use as affirmations in preparation for a stressful event recently.

So what about the film irritated me and to my mind hold it back from true greatness? Spoilers ahead.

First, while the space scenes were visually spectacular, the technology looked identical to that used for the moon landings. The rocket used to leave the earth was a multistage rocket just like the Saturn 5, we even saw the boosters falling away as it left earth atmosphere. OK, but the rocket from the moon to Mars also looked similar, and yet the trip was to be done in 17 days.  That is an order of magnitude faster than NASA thinks it can achieve.  On top of that, they stopped along the way to investigate a distress signal from another spacecraft which was drifting. Then apparently accelerated again and got to Mars within days not weeks or months.  My sons disagreed with me, and said almost certainly they had much better fuel, engines etc and just didn’t dwell on the technology. Even so, it just seemed jarring to me to have a trip to Uranus and back in months using technology that looked identical to that used in the 1960s.

This continued on the moon when they travelled to the dark side in lunar rovers looking just like those of the Apollo expeditions, right down to the space suits they wore as they sat in the open rovers.  Once on Mars, surface transportation were little bus-like vehicles with no need for space suits.  Back to the moon, they were attacked by space pirates also wearing space suits and riding open rovers.  This really made me incredulous. The movie did say that there were multiple bases from a number of countries, and mining companies, and quite a few people on the moon. But it defies my imagination to think that the US base would not have surveillance, and that a lunar surveillance satellite would not be able to spot and track all outside movement on the lunar surface and alert McBride and his companions to unknown vehicles approaching.

The other limitation was the theme of McBride seeking out his father, dealing with Daddy issues, and returning to earth a changed man who will give priority to his loved ones. This is pop psychology and the movie did not really go beyond the simplistic here.  There really was not much of a deep dive into either father or son’s issues, or the broader issue of other life in the universe, on which some of the psychology was hung.  Though Interstellar did not go too much deeper, I found it a much more moving and thought-provoking movie than Ad Astra.

I think the viewing public must have had some similar thoughts.  On Rotten Tomatoes, the critic score was high at 83% and the audience score wa 42%. Similarly, on Metacritic, the critics score 80% and the user score is 59%.  Typical of some of the user reviews was the following comment: In space, no one can hear you cry about your absent-daddy issues.”

The movie is worth seeing, if only to see Brad Pitt in a very different role. Where his beauty is largely hidden and we get to see only his eyes through a space helmet visor.  But it misses greatness in my view.