Sci-Fi Film Review: Ad Astra (2019)

I’m a little late to the party with this one—Ad Astra came out a while ago, now—but I just saw it in theaters, and boy do I have an opinion on it.

This image and others are provided here under Fair Use, for purposes of criticism and commentary. Some commentary: this is a great-looking poster.

My expectations were sky-high going in. I’d been looking forward to Ad Astra since it was announced (it was pitched as Heart of Darkness in space, which instantly grabbed my attention) and I spent months waiting for the first trailer to drop. It’s a dark, gritty science fiction film, which is right up my alley. It has a great cast and excellent special effects. Why, then, was I disappointed walking out?

Minor spoilers ahead.

Ad Astra is about an astronaut, Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt) who ventures across the solar system to make contact with his disappeared father, Clifford McBride (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Clifford was the commander of the doomed Lima Project, which went missing in space sixteen years ago. Now, powerful EMP surges begin to emanate from Neptune, threatening human civilization,  and Space Command (the successor to Trump’s Space Force, I guess) believes that Clifford is responsible. To stop his father Roy must venture to the Moon, Mars, and ultimately Neptune itself.

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He found something, out in the depths of space, and it has driven him mad…

Sounds promising so far. It’s all very ominous, and it tries to be hard sci-fi—in promoting the film, director James Grey said he wanted it to feature “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie.” We see an expansive vision of a colonized solar system, across which Roy has various side adventures ranging from fending off Moon pirates to scuba diving on Mars to investigating a Norwegian research station full of killer baboons. Yes, all that actually happens.

Which brings me to one of my main problems with this movie: it’s too busy. The main character’s travel itinerary is insanely packed, between the Moon, Mars, Neptune, and a few destinations in between, and so many different things happen that several aspects of the story suffer—such as Roy’s wife Eve, played by Liv Tyler, who gets very little screentime, and the ultimate payoff at the end, which felt rushed, tossed-in, and kind of a letdown. Ad Astra spends so much time on Brad Pitt’s numerous space antics that it loses cohesion.

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The Moon pirate chase scene was cool and all, but it felt like something the director tossed in just to add spectacle. And don’t even get me started on the pointless diversion to the space baboons.

I am also going to nitpick the hell out of this film’s scientific accuracy, because you can’t just announce that you’re making the most realistic space film ever and then go on to shoot a movie like Ad Astra. I honestly think Interstellar did a better job on the scientific front. Certainly the Endurance looked better than this film’s star spacecraft, the Cepheus, which in visual terms is kind of… bland. It’s a cylinder with radiators and enough delta-v to fly wherever the plot needs it to.

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And you can’t say it’s any more scientifically accurate than the Endurance, because this bad boy makes the trip from Mars to Neptune in a ridiculous 70-something days, with hardly any visible propellant tankage.

We also see some of the usual problems with explosive decompression—at one point, a baboon is exposed to vacuum and straight-up explodes, which doesn’t happen in real life—and with scale—the city on the Moon is so vast that the “near-future” setting is somewhat hard to believe. The science only gets softer as the plot advances. Near the end of the film, Brad Pitt flies through Neptune’s rings in an EVA suit, using a hull panel for shielding, and somehow the constant hammering of ring particles doesn’t alter his course. Not long after that, he uses an antimatter explosion to propel a spacecraft that clearly wasn’t designed for that purpose.

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Not only would Brad Pitt have been killed by gamma rays, it wouldn’t have helped propel the ship—explosions in space dissipate quickly. There’s a difference between a Project Orion-style shaped charge and just trying to surf on some random blast wave.

Altogether, Ad Astra is very hard to believe, and hard to take seriously at points. I’m actually pretty let down. But it’s not all bad—the film does have some neat visuals, and the premise (Heart of Darkness in space) is still quite strong, despite the flaws in execution. Clearly enough people liked it for it to have an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, though the audience score is closer to 40%. Would I recommend seeing this movie? Yes. If you go in with lower expectations than I did, you might not be so disappointed.

Rating: 5/10.



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