As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. Consider yourself warned.
Anytime a flick involving space exploration comes out, I get psyched. And when I sit down in the theater with my cheese popcorn, I’m always hoping it’ll be a flick that thrills, challenges and awes like 2001: A Space Odyssey – a flick that tells an engaging, epic story while keeping true to real science as much as possible. Unfortunately, I always end up disappointed because the flick (whether it’s Interstellar, Gravity or Sunshine to name a few) never lives up to that promise or its potential. And it’s sad to say that Ad Astra lured me into that same trap, one that ended up feeling a lot more like a cruel bait-and-switch.
However, there is one aspect of the flick that doesn’t disappoint: Brad Pitt. His character, astronaut Roy McBride, is the focus, anchor and heart of the story – and Pitt delivers a performance that you can invest in without feeling short-changed. I just wish the same could be said about the rest of the flick.
So it’s the “near future” and humankind has finally gotten its act together, at least as far as getting back out into space and exploring. There are colonies on the Moon and Mars, and back on Earth there’s a giant antenna that looks like the much talked-about space elevator concept. Here’s where we first meet Roy McBride, suiting up and heading out to his job at the upper level of Earth’s atmosphere. Unexplained phenomena have been happening in the form of strange “cosmic flares,” coming from some unknown point in our solar system and causing major, catastrophic power surges.
One of these deadly flares hits the antenna just as Roy gets outside – and even though he tries to stop any further damage, all he can do is watch as the surge causes an explosion that throws him and his colleagues into terrifying freefall. Roy manages to deploy his chute, and even though it gets shredded by falling debris, he makes it back to the ground alive and in one piece. He goes through a lengthy recovery, during which he’s subjected to what seems like constant “psych evaluations” – where he basically monologues to prove to a computer he’s calm, cool and objective enough to resume his job. Fortunately and unfortunately for Roy, it’s something he’s gotten a little too good at. His devotion to the job and his emotional detachment have cost him all of his relationships – most notably with his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler, in a role I’m wondering why she even bothered doing because she barely shows up), who’s left him.
So then Roy gets summoned to this top-secret meeting at US Space Command (I guess NASA wasn’t a good enough name anymore?), where the top brass inform him that they’ve pinpointed the source of the cosmic flares to the area around Neptune – which is where Roy’s father, legendary astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, and don’t ask me what the “H” stands for because they never say) had been sent to decades earlier to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, called the “Lima Project.” After losing track of the ship and all communication, it was assumed that something catastrophic happened and that the crew was long dead. But new intel shows the source of the cosmic flares – antimatter – the same antimatter that was used to fuel the Lima Project’s ship. Antimatter that could rip apart the solar system if the flares are not stopped. Space Command brass are hopeful that Clifford McBride is still alive and want to send Roy to Mars’ underground base (the only place unaffected by the flares) in order to communicate with him by laser audio transmission.
Roy’s understandably surprised by the news (but of course stays totally calm, cool and mission-ready) and of course, agrees to go. Space Command brass send one of his dad’s oldest friends and fellow astronaut Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) with him, ostensibly for moral support but it’s really just a way to spy on him. And in a terrific homage to 2001, the two take a Virgin Galactic flight to the Moon Base and once there, they’re set up to hitch a ride to Mars on a ship called the Cepheus. Only problem is, the political situation on the Moon is incredibly unstable – one character calls it the “Wild West,” where territory is being constantly fought over and piracy is rampant.
So the nice folks at the Moon Base provide a small convoy of security personnel to accompany Roy and Pruitt out to the launch site. And in the flick’s best sequence by far, they’re attacked by pirates in a badass rover chase across the lunar terrain. Roy and Pruitt end up being the only ones who make it to through the chase alive, and unfortunately, the terror of the chase aggravates Pruitt’s heart condition, preventing him from going any farther. But he insists that Roy go on ahead without him.
The Cepheus’ commander, Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz), recognizes Roy and introduces him to the rest of his crew: Stanford (Loren Dean), Deavers (the awesome Kimberly Elise, who was totally wasted here) and Yoshida (Bobby Nish). Tanner tells them all that their passenger is the son of the legendary Clifford McBride – the man who inspired them all to become astronauts. Everybody’s wowed. And then after a short prayer to St. Christopher (wait, what? What the hell is that about?), the Cepheus blasts off for Mars.
One of the many real-life science issues that Ad Astra completely ignores is the travel time involved in getting from one place to another. They say that it’ll take them 19 days to get to Mars. Wait, 19 days? Uh, yeah…no. I’m no planetary scientist or astronomer but even I know it’d be more like 19 months. I mean, yeah, it is absolutely true that much of real-life space science just doesn’t work with movie storytelling. Things have to be fudged in order to tell the story in a reasonable amount of time without boring the audience to death. That’s an understandable given. But there’s plenty of real-life space science that a movie can deal with and do so realistically – but Ad Astra just chooses not to, and that’s a cop-out.
So the next problem that crops up is a distress call from a Norwegian medical research station (that’s just randomly placed in the great big nothing between the Moon and Mars for some reason). Roy insists that they let somebody else handle it – his mission is too important. Capt. Tanner overrides him, saying it’s their obligation to help. Tanner also tells Roy he has the right to take command of the ship, but only if he discloses his mission objective. Unwilling to do that, Roy gives in and they head for the station. They spacewalk it over to the station, getting into it with some random code that just magically works for every craft/station.
Roy and Tanner find a few dead bodies floating around and evidence of fighting. They split up (which is always a good idea in any movie) to keep looking and soon Roy can’t get Tanner to answer up. It’s a genuinely creepy scene as Roy floats through the deserted station, and finally finds Tanner being attacked by one of the escaped baboon test subjects. Yep – baboons in space. Roy barely manages to get himself and Tanner behind the security of a hatch door. Then he flips some lever and presses some button which apparently decompresses the module the escaped baboons are in and splat! No more baboons. Of course, in real life, they wouldn’t have exploded like that – another real-life science fact that gets ignored.
Roy brings the dead Captain back to the ship, and after they say some more random prayers over him, they shove his corpse out into space and continue on their way. But now the problem is that the second in command and now commander, Stanford, is a complete nervous wreck and clearly can’t handle the job. Now in a story where they make such a huge deal out of constantly monitoring the characters’ mental stability, one has to wonder how Stanford ever got hired in the first place, let alone letting him fly a ship – but hey, luckily Roy’s there with all his calm, collected coolness and he takes over the controls, getting them safely down on the Martian surface.
So then Roy’s welcomed to Mars’ prison-looking underground base by a receptionist? Security guard? I don’t know, they don’t make it clear – but it’s Natasha Lyonne in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role. Then Roy’s led deeper into the dismal Martian base by Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) – who works there, but in what capacity I couldn’t tell you because they don’t say. She doesn’t even wear a uniform, just stylish black loungewear. But whatever her position, she’s not high enough in the chain of command to be allowed into the secret sound recording studio they have.
The Space Command security types have Roy recite a message to his father that sounds like a cover letter for a resume, which they then beam out – and, in another real-life science screwup, act all disappointed when they don’t get a response right away. Apparently, somebody forgot to tell these guys that it would take hours just for the message to travel out to Neptune. Either that or they just disregarded that fact. Pretty sure it’s the latter. So they have Roy come back the next cycle/day and try again – and this time, Roy decides not to use the cover letter and just talks to his dad, asking him to respond. And two seconds later, bam! All of a sudden, the security types are all nervous and secretive. “You got a response, didn’t you?” Roy shouts as they hustle him out the door, thanking him for his help and saying they’re shipping him back to Earth. Yeah, they got a response, instantly – even though that’s not how it works.
But whatever, right? Right. So as a soldier leads Roy back down the ugly Martian hallways, Stanford, Deavers and Yoshida pass him by, being led in as Roy’s being led out. And in one of many unnecessary and after a while, annoying bits of narration designed to do only one thing – tell instead of show – “They’re using me,” he says. No, really? I would never have guessed that for myself.
So then Helen comes to visit Roy in this room they call a “comfort room” – basically a cell where they plaster obnoxiously large videos of flowers, oceans and birds on the walls. She’s worried because she’s been told to prep the Cepheus for deep space with a nuke on the payload. She presents Roy with a tablet containing the classified last message from his dad, where Clifford confesses that he killed his crew after they rebelled against him and tried to take over the ship. So Clifford’s gone full-on Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Helen reveals that her parents were on the Lima Mission — so Roy’s dad murdered her parents. Oh, and as an interesting (and impossible) aside, she was born on Mars – but she’s visited Earth. Uh…how, exactly? Considering that her body wouldn’t be able to withstand Earth gravity and her immune system wouldn’t be able to handle Earth germs, what, was she strapped to a wheelchair and sealed up in a plastic bubble the whole time she was on Earth? Yeah, just add that to the growing list of real-life science screwups.
Ready to take on his role as Willard to his dad’s Col. Kurtz, Roy asks Helen if she can smuggle him onto the Cepheus. She says the most she can do is drive him out to an underground tunnel opening about a mile away from the launch pad. And next up on the real-life science screwup list – Brad goes down into this tunnel and then suddenly, he’s swimming in this underground lake. Yeah, liquid water. Where’s it coming from? Couldn’t tell you because they don’t say. What they should explain, they don’t – and what they don’t need to explain, they rehash in unnecessary voiceover info dumps – which, by this time, is becoming a really annoying trend.
So then Roy emerges from this underground lake into the launch pad, where the Cepheus is less than a minute away from launch. Roy climbs up the side of the ship like Spider-Man and gets himself inside just as the engines are lighting. Of course, the crew is thrown for a loop when they see him – and apparently, he’s enough of a threat that they feel like they have to leave their seats and bust out the weapons (that shoot what exactly, I couldn’t tell you, ’cause you guessed it, they don’t say). Now, remember, they’ve just lifted off – they’re pulling major G’s. They should all drop to the bottom of the ship and break some bones doing it. But instead, they’re floating like they’ve seen Pennywise’s deadlights. When the ship goes through staging is when everybody falls and Deavers gets splattered. So let’s get this straight: when they should be weightless, they fall – and when they should fall, they’re weightless. Yeah, how many real-life science screwups are we up to now? I don’t even know – but it gets worse.
Roy fights Yoshida next, and in the process a canister of some unknown gas gets punctured and almost instantly kills Yoshida and Stanford. So now Roy’s basically done the same thing his father did and killed the entire crew – which he confesses in a last transmission to Space Command before he cuts off all communication – again, just like dear old Dad did. Then the Cepheus’ pleasant computer voice reveals that it’s going to take a mere 79 days to get to Neptune. Okay, where the hell did they pull that number from? We’re never told or shown that Cepheus is a faster-than-light ship, so realistically, it would take years to make the trip. But at this point the flick’s not even making the effort to pay lip service to reality.
And in a matter of minutes, we fast-forward through those 79 days, during which Roy tells us that the long-distance travel is affecting him. Something they don’t need to do because the shots in the montage show us that it’s affecting him. But whatever. So when he finally gets to Neptune, Roy takes a capsule over to the Lima ship/station – a capsule that he then lets float away just because it doesn’t fit in the dock. Yeah, that makes sense. It’s not like he’s going to need it to get back or anything, right?
Roy sets up the nuke and makes his way through the mostly deserted ship/station, finding more dead bodies floating around, an old black-and-white musical playing on the monitors – and finally, at long last, we see dear old Dad. Clifford’s old and fragile-looking – though not nearly as fragile, sick and barely-alive as he should be after so many years in space. And he’s not the least bit interested in leaving. He still has work to do, E.T.’s to find. He even tells Roy that he never cared about him or his mother – only the mission. Then the emotionally closed-off Roy basically says, “yeah, I know, but I love you anyway, Dad. Let’s go home.” And then suddenly Clifford does a complete 180 and says, “oh, okay.”
So they suit up and fly à la Gravity-style back toward the Cepheus because that’s totally realistic. But then Clifford suddenly changes his mind again and pulls away, leading to father and son actually having a tussle in the middle of space (which Clifford shouldn’t even have the strength to do, let’s remember). Clifford keeps forcing himself in the opposite direction, telling Roy to let him go. And so what does Roy do? After all the struggle and effort and lives lost to get there? Exactly what his dad says. He gives up and lets him go, letting Clifford tumble off into the great wide nowhere without much of an argument. Yeah. Pretty anticlimactic.
And then in a total, last-act ‘yeah, we have to stick to a 2-hour runtime so let’s wrap this up’ kind of rush, Roy magically flies himself back to the Cepheus – using the force I guess, just like Leia did in Last Jedi. And then bam! he’s back on the ship, the nuke goes off and the blast propels him back to Earth at Spaceballs’ Ridiculous Speed. And it’s a happy ending for Earth, no more cosmic flares. And it’s a happy ending for Roy as he submits his final psych evaluation/monologue where he relates what he’s learned – how he’s realized that he needs to live his life. Get back together with his wife. Trust people. Be happy. Smile more. And…cut to black. The end. Yeah, really – that’s it.
It’s such a shame, because up until the point where Roy gets to Mars, I really dug the flick. It seemed to understand and be making an effort to get the real-life science of the near-future right. It had kickass action in the antenna explosion and the lunar rover chase – and it also had the feel of an art-house flick in its design and disjointed structure, aspiring to give the audience more of the contemplative experience of films like 2001 and Solaris (the original, not the remake). But those aspirations quickly devolved into pretense as the science and storytelling just got sloppier and sloppier. And despite Pitt’s terrific performance and the awesome visual effects, at the end of it all, Ad Astra is just another disappointingly pretentious melodrama that just happens to be in space.
Directed by: James Gray
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Release Date: Sept. 20 , 2019
Run Time: 2 hr 2 min
Distributor: 20th Century Fox