Ad Astra: I really did try to like this beautiful, improbable film

Brad Pitt’s Mission: Find His Father & Save the World

This past Tuesday I saw Ad Astra at the newly renovated West Theater in West Duluth. The theater is wonderful. As for the film, I so wanted it to be, but… (inaudible as my voice trails off.)

OK, let me preface these remarks by saying that it’s the kind of film that reviewers are sharply divided on. There are 9 and 10 star rave reviews, and then there are those whose hatred of the flick is visceral, and not simply because it was slow. (I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey)

I will cite a few positives here, but must first give a SPOILER ALERT so that I may have permission to address some details.

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Photo by the author.

When writing fiction or creating stories for movies, the first rule is to keep the reader or viewer believing this could really happen. Even if the story is an unreal break from the normal rules of existence — Beetlejuice comes to mind here — the story should be consistent within the rules of its own reality, even if absurd.

It’s called verisimilitude, the illusion of probability. Suspension of disbelief. If you have too many moments where the viewer or reader says, “That would never happen,” you lose their trust.

One could sort of see what the filmmaker’s aims may have been, and they’ve obviously made some visually stunning cinema, but good heavens. I don’t even know how to continue without being cruel.

My grandmother was into sci fi in the forties and fifties. Asimov and all the rest were not just on her bookshelf to be cool. She read them avidly. As I was growing up she introduced me to the genre with books like Planet of the Apes, Andromeda Strain, Fantastic Voyage as well as Asimov and Ray Bradbury classics.

As I thought about seeing Ad Astra it brought to mind the Scholastic Book Club paperbacks I used to buy when I was in junior high and maybe high school. If I saw sci fi, I would spring for it.

I’m not entirely sure how my interests drifted away, but one aspect I liked was how a good sci fi story could also teach you about real-life things that were happening in our world, in an oblique way that you knew what it meant without heavy-handedly spelling it out. Also interesting was how writers could invent just about anything and see if they could make it believable. Back to the Future comes to mind here.

Asimov was a master of the genre because he also understood science. (SideNote: I’d be curious to know if his brain has been cryogenically preserved. Maybe he could come back as a robot.)

I came into the film with no preconceived notions. I’d not read any reviews and was aware only that Brad Pitt was in it.

I really liked the opening, with three spheres of different sizes getting in alignment. Clearly a tribute to Kubrick and 2001. Brad Pitt is then introduced as the central character, whom we learn is Roy McBride, giving himself a little self-talk. “I will not allow myself to be distracted.” It’s apparent that he is a somebody, and as it turns out, his father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) was head of a mission to the outer fringe of our solar system with the aim of contacting intelligent life beyond.

The first eight minutes seemed to hold a lot of promise. It’s actually quite spectacular. Roy McBride is working on the International Space Antenna when some kind of power surge strikes while he and others are working on this ultra-futuristic tower that seems miles high. The incident is quite dramatic.

But the more we learn, the more things feel contrived. The secretive nature of his mission again echoes 2001 where scientists on the moon discover this object that seems to have been deliberately buried there. In this case, a fully developed settlement is on the moon which is serving as a springboard to other worlds.

Right off, the word “Near Future” interfere with my head. I think 80% of my displeasure comes from those words being used at the beginning of the film. This kind of development on the moon is too far beyond the reaches of my belief. I can’t conceive of this degree of civilizing and settling taking place any time soon.

When it’s revealed that Roy’s father is out on Neptune somewhere and he has this unfinished personal relationship business going on, we’re supposed to feel for him. So, it’s not a space movie; it’s about relationship issues.

There were other symbolic elements that seemed forced as well, beyond the father-son thing. (Was this a nod to Oedipus or Darth Vader?) They seemed to make a big deal of having to take off from “the dark side” of the moon. “We’re going over to the dark side,” someone says. And in case we didn’t “get it” someone says it again. (So glad they didn’t play Pink Floyd at this point.)

The mission, Roy learns, is essential because all human life will come to an end if we can’t stop these power surges directed toward earth.

I have to interject that there were actually some fabulous elements in the film, primarily the cinematography. The various structures, the very cool rooms on Mars as well as the moon, original new ways to envision future scenes and settings.

Critic Anthony Lane begins his New Yorker review of the film, titled “No Man’s Land,” with an enthusiastic description of the car chase on the moon with fast, stripped down land rovers. I guess I was less thrilled. It seemed like an attempt to make a little drama that wasn’t working for me. It also concluded in a manner too improbable for me.

Another problem I had with Ad Astra is that I happen to know too much about how complicated it is to go to the bathroom in space. And why do we never see vomit floating around inside these space ships, since motion sickness and barfing are fairly common, I believe.

The travel time to Mars and then to Neptune in this film is ridiculously short compared to reality. Even if it were only 75 days (or whatever it was) to reach Neptune (for the record, it takes seven months to reach Mars) where did Brad Pitt keep his change of clothes? When he gets aboard the craft leaving Mars, where was his shaving kit, toothbrush and deodorant? Or change of underwear? And for the record, it will take about 12 years to reach Neptune in real life, if this is truly in the near future.

These were the sort of things I stumbled on. Maybe other people don’t care or ever think about it, I suppose. If you read enough books you’ll eventually find yourself unable to suspend disbelief, though, especially when the film begins by saying this is “The Near Future.” (Sorry I keep repeating myself.)

It’s probably at the 27-minute turning point that Roy learns that his mission is to kill his dad in order to save the human race. “Your dad went farther than any of us,” he is told.

Throughout the film Roy continues to give himself little self-talks. “I am being pulled farther and farther from the sun to you,” he says. And “I must accept the fact that I never really knew you.”

Right up to the end, ridiculously improbable things happen. For example, in real life when a space capsule goes through the earth’s atmosphere, it becomes so hot that it’s almost half as hot as the sun. Yet when Roy lands back on earth, people run over and open the capsule without getting burned.

Now it’s my turn for a little self-talk: “OK, so it’s fiction. Don’t overthink it.”

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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