Ad Astra: Lost In Space


No Spoilers

As one critic said; ‘Brad Pitt. In space. You got me.’ And so it would seem. The Venice Film Festival adored James Gray’s space epic, the first serious SF film out of the gate in a long while, although there were rumblings of discontent. Now, having seen it and heard Gray talking about it, I’m on the discontent side. Serious SF is easier to pull off in literature than on the screen, and despite its occasionally terrific entertainment value ‘Ad Astra’ remains resolutely shallow.

Festival films are very good at pulling the wool over audience’s eyes. Sensations there become flops on release when people can regard them with a cooler, less hysterical eye. And while ‘Ad Astra’ periodically delivers on thrills, its attempt to be taken seriously may not play as well on release as it did in Venice.

Pitt is the nerves-of-steel son of the world’s most famous astronaut, who, like Voyager, went further than anyone before him, all the way to Neptune, on a mission to find extraterrestrial life. Then, like Captain Kurtz, he went AWOL. The problem was that he had with him the film’s McGuffin, an anti-matter device that is now fires electronic pulses at Earth. Has he gone mad, or does he have a purpose? Someone has to stop him. How about his son, who is still suffering from abandonment issues?

Along the way (and it’s a long journey) we get pirates on the moon, surfing Neptune’s ring on a tea tray and an extremely odd choice for a spacecraft passenger, all great fun, all very silly indeed, yet these action scenes have no bearing on the story’s main arc, and are inserted to prevent the film turning into a soporific collection of close ups on Brad’s magnificently maturing face. Brad is hardly off-screen for a second, ruminating in a hushed voiceover and looking soulful. I’m fine with that, but his thoughts are not exactly deep.

It’s very reminiscent of ‘Apocalypse Now’, but as our hero journeys toward an inevitable showdown with his father we reach a payoff than has little emotional weight, because the daddy issue is just that, an unearned writer’s device, and Tommy Lee Jones fails to provide a single reason for Brad’s trip. Worse served is Liv Tyler as Brad’s wife, who gets a couple of lines and a role that consist of lying in bed or looking pouty. I thought we’d done with those?

In his post-film talk, the director (who had trouble staying on one subject for more than 20 seconds) suggested that he was covering The Odyssey from the point of view of Telemachus, but I’d suggest that ‘Ad Astra’ is ‘Contact’ + ‘Gravity’ + ‘Moon Zero Two’. The set pieces are exciting, especially the opening one on a low-atmosphere rig, but for a film with avowedly serious themes it’s peppered with plot holes and absurdities.

There are moments that suggest another better film; Earth has already Americanised the moon, opening junk food shops and having trouble with rebels. And a profound moment, when Brad discovers that the mission doesn’t need him anymore. But then there’s the problem of Dad. If he wants to stop his home planet from wrecking everything else in the universe and is firing his anti-matter device to stop them the story would make sense. In fact, what is that anti-matter device for at all? What was he meant to do with it? How can it affect the Earth from Neptune? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Dad to find life out there and be fearful that Earth travellers will negatively affect it? The explanation for his actions, when they eventually arrive, is dismissed in a line of dialogue.

Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. Is it serious SF? Not remotely.

14 comments on “Ad Astra: Lost In Space”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    Oh dear.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Neptune will apparently be at its closest point to earth on September 9th. We’d better watch out for those electronic pulses.

  3. Brooke says:

    80M (USD) to produce; has to meet 240M to meet benchmark. I don’t intend to contribute.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    Surfing Neptune’s ring on a tea-tray? Yup, that’s serious science fiction right there. A trope favoured by writers like Clarke, Asimov and Harrison. (HEAVY SARCASM ALERT).
    Those rings, are, in some places, only centimetres deep, and almost invisible. Surfing on them seems a really stupid thing to do. I do wonder what someone like, for example, Neil DeGrasse Tyson would have to say about this. Interfering with planetary rings is one of those things that it is a cool idea to visualise – the opening credits of ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ show the ship going through a planetary ring, and it looks beautiful – though not as cool as the ship going through a gaseous nebula, and the starship’s deflectors causing the gas to fluouresce as the ship passes by. Still not ‘serious’ sci-fi, but damned cool, nonetheless.
    Science Fiction movies don’t need to be deadly serious to promote ‘Big’ ideas: ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956), had it’s ‘monsters from the Id’, which probably baffled a large part of the audience, but possibly pleased any Psychiatrists watching it immensely.
    The first time I saw it, I was completely blown away by it. The ramifications of the power use in the Krell laboratory still astonish, and hearing Walter Pidgeon pointing out the power gauges, and saying: “Ten times ten, times ten, times ten, times ten… Almost into infinity” still brings me out in goosebumps, as does his: “Twenty miles… Twenty miles”, when indicating how far this part of the Krell city stretches. Almost incomprehensible hugeness. And yet the monster is generated from one lonely man’s jealous mind. It’s a superb concept.

  5. Roger says:

    “the first serious SF film out of the gate in a long while…pirates on the moon, surfing Neptune’s ring on a tea tray and an extremely odd choice for a spacecraft passenger, all great fun, all very silly indeed” and all so much more serious than “Hard to be a God”, “Arrival”, “Blade Runner 2049”, “Aniara”, no doubt.

  6. SteveB says:

    Moon Zero Two is good fun! I had no idea anyone except me remembered that film!

  7. Ian Luck says:

    SteveB – I’ve got the damn theme tune to that movie rattling around my head ever since I saw Mr F mention it. ‘Moon Zero Two’ is a fun movie – possibly the first ‘Space Western’, to which I’d say that the second would be the gritty ‘Outland’ (another favourite of mine). The only jarring thing about M02, is the inclusion of Warren Mitchell in the cast – don’t get me wrong, he’s great, as he always was, but at the time, he was also known for playing the bigoted character Alf Garnett, in the TV show ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, and it’s difficult to see him in a ‘Space Opera’, without hearing Alf’s hectoring voice.

  8. Peter Dixon says:

    Warren Mitchell turns up in all sorts of unlikely places – he was a Russian agent in The Avengers, but sticking to SF what about Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter) from Rising Damp onboard the space station in 2001?

  9. Inken Purvis says:

    That’s a shame! I was looking forward to this. Well, I may go see it anyway with my partner who can thoroughly enjoy himself telling me all the scientific mistakes they’re making 🙂

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Peter – As ‘Rising Damp’ came out in the mid 1970’s, it was more a case of:
    “Oh look, it’s the bloke from 2001.” Unless, of course, you saw the movie after seeing ‘Rising Damp’, as I did, and then it’s as you say, ‘Rigsby in space’.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, and I would consider that most deliciously kinky of all 1960’s TV shows, ‘The Avengers’ to be science fiction. The traffic-less roads; the sinisterly quiet streets of London; man-eating plants; people drowned by localised downpours of rain; buildings that are huge Moebius loops; Cybernauts (hooray!); fake time machine scams; nutters with big laser guns; mad scientists who can charge themselves up with electricity – in fact, more mad scientists than you can wave a Liebig Condenser at. To quote John Steed’s strongest exclamation:
    “How extraordinary!”

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Totally agree about Avengers, Ian, and that was how I watched it. Somehow The Prisoner fits in there, too.
    We’re just now getting the trailers for Ad Astra and the trailers are fun, but not exactly a strong draw. I can see what the director meant about Telemachus, but it was a bad idea right from the get go.

  13. Lauren C says:

    yet another promising film cast into the “wait for it on Netflix” pile

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, ‘The Prisoner’ is definitely science fiction. The remote surveillance. The so-specific drugs. The ‘Rovers’ – a semi autonomous robot balloon that smothers escapers. Yup. Sci-Fi. Computers that think for themselves, as well. A show I wasn’t allowed to watch as a child – my parents, who let me watch pretty much anything I liked, even at 4/5 years old, seemed to think this show just TOO weird. Likewise, the children’s show ‘Time-Slip’. ‘The Prisoner’ I actually watched when I was about 17, which is probably the perfect age to enjoy it. ‘Time-Slip’ alas, has fallen foul of the ‘curse of the missing episodes’ ITV, this time. I’ve watched what remains, and it is superb. Typical.

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