Movie Diaries: Ad Astra Longinquus

We managed to make it nearly all summer without going to the cinema. The transition from the summer to the fall can be very taxing and stressful, so last week we decided to carve out some time to sneak in a matinee. Ad Astra immediately caught my attention as a space drama set in the not-so-distant future boasting beautiful cinematography and a riveting story about family. Also my partner did not want to see Downton Abbey. So off we went to the movies…(spoiler warning)

Only to be bored and disappointed. Ok, I get that this was supposed to be an arty think piece about what it means to be human and whether certain things are actually worth pursuing in the grand scheme of things. However, Ad Astra was problematic in many ways.

The film begins with some cool text declaring the setting is the “not so distant future.” It is a time of “hope and conflict” and that people on earth are still fighting over resources. Ok – compelling and timely right – I am constantly excited for (and frightened of) what the next decades will bring – let’s let our imaginations soar!

Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut who is known for keeping calm under pressure, maintaining a low blood pressure throughout really stressful situations (like his giant space antennae exploding as the result of an galactic power surge while he is on the outside of it!). However, this cucumber personality is at expense of his personal relationships, as exemplified by his dissatisfied partner Eve, played by Liv Tyler. Not falling far from the family tree, McBride is the son of an astronaut, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who went on a mission to Neptune to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, Project Lima, and never came back.

So, there is this big “surge” that killed thousands of humans and wrecked havoc on Earth’s grid. The space agency (is it NASA? They don’t say they are NASA – their uniforms have American flags though?) believes that it is coming from Project Lima and Tommy Lee Jones was on it and alive and only Brad Pitt could appeal to him to shut it down and save the galaxy (or universe? They are unclear about this point). The only place the Brad Pitt can deliver his message is from a space station on Mars that was conveniently undamaged by the surge and he can only get there by taking a commercial flight to the moon (apparently also unaffected by the surge).

My annoyance starts here – so it’s a time of “conflict” on earth and yet we are able to have commercial flights to the moon and infrastructure set up on the moon that apparently supports family vacations or at least children? AND we have travel from the moon to Mars? AND of course, we are able to fund and send a crew all the way to Neptune? Have y’all read the news lately? I read that the film was set in 2033, that is only fourteen years away, and unless there are some pretty huge changes in the way we support scientific research I sincerely doubt the possibility for any of this. ANYWAY, I DIGRESS.

So, in order for Brad Pitt to get to the place where he can travel from the moon to Mars, he has to take a moon Jeep with Donald Sutherland, who is sick and also old friends with Brad Pitt’s Dad. Their Moon Jeeps are promptly attacked by moon pirates. Everyone dies except for Brad Pitt and Donald Sutherland; however, don’t get too attached to Don, because he is sick and will not make it to Mars. Throughout the movie, we hear Brad Pitt’s thoughts, which in this particular scene were something along the lines of “some things never change, always fighting over resources.” What resources? You have a moon Jeep, accompanied by a “security detail moon Jeep. ” The pirates have two moon Jeeps! What resources – they have made it to the moon? Who do they represent? What do they want? All of the astronauts associated with Brad Pitt have big, prominent American flag patches on their uniforms, so who is it we are mad at this time? I get that this was an art-house film, but leaving out these details really irked me.

So he goes to Mars, and is not allowed to disclose the reason for his mission, and they run into a Norwegian research vessel (some things never change – apparently everything is peachy in Norway!) that is in distress so Brad Pitt and the captain board the vessel and lo and behold- a crazy space monkey has killed all of the Norwegians and quickly eliminates the captain – leaving only Brad Pitt to return to the vessel and take command! FORESHADOW ALERT – perhaps this scene is telling us something about what is to come! Gasp.

Alright, so he gets to Mars, and starts sending messages to Tommy Lee Jones. Only once he goes off script does he get a response, but Space Command won’t share it and suddenly Brad Pitt stops getting clean mental health reports from the psychiatric computers! Luckily for humanity, Ruth Negga steps in, informs Brad Pitt that his father is actually a monster who murdered the crew on Project Lima, including her family, and helps Brad Pitt sneak onto the next flight to Neptune.

When Brad Pitt reveals himself to the crew – which just so happen to be the same folks (minus the captain who got attacked by the monkey enraged that it was in space) from his previous flight, they freak out and try to neutralize him and all manage to die from a series of fortuitous space accidents for Brad Pitt. Now he is alone, searching for his dad, effortlessly gliding across Jupiter and Saturn (apparently Uranus was unavailable, or on another part of its orbit at this time) and arrives at Neptune. The journey from his spaceship to the Project Lima space station is silly at best. Again, I understand that this film is more in the vein of Apocalypse Now than Star Trek but they could have done a better job of being slightly more realistic with some of the science. It only takes Brad Pitt 84 days to get to Neptune – and somehow we are supposed to believe that Tommy Lee Jones can cool his jets and the surges won’t destroy the universe during that time. Maybe?

ANYWAY, Brad Pitt arrives at Project Lima. Tommy Lee Jones is basically mean dad, and murdered the entire Project Lima crew when they determined that there is no one out there and wanted to go back to Earth. He did not want to go back to Earth and was obsessed with finding other intelligent life, so now he was on this surging space station that threatened the existence of life everywhere. Brad Pitt tried to reason with him, but Tommy Lee was intransigent, “I did not care that I left you behind” (wonder what the mental health computers will say about THAT one) and Brad Pitt tries to save him. It also begs the question, knowing some basics about what it takes to become an astronaut, why the US or whoever is in charge of space exploration at this point, would send someone as old as Tommy Lee Jones all the way to Neptune?

They leave the Project Lima ship and are tethered together when Tommy Lee Jones decides that he would rather float out into space than accompany his son back to Earth. Ok, makes sense, after some space helmet head-butts Brad Pitt decides to let him float off. Brad Pitt manages to return to his space ship through the thin rings of Neptune (again, WTF – how is this remotely possible?) and then nukes the Project Lima space station. Ok, so some kind of power surge emanating from Project Lima was threatening to blast through the solar system and destroy life on Earth – so the solution is to blow it up with a nuclear bomb? How is that not going to have some sort of terrifying effects on the rest of the galaxy? Also, somehow conveniently, Brad Pitt is able to propel his spacecraft all the way from Neptune back to Earth (or the moon or Mars?) with the energy from this explosion. WHAT? I am not a physicist or an astronomer, but come on.

Throughout the film, we hear Brad Pitt’s thoughts, which are comprised of some brief recollections of his life mostly relating around relationships between him and his dad and sometimes him and the image of Eve (Liv Tyler), his companion who leaves him. He also repeatedly talks to a computer to evaluate his mental health status. Basically, it reveals that Brad Pitt is a very boring person despite all of his space travel going all the way to Neptune and back, witnessing the deaths of many people around him, and not engaging with some of the other systematic realities of the time in which he lives.

I was bored. I was wondering what Mrs. Patmore was up to. The scenes were beautiful, and there were possibilities to explore themes of alienation (not aliens, but the effects of extreme isolation) and whether if things were still conflicted back on Earth if we as a species should invest in that before trying to reach out. I suppose having a background as an anthropologist I was asking different questions than what director James Gray wanted me to think about. My blood pressure remained steady and low throughout the film (with the exception of perhaps the monkey scene, that was a bit violent) but yeah, I was disappointed. The inspiration for the film was Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now but maybe it just did not quite work as the setting required a lot more explanation that what was given. It may have worked better in a more distant future where at a minimum I could accept that certain technologies had just advanced beyond what is possible now, but being set in 2033 it was a too unbelievable to get past in order to truly soak in the bigger themes of the film.

On a deeper level though, the saga of the “sins of the father” – the story of sons suffering for the actions of their father has been done and done and done. It really is not original or interesting, especially considering Brad Pitt basically decided at a young age to pursue the exact same path his father who willfully abandoned him pursued. There has been a lot of critical praise, and sure Brad Pitt gives a totally believable performance as a space cucumber, but in the end Ad Astra combined an uncritical, unbelievable setting combined with an oversold story of a son trying to redeem his father and ending up short. Save your cheeky Friday matinee for something better like The Farewell. Dare I say it, Gosling perfected the overly-compartmentalized, super focused astronaut role as Neil Armstrong in last year’s First Man. That was a much, much better film.

Yesterday, I snuck off and saw this and it was amazing. Still waiting for a chance to see Downton Abbey.

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