As with some of my previous reviews,
I’m writing this while the movie is still playing in the theaters, so…

THERE BE SPOILERS HERE

Read at your own risk.

You’ve been warned.

“An Ambitious Space Epic…”

Wow. That struck fear into my heart when I read those words in the initial movie promotional blurbs for Ad Astra.  Maybe I’ve been beaten down by Hollywood promises of grand “space movies” that turned out to be really … well.. not so much.

Gravity? Ugh.

First Man? First Meh.

Seeing the trailer, though, gave me some encouragement that this would *NOT* turn into “Gravity 2: Electric Boogaloo“.

Let’s not bury the lede here … I liked it.

I made a point of not reading reviews ahead of time, not looking for others’ reactions, and DEFINITELY not waiting. We went opening night, with a full theater of fellow viewers, and settled in for (honestly) an unknown experience.  I wanted the movie to evolve in front of me.  I wanted to pay attention to the details, as they were presented, and not think about “Oh, here’s where (x) happens that I read about.” 

Too often, we rely on someone else to tell us what we like and don’t like.  So, if you get nothing else from this post – MAKE UP YOUR OWN MIND!  If you liked it, awesome!  If you didn’t like it, awesome! 

Those are your opinions!!!  These, obviously, are mine.

Last chance.  Spoilers.

Read at your own risk.

You’ve been warned.

Visuals

Let’s start here, as it’s the thing that usually grabs people first. The visual presentation of Ad Astra was really well-done.  

The story was set in the “near future”, so everything had both a slightly futuristic feel to it and a very comfortable familiarity.  The opening scenes, on the International Space Antenna, were both familiar and imaginative of a future were we can build and operate such grand things.  When you think about it, though, the current International Space Station – familiar to all of us now, is really just an evolution of earlier thoughts and designs.  If someone in the midst of the 1960s space race were to see photos and video of the ISS in operation today, they’d probably have the same reaction – wonder mixed with “yeah, I can believe that”.

Once our main character (Major Roy McBride – portrayed by Brad Pitt, who did an outstanding job throughout the movie) finds himself on the Moon, we’re greeted with both the awareness that we aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto, and the recognition of a spaceport that looks like any modern airport – complete with Subway and a Hudson News stand in the background.  I thought those tie-ins brought a sense of realism and allowed the viewer to participate in the plot and dialog of the scene so much more, without having to look for Easter egg placements of cheesy fictional “Lunar Juice” or “Moon Munchies” stands in the background.

Transitioning from the pseudo-familiar lunar settings to Mars, definitely lets the audience see that the farther we travel from Earth, the fewer “creature comforts” are afforded.  The overall industrial look of the Martian base gave way to the deliberate “waiting rooms” with full-wall video displays of ever-changing and calming colors or nature scenes.  This seemed to be a nod to the psychology of extended absence from Earth.  We were also introduced to our first “Martians” – humans who were born on Mars and had only visited Earth a very few times, if at all.  They had a stronger appreciation for what McBride had left behind than he did.

International Space Antenna

The International Space Antenna looks like it was assembled from current technologies, even though the magnitude of the structure seems very futuristic.

Earth launch vehicle

The launch vehicle from Earth had a very current NASA/SpaceX vibe to it. It made the idea of “commercial space travel” from the Earth to the Moon extremely believable!

The visuals of the spacecraft were the same – just futuristic enough to believe we’d pushed the technological envelope to include some advanced propulsion system on the back of ships that look like they could be rolled off of NASA’s, SpaceX’s, or any current vehicle assembly line.  We’ll talk about the accuracy of those propulsion technologies in a bit, but for now – they looked VERY believable.

The interiors of the various stations and spacecraft along with the spacesuits themselves were extremely well done.  It was clear that the producers had studied and talked with various people at NASA and throughout the space program about achieving a certain level of realism.  I have at least one friend who was a technical consultant, and it was satisfying seeing some of his work on the trajectory displays make it to the big screen.

 The visuals get a solid A+ from me.

But don’t get too excited just yet — Gravity and “First Meh” were also visually beautiful.

Technical

Hand in hand with the visuals was the technical believability.  If what was being presented, albeit beautifully, on the screen just failed the “sniff test” of fundamental physics, then it was going to be such a distraction as to make the movie fail.  This, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, is what happened with Gravity.  It had absolutely gorgeous visuals, but the massive failures (at least to this recovering rocket scientist) in how it simply ignored basic physics and orbital mechanics completely ruined what could have been a good popcorn flick.  At least Armageddon never took itself seriously, and you could excuse the myriad of technical “no way” moments and just enjoy the ride.

Meanwhile, back to Ad Astra… Yes, there were a few items that made me raise an eyebrow – including the climactic scenes of Brad Pitt flying through the ring(s) of Neptune, Superman-style, with a metal panel as a deflector shield against the rocks and debris.  Mr. Newton was rightly screaming “BUT WHAT ABOUT MY SECOND LAW?” during this time – as there didn’t seem to be any “equal and opposite reaction” to the impacts on the metal panel.  He just kept flying right on through, as if those didn’t have any (pun intended) impact on his trajectory.  (Pro tip – they would have)

For the most part, however, I was quite pleased with Ad Astra’s attention to technical detail and at least their attempts and making things feel “real”.  There was dramatic license taken with characters walking normally in what should have been the substantially decreased gravity on the surfaces of both the Moon and Mars (approximately 1/6th and 2/5ths that of Earth, respectively).  There was a little bit of that gravitational acknowledgement during the (quite fun, actually) lunar space pirate chase scene.  It ended with McBride’s rover careening off into a crater at an appropriately reduced fall speed.

Lunar pirates

Injecting a (believable!) lunar thrill ride complete with Space Pirates!

Martian launch complex

Even setting up action scenes allowed the movie to establish the magnitude of the effort.

A few technical items that I’ve seen random Facebook comments complain about was the need to go to Mars in order to get a signal to Neptune.  What they all seemed to have missed was a very brief comment that the Martian base was well underground and (at least to date) had been spared the negative effects of “The Surge” emanating from Neptune.  It was from Mars that the communication link with Neptune was re-established – moving the plot forward once again.

“The Surge” could have been the entire focus of the movie – if this had been a sci-fi epic which I think some disappointed viewers thought it was going to be.  I’m actually glad it wasn’t.  It would have been an entirely different experience.

There was a lot of “new technology” that was not explained nor actually even fully acknowledged, as it was more of a move-the-plot-forward device than any sort of central-to-the-story element.  Specifically, the propulsion systems on all of the craft provided almost (almost) unbelievable transit times between the planets.  It looked both futuristic enough, but still somewhat believable, to be taken at face-value and accepted as an “okay, I’ll just go with the fact that this is how things work in the future” technology.

PLOT Thoughts

Since I went into this movie with no expectations about what I was going to see – plot-wise, I was satisfied with the story, the progression, and the resolution!  I think that most people who had issues with this movie felt it lost them here — but to that, I would suggest that it may have been more of a pre-set expectation of what they were going to see, rather than what was actually shown.  This was a movie that was “set in space”, but not necessarily “about space”.  The fundamental plot could have been in almost any setting that allowed the loneliness/solitude and reflection that the ultimate storyline needed.

Other reviews have compared this to the novel “Heart of Darkness” (1899) by Joseph Conrad.  It’s a fair comparison in that both main characters are struggling with a “darkness” that has shaped their lives to date, symbolizes the fear of what they might become, and then dealing with the actual reality of that ideal face-to-face.  With McBride, that “darkness” takes the shape of his father, his father’s legacy as one of the greatest astronauts ever, and his own personal and inner conflict to live up to that legend.

There’s another famous Science Fiction novel, “The Sirens of Titan” (1959) by Kurt Vonnegut, that ends with one of the major characters saying “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”  This was reflected in Ad Astra with McBride finally realizing that he had the relationship he had always desired in front of him the entire time.  He hadn’t really needed to chase down and confront the image of his father’s imposing legacy in order to be happy.  He only needed to “love whoever (was) around to be loved.”

There were several “MacGuffin” elements in the story that were necessary to move the story along.  “The Surge” experienced on Earth, the Moon, and Mars – as a convenient reason to get Pitt to his estranged father around Neptune, was exactly one of those classic plot devices that sound so very important, but in the end are really not the main reason for the movie.  The mid-transit Mars-to-Neptune encounter with a disabled ship served to get rid of the rest of the crew, leaving McBride solo for the rest of the journey.  There were several others, but again – these were more about moving the plot to the next element of the character arc.

It’s McBride’s emotional evolution that is the real reason for the movie.  At the start, he is self-focused and completely absorbed in the (let’s be honest) rather tedious, but visually spectacular and dangerous, task on the ISA.  That focus affected all of his personal relationships to the point of self-imposed isolation.  The further he moves away from Earth, though, the more we see McBride struggle with those emotions and his memories of his early life and his relationship with his father.  It’s rather shocking when that final confrontation does take place that McBride realizes that he was never truly like his father after all.  He is able to return to Earth more aware of his humanity and need for others than he has ever known in his life – and he seems truly happy for what may be the first time in his life.

McBride reflects

Dealing with personal “hearts of darkness” through a grand space epic.

Martian recording studio

The familiar-looking recording studio in the underground, thus unaffected (!), Martian base.

There were obviously hokey/cheesy things, too, that left the plot teetering on the edge of “nothankyou” – I’ll leave you with two words: Space Monkeys.

SPACE MONKEYS Y’ALL!!!!

That was a bit much, and had it actually been a significant part of the storyline, this review might have been different.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much of a “Planet of the Apes” fan as the next geek… but this entire sequence could’ve been lost without any impact to the story.  They could’ve “lost the crew” in other ways to strand McBride alone on the way to Neptune.  

Space.  Monkeys.

OVERALL

So, yeah – Space Monkeys™ and some fundamental ignoring of physics aside, I did like Ad Astra.

Noting the obvious self-deprecating irony in this next statement, it seems that people are quick to throw opinions out on movies without reflection.  I have thought about it, though, and think that what I’ve written holds up well enough.  Perhaps the problem, if there is one, with Ad Astra’s reception is that people may have gone into the movie thinking it was something that it wasn’t.  

If that’s the case, then the problem lies with the marketing and trailer development team and not necessarily the movie itself, right?  That’s a fairly common issue with a lot of movies these days, though, and not much is going to be done about it, as the ultimate goal of marketing a movie is to get “butts in seats”.  So, however they do that measures their success.

As with everything else in life – make up your *own* mind about subjective things like whether you like a movie or not.  But, since you’re here, you just got to read my opinion.  Yay you!

 


 

In summary, Ad Astra uses the vastness and loneliness of future interplanetary space travel and more importantly the stereotype of a closed-off and emotionally buttoned-up astronaut as metaphors for perhaps the greatest point of the movie – learning how to let go of harmful elements of your past, embrace what is directly in front of you, and truly learn to move beyond that primitive “heart of darkness” that dwells in each of us.

Ad Astra, per Aspera

Sometimes shown in reverse order, it translates to “Through hardships, to the stars.”  

More than just a clever Latin translation, it really became a rallying cry for those of us at NASA over the years.  Realizing to advance and succeed sometimes means dealing with loss.  Much like Roy McBride’s character evolution, the men and women in spaceflight operations had to overcome personal and professional losses to push the program forward. 

And while “Failure is not an option” is an ambitious goal, it’s not reality.  Failure is sometimes unavoidable.  How you deal with the repercussions of failure defines your ultimate success.

 

“Per Aspera”, indeed.

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