Saturday, September 28, 2019

It Came From The Cineplex: Ad Astra

Ad Astra was written by Ethan Gross and James Gray. It was directed by James Gray.

Gross previously wrote... well, not much. A film called Klepto (?) and a handful of episodes of the TV series Fringe.

Gray previously wrote Blood Ties. He wrote and directed Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own The Night, Two Lovers, The Immigrant and The Lost City Of Z (oh, so HE'S the one responsible).

So is Ad Astra a technical and emotional triumph, or a tedious and languid dud? Judging by the reviews, the critics all seem to be overwhelmed by Brad Pitt's stunning performance and the film's moving emotion core. Here's a sampling of their reviews:

"Existential but also intimate, Ad Astra is a stunning, sensitive exploration of the space left by an absent parent— and the infinite void of actual space."
John Nugent

"Daddy issues in all their forms may be humanity's greatest common experience, and so writer-director James Gray's space drama will be relatable to most adult viewers."
Tara McNamara
Common Sense Media

"At heart, it's a short story set in space, decorated with major FX (the double rings of the evanescent blue Neptune are its most memorable image), held together by Pitt's stalwart presence."
Owen Gleiberman

"Just when you thought Brad Pitt's acting career was over, he resurrects it in director James Gray's gripping Ad Astra, a sci-fi drama that morphs into a psychological thriller."
Johnny Oleksinski
New York Post

"As the icily competent, pathologically controlled McBride, Pitt delivers one of the finest performances of his career."
Ann Hornaday
Washington Post

"May strike some viewers as biblical, Shakespearean and/or Greek. It’s certainly unforgettable."
John Anderson
Wall Street Journal

Holy Shiite! I must have taken an extra fistful of my crazy pills again, because I didn't get ANY of that out of this movie. It's a slow-moving sci-fi art house film that's part Joseph Conrad, part 2001: A Space Odyssey. It practically sprains a hamstring trying
to be deep and existential, but the best it can muster is pretentious and shallow

I don't get all the love for Brad Pitt's performance either, as he practically sleepwalks through the entire movie. There's a running gag of sorts in the film, in which Pitt's character prides himself on the fact that his pulse never rises above 80 beats per minute. Apparently Pitt's a method actor and did his best to match that zen-like state during filming as well.

It's as if Pitt noticed the popularity of Ryan Gosling and his drowsy performances, and was determined to out-doze him. I seriously do not understand the praise heaped on him here.

And don't get me started on the ridiculous science. Ad Astra may be the dumbest "smart" movie I've ever seen in my life! Virtually every bit of science it presents is completely inaccurate, as if the writers based their technical knowledge on an episode of Lost In Space.

"But Bob," I hear you cry, "You're missing the point of the movie! It's not about the science and whether its accurate or not. It's all about reconnecting with family and discovering one's humanity!" 
If that's the case, then the movie doubly failed. For a film that prides itself on its emotional core, it feels hollow, clinical and oddly detached. In fact it's so devoid of emotion that the director had to insert voiceovers to tell us what the main character's actually feeling! I've honestly seen TV commercials with more heart.

Even if you ignore the egregious science, the film still contains plenty of plot stupidity. The characters are apparently all brain damaged, as they say and do the most idiotic things possible in order for the story to progress.

The film's also slow and laborious, and worst of all, just plain dull. I generally never have trouble staying awake in the cineplex, but I nearly dozed off a couple times during Ad Astra. It's 124 minutes long, but I swear I was in the theater for four hours.

So far Ad Astra's grossed $45 million worldwide against its "$80 to $100 million" budget. Only $19 million of that gross came from the States. Since movies need to make twice their production budgets just to break even, Ad Astra's going to have a tough row to hoe, and will likely turn out to be an expensive flop.


The Plot:
"In the near future," SpaceCom officer Major Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt) is working on a massive, miles-high space antenna jutting out from the surface of the Earth. Suddenly a mysterious energy Surge from space fries the antennae's electronics, knocking McBride off the scaffolding and sending him plummeting to Earth. He opens a safety chute and lands safely. It's an impressive, immersive and nail-biting scene. Enjoy it while you can though, because it's the last one we get.

McBride is the son of Dr. Clifford McBride (played by Tommy Lee Jones), the world's most famous astronaut and space pioneer. When McBride was just a child, Clifford left home on a mission to deep space, which caused a rift between the two men
 emotionally as well as geographically.

Clifford commanded the Lima Project, a mission to set up a listening post outside the solar system in order to search for signs of intelligent life in the universe. Unfortunately SpaceCom lost contact with the project sixteen years ago near Neptune.

During McBride's debriefing, SpaceCom informs him that the powerful Surges are coming from the vicinity of Neptune. If left unchecked, they could end up destroying all life in the Solar System (?). SpaceCom also believes McBride's father may still be alive, and is somehow responsible for the Surges (??). They order McBride to travel to Mars (???) and send a message to Clifford telling him to knock it off.

McBride meets up with Colonel Thomas Pruitt (played by Donald Sutherland), an old friend of Clifford. He accompanies McBride to the Moon, where they're to catch a rocket bound for Mars. Once there, they make their way to the launch pad on the dark side of the Moon. On the way, their military convoy is attacked by Moon pirates (no, really!). Amazingly their military escorts are all killed, and McBride and Pruitt are the only ones who make it to the dark side.

The excitement's turns out to be too much for Pruitt, and he gives McBride a flash drive containing top secret info about Clifford, along with a vague warning before abruptly exits the movie. Well, that was a pointless character! 
McBride boards the SpaceCom ship Cepheus, and they take off for Mars.

Along the way they receive a distress call from a Norwegian biomedical research station (?). Somehow the Cepheus slows down and docks with the station (??) and McBride and Captain Tanner enter and investigate. They float through the empty station (???), which seems devoid of life. Suddenly Tanner's attacked and killed by a CGI baboon from the med lab. McBride kills another baboon, and barely escapes with his life. And that's it for that useless little side plot.

The ship continues on to Mars and begins landing. Suddenly another Surge hits, causing the ship to malfunction. Acting Captain Stanford freezes with indecision, so McBride takes command and lands the ship flawlessly (of course his pulse never rises above 80!). Inside the underground Martian base, McBride meets Helen Lantos (played by Ruth Negga), head of the facility.

McBride records several voice recordings to his father, which are sent to Neptune. After getting no response, McBride goes off script and sends out a heartfelt appeal to his emotionally distant Pop. SpaceCom instantly receives an answer from Clifford (which is impossible), but McBride's not allowed to hear it, as they fear it'll damage his already fragile psychological state. He's ordered to return to Earth.

Helen visits McBride & says her parents were on the Lima Project. She shows him classified footage of Clifford, who was rabidly obsessed with finding evidence of alien life. The crew mutinied against him, so he 
shut off their life-support system and killed everyone but himself so he could continue his search.  

Helen says SpaceCom is planning to send a ship to Lima and destroy it with a nuclear bomb, in order to stop the Surges. McBride decides he should be the one to confront Clifford and attempt a peaceful resolution. Or something.

Helen smuggles McBride out of the base, and he swims through an underground lake (?) leading to the platform where the Cepheus is about to take off for Neptune. An underground lake. On Mars. He sneaks into the ship seconds before it blasts off. When he's discovered, the Cepheus crew attack him, but end up accidentally killing themselves (??).

McBride then continues on the months-long journey to Neptune by himself. As the ship heads into deep space, he reflects on his relationships with his absentee father and estranged wife. This, plus the constant isolation, takes a mental toll on him. Or not. With McBride's immobile mask of a face it's difficult to tell what
— if anything— he's thinking.

Eventually he arrives at Neptune and spots the Lima Project station. He takes a small shuttle over to it, and finds the bodies of the other researchers inside. He locates the faulty anti-matter power source (which is apparently safe to approach) and attaches the nuke to it. 

He then encounters Clifford, who is indeed still alive. Clifford explains that when the crew mutinied, they inadvertently damaged the anti-matter power source. This is what's been causing the Surges that are wreacking havoc on Earth.

Clifford says ever since then he continued the Project's goal of searching for intelligent life in the universe. Unfortunately he found absolutely nothing, which apparently drove him insane. He moans that he's a failure. McBride says the fact that he found no other life is a win, as it means we should cherish one another.

McBride asks his father to return to Earth with him, but he refuses. So he grabs his father's research, arms the bomb and dresses Clifford in a space suit to return to Earth. Once they're in space, Clifford cuts himself loose and floats off toward Neptune.

McBride helplessly watches his father drift away, then fashions a shield from the base and uses his suit's thrusters to barrel through Neptune's rings, back to the Cepheus. He makes it back to the ship, but doesn't have enough fuel to return home (???). He then uses the shockwave from the exploding Lima station to propel him back to Earth. Nope!

McBride crashlands on Earth and is rescued. Armed with the knowledge that humans are the only intelligent life in the universe, he realizes that we're all we have. He then reconnects with his wife Eve (played ultra-briefly by Liv Tyler), who walked out on him some time ago. The audience then wakes, stretches and then slowly files out of the cineplex.

• For the record, the phrase "ad astra" is Latin for "to the stars."

• Credit where it's due: At the beginning of the movie a caption informs us that the story takes place in "The Near Future." 
Regular readers of my blog know that one of my many pet peeves is when a sci-fi story features ridiculously advanced technology, but then takes place in the far off year of 2040. By not mentioning a specific year, the film will never have an "expiration date." Kudos for that!

• More credit where it's due: The movie starts out with an intense and harrowing action sequence, in which McBride is working on a massive space antennae. Suddenly the Surge hits, causing a series of explosions. To avoid being killed he jumps off the antenna and falls thousands of feet before he can open his chute and float to safety (sorry about the black bars in the video).

It's a breathtaking, nail-biting scene that's beautifully filmed and filled with top notch FX. Sadly, things immediately go downhill from there. 

• In a recent interview, director James Gray boasted, "Ad Astra will feature the most realistic depiction of space travel that's been put in a movie."


Ad Astra is about as "realistic" as an episode of Jason Of Star Command. There are so many scientific inaccuracies in it that I'm convinced James Gray has some deep-seated hatred for astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, and filmed this movie specifically to make him have a stroke. The errors are that glaring.

Defenders of the film are quick to point out that its science doesn't matter, as it's just a backdrop for McBride's poignant emotional journey.

Eh, nice try, but I ain't buying it. I agree that scientific accuracy is unimportant in movies like Star Wars, The Last Starfighter or Battle Beyond The Stars. Those are all space fantasies, so the audience expects outlandish or non-existent science. 

But Ad Astra fancies itself a serious, hard sci-fi movie that's grounded in reality. You know, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity or First Man. The science in those films was integral to the plot, and their stories literally could not happen without it.

Ad Astra desperately wants to be like those films and play by their rules, so I feel perfectly justified judging its scientific accuracy. Or rather its astonishing lack of it. Especially after reading Gray's jaw-dropping statement! So sit back and get comfortable while I tear this movie's science a new asshole!

— Every single thing about the Surges is completely and utterly ridiculous. We're told that  cosmic ray bursts are emanating from the vicinity of Neptune, caused by an antimatter power source. These bursts inexplicably grow stronger as they radiate toward Earth. If left unchecked, they could destroy all life in the solar system!

Jesus wept, I hardly know where to begin. First of all, it's unlikely that the Lima Project's energy source would be powerful enough to generate any form of energy that could threaten the Earth. Or the entire solar system! It's simply not big enough.

And the idea that the energy surges get stronger the farther they travel is utter nonsense. I'm pretty sure all forms of energy fade and dissipate with distance, so the Surges would likely be harmless by the time they reached Earth. 

— SpaceCom believes Clifford McBride is still alive and well in orbit around Neptune and is responsible for the Surges. They contact his son Roy McBride, and order him to send a message to his father, asking him to cut it out. FOR SOME REASON, instead of simply sending the message from Earth to Neptune, he flies to the Moon, then on to Mars to transmit the signal.

What. The. Hell.

Radio signals travel at the speed of light. At that velocity, it would take a signal about four hours to reach Neptune (give or take, depending on the planetary positions). It takes McBride NINETEEN days to travel to Mars in order to send the signal. An Earth-born signal would have reached Neptune in 1/24th of that time! Jesus wept!

The writers seemingly know this is bushwah, and try to explain it by saying they need to send a top secret signal, and Mars has the "only secure laser transmitter" in the entire solar system. Seriously? We're supposed to believe there are no private modes of communication anywhere on Earth? Nice try, movie!

— The citizens of the Ad Astra universe use spaceships that are just slightly more advanced than the ones we have now. When McBride takes a commercial flight to the Moon, we see his rocket actually uses booster rockets that fall away after it leaves the atmosphere.

Rockets with booster engines are an incredibly expensive way to get into space. Yet somehow they have commercial flight between planets. How much were the tickets for that ride to the Moon? A billion dollars?

— The spaceships of Ad Astra are all incredibly fast. It would currently take us ten or twelve years to reach Neptune, but McBride travels there (from Mars) in just seventy nine days.

Granted, this movie takes place in the future, so they may have some way to travel faster than we do now, so I'll reluctantly overlook this one.

— Both the Moon and Mars have significantly lighter gravity than the Earth. Absolutely zero attempt is made at depicting this though.

Granted, it's entirely possible that by the time this movie takes place, science has figured out a way to simulate higher gravity. So I'll give 'em this one.

— As the Cepheus travels to Mars, it picks up a distress signal and makes a detour to investigate, and actually stops at a nearby research outpost. 

Sorry, that's not how the laws of physics work.

Put simply, a spaceship traveling from the Moon to Mars would set a direct course, then accelerate gradually to prevent the G-forces from killing the crew inside. Once the ship reached the halfway mark, it would begin decelerating, again to avoid turning the passengers into chunky salsa.

The Cepheus simply CANNOT make a detour and come to a full stop next to a research station. It just can't. Take my word for it. Attempting to do so would tear the ship apart, kill everyone on board or both. It'd be like traveling 130 mph on the Autobahn and suddenly slamming on the brakes and turning.

— After McBride reaches Mars, he sends a series of messages to his Dad. When he sends the third one, he gets a near instant reply from Clifford. 

Nope! As I mentioned above, it takes a radio signal approximately four hours to reach Neptune, and vice versa. Unless they have some sort of faster-than-light communication system in this universe, it should have taken at least eight hours for them to receive Clifford's reply. 

I get that they sped things up for dramatic purposes, but it's still wrong.

— McBride swims through an underground Martian lake to get to the Cepheus. He then climbs up the side of the rocket as it blasts off, and somehow manages to get inside.

OK, I freely admit I'm not a scientist, but I'm pretty sure water can't exist in liquid form on Mars. Even underground.

I'm not even going to comment on the "Climbing Up The Side Of A Ship In Flight" thing, as it's just too stupid to discuss.

— McBride enters the Lima Project base, and sets a nuclear bomb on top of the faulty anti-matter power source. Despite the fact that the source is generating destructive cosmic rays that can be felt on Earth, it's apparently OK to stand next to it. Or live on the same station with it.

— By far the most preposterous moment in the film is McBride's return to the Cepheus. He lets his little shuttle float away for plot purposes, and is then trapped on the Lima Project. In order to return to his ship, he concocts an ingenious plan. 

First he pulls up a panel off the station to use as a shield. Then he clambers on top of a rotating radar antenna and sits on it as it spins him right round baby right round. At a precisely calculated moment, he jumps off the antenna, using its momentum to propel him back to the Cepheus. 

He then plows through Neptune's rings, using the borrowed panel to protect himself from the numerous rocky chunks and particles. Eventually he passes through the rings, and lands exactly on top of the Cepheus! Amazing!

Again, I dunno where to start. As McBride rides the spinning antenna, he looks up and sees the Cepheus whizzing by at regular intervals. He then apparently calculates the exact moment to jump off the antenna to fly back to the ship.

Christ Baby Jesus, I don't think even Spock could accurately calculate all the variables needed to perform that maneuver! Not to mention the fact that if you jump off a spinning object, you won't fly in a straight line. McBride would have launched into an arc and missed his ship by a mile.

And then there's the idea of using the panel as a shield. Nothing wrong with it per se, but every time one of the ring particles smashed into his shield (which happens a lot during his journey through them) it would slow him down slightly. After a couple hundred small collisions he'd stop dead in his tracks. Additional hits would then propel him back toward Neptune. Again, it's all about physics.

The most puzzling part of this sequence is the fact that we clearly see McBride's spacesuit has tiny thrusters on the back. He could have easily used them to launch himself above the rings and back to his waiting ship. But that would have taken a lot longer, and wouldn't have been as exciting, so instead we get a ridiculous scene of him aping the Silver Surfer. Feh.

— After reaching the Cepheus, McBride tells the audience what he's doing, er, I mean makes a "log entry" saying there's not enough fuel to make it back to Earth (I think). He then decides to use the shockwave from the nuke he planted onboard the Lima Project to propel him back to Earth.

Sighhhh.... OK, first of all, why the hell didn't the ship have enough fuel for a return trip? Was this some kind of kamikaze mission? Did they burn up all their fuel hurrying to Neptune? Who the hell knows.

And then there's the idea of using the shockwave to propel the ship back home. Shockwaves can only travel through some sort of medium, like air or water. There can be no shockwaves in the empty vacuum of space. The Cepheus would have either been vaporized by the blast or ripped apart by debris.

There's a lot more stupidity, but that's enough for now.

• I kind of like the idea that the cosmic space between McBride and his Dad is mirrored in the emotional distance between them. That's an interesting notion, and in the hands of a competent director, could have made for a compelling story arc. Sadly, James Gray is not that director.

• McBride spends a good chunk of the movie being psychologically evaluated by a medical computer. Every time this happens, he calmly and methodically states what he's thinking and how he feels to the computer, and of course to the audience as well.

I can't be sure of course, but I'm betting these voiceovers were added after the fact, when director James Gray realized Brad Pitt's sleepy performance was virtually devoid of any sort of emotion. C'mon, guys! It's a movie for corn's sake. You're supposed to SHOW, not TELL. They teach that the first day of film school!

And before anyone says something, I understand that McBride is SUPPOSED to be distant throughout the movie. That's so he can finally reconnect with his emotions at the end. I get it. But the trouble is, he acts exactly the same after his emotional epiphany.

• So Clifford McBride is the world's most celebrated astronaut; a beloved hero and pioneer. Fifteen years ago he lead a mission to the outer edge of the solar system, which went dark in the vicinity of Neptune. So... no one ever thought to go hunt for him until now? It's not like it would take decades to reach his last known location. McBride gets there in a few weeks! Why the hell did no one ever try to find such an important public figure?

• At one point McBride looks through old photos of his father. Among them are several shots of a much younger Cliff decked out in an orange flight suit.

These shots of Tommy Lee Jones come directly from 2000's Space Cowboys, which concerned a quartet of aging astronauts who're drafted to fix a malfunctioning satellite. If you look closely you can clearly see Jones' Ad Astra suit features the exact same zippers and patches!

Oddly enough, Donald Sutherland also starred alongside Jones in Space Cowboys.

• If you stare at this photo for two minutes, you'll have seen Liv Tyler for longer than she's in this movie. Now that I think about it, Tommy Lee Jones' screen time isn't much longer either— even though he receives second billing!

• For some reason, every single character who's introduced in this film makes a hasty retreat minutes later, never to be seen again. It's as if they can't wait to flee from the set.

McBride's wife Eve is introduced through flashbacks, then instantly walks out of his life (she does reappear briefly at the end, but still). He meets with a group of Generals who assign him his mission, then dash out of the movie. 

He's then partnered with Colonel Pruitt, who wants out of the film so badly that he has a heart attack. Pruitt undergoes surgery and you guessed it is never heard from again. McBride then joins the crew of the Cepheus, who all end up getting killed before the third act. On Mars he meets Helen Lantos, who helps him escape before vanishing forever.

Even McBride's father Clifford can't wait to exit. Minutes after reuniting with his son, he dives into Neptune to escape from the film.

I'm not sure if these various characters were part of subplots that were cut out of the final edit, or if Gray just doesn't know how to properly write an exit.

• There's kind of a half-assed subplot in which it's implied that SpaceCom may be part of some conspiracy to do... something. But it's all very vague and ambiguous, and nothing ever comes of it. Victim of more cut scenes, perhaps?

• When McBride reaches the Moon, we see there's an advanced, bustling space port there, complete with a concourse featuring Subway and Applebee's restaurants. I actually like that idea, as it seems like something that would really happen.

Inexplicably, the Moon is somehow also a lawless frontier riddled with space pirates that attack any convoys leaving the space port. This despite an armed military presence that's stationed at the base. 

• When the Cepheus makes its impossible pit stop to check on the Norwegian station, McBride and Captain Tanner enter and check it out. Inside they find the base is completely devoid of any kind of life, save for two wild and crazed baboons.

So where did the Norwegian crew go? There aren't even any corpses. Are we to believe that the baboons ate the entire crew? Even their bones and clothes?

• After McBride makes it to Mars, he sends out a signal to his Pop on Neptune. This entire scene is a goldmine of stupidity and nonsense.

Why the frak is there a dedicated recording studio in the Martian base, complete with acoustic tile-lined walls and a control booth? For a second I expected McBride to start belting out a song as he cut his new album.

McBride then records a scripted message to his father, in hopes he'll reply. The message reads, "This is Major Roy McBride. I'm attempting to reach Dr. Clifford McBride. This is Dr. McBride's son."

Wait, what? Why in the name of sanity would he word his opening statement like that? 
Was McBride afraid his Dad forgot he had a kid? Was this movie written by aliens?

Ah, but we're not done yet! Supposedly the Mars Base is protected from the Surges because it's located deep underground. After sending out the message, McBride leans back in his chair and gazes wistfully into deep space— through a skylight in the ceiling.

A skylight. In a recording studio. That's allegedly underground.

• There are three major action setpieces in the film, inserted at strategic intervals to wake the audience from its slumber. 

One is the awesome space antenna scene at the start of the film, which I've already covered so I won't rehash it here.

Next there's the Moon buggy chase, in which space pirates (yeah, space pirates) pursue McBride's little convoy over the lunar surface. It's a short sequence, but marginally exciting.

Lastly there's the inexplicable spaceship rescue. As the Cepheus heads for Mars, the crew picks up a distress call from a Norwegian research station. They stop to investigate (which shouldn't be possible), and find the place is devoid of humans (?) but filled with angry CGI baboons which attack the rescue party.

I cannot emphasize this enough none of these scenes have anything to do with the main storyline, and don't further the plot in any way. This is especially true with the whole baboon attack sequence.

I'm convinced that 20th Century Fox saw the finished film, were appalled by how deadly dull it was and demanded Gray spice it up with some random action scenes.

• Sadly, Ad Astra's production design is just as dull and uninspired as the script. For example, the spaceships all look like standard 20th Century rockets with a few solar fins glued to the sides. Exciting!

I get that they were probably trying to ground the ships in reality and not give them "movie designs," but c'mon! A movie this dull needs to give us something interesting to look at!

The set design is equally unremarkable, as is the film's overall cinematography and color palette. Rarely have I seen a movie as downright ugly as this one.

The only bright spot in the look of the film are the stunning scenes of Neptune and its system of brilliant blue rings.

• More jaw-dropping plot stupidity: McBride flies a little shuttle from the Cepheus to the Lima Project. Unfortunately once he gets there, the airlock's damaged and he can't dock. He crawls out of his tiny pod and floats over to Lima's hatch, where he opens it and enters. He then turns and watches dolefully as the pod slowly floats away.

Are you f*cking kidding me here? That shuttle pod was his ride back to the ship. He's screwed without it! Why the hell would he just let it drift away? All he had to do was tie it loosely to the hatch.
Technically he probably wouldn't have needed to tether it to Lima's hull in the first place. There's no wind or currents in space, so objects at rest stay right where they're placed. There was no reason for the shuttle to drift away at all.

• The big revelation in the film is that the Lima Project failed to find life in deep space, which drives Clifford insane. McBride's OK with this though, as it means all we have is one another, and humanity needs to start acting accordingly.

The movie treats this as a hopeful and uplifting message. I took it just the opposite. I found the idea of humanity being the only life in the universe to be profoundly depressing. Seriously? THIS is all there is? Excuse me while I go hang myself.

Ad Astra could have been an interesting sci-fi drama about a father and son whose emotional distance is equaled only by the cosmic space between them. Unfortunately it's hampered by bad science, poor plotting, glacial pacing and mediocre direction. Even worse, the performances (especially Brad Pitt) are all bland and lethargic, giving what should have been a highly poignant film a cold and clinical feel. Might be worth a look on home video, but I wouldn't seek in out in the cineplex. I give it a very disappointed C+.

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