Review – Ad Astra (Spoilers)
Ad Astra is a film starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones. In the near future, man has built significant infrastructure in space, on the Moon, and Mars. Brad Pitt’s father left on a mission to find signals of intelligent life on other star systems years ago, there were complications on the mission and his mission is presumed lost. Brad Pitt is also an astronaut and when his father’s mission might be recovered he is sent to make contact with it.
There were some aspects to like about this film, but on the whole, I literally went to sleep in the cinema. In the first act of the film, as Brad Pitt is going from Earth to the Moon and then to Mars, the world around the character feels very realistic. The trip to the moon has the feeling of a plane flight, something which has become mundane by this time. I liked that the Mars colony was built underground like it would be on early Martian colonies to protect from the radiation at the surface. I am not easily swayed by shiny things, but the rover chase on the moon looked pretty cool. I also liked that it took proper time to travel from one celestial body to another, which while much faster than we could do it with today’s technology, was proportionate to the distance of the Moon, Mars, and Neptune.
It seemed clear to me that they had a science advisor for at least some of the script, although not for all of it. Where the world seemed to be up on its scientific knowledge, the main plot did not.
We open on a “Space Antenna” which is a ground-based antenna, with an ISS type station at the top, that is tall enough to reach space, or close to space. It looked similar to a space elevator in construction, except it didn’t have a counterweight at the end. It looked cool, and the sequence when it blows up and Brad Pitt has to do a parachute drop from space was cool, but without a counterweight the base of the antenna would have to be enormous to hold the weight of the construction.
Gravity was not considered in the story unless it was beneficial to the story. It was 1g unless the story decided it needed to be different.
Tommy Lee Jones’ mission is to go outside the heliopause – the edge of the Sun’s influence on light set at around 121 AU – and to listen for “Unencumbered signals” from alien life. For some reason, his mission is in orbit of Neptune, which is only 30 AU from the Sun and still very much inside the heliosphere, only a quarter of the way at least.
And the big daddy of science-based story problems is the driver of the plot. Huge radiation bursts are being emitted from Tommy Lee Jones’ vessel, so powerful that they destroyed the space antenna, and also battered Earth and the colonies making Brad Pitt have to go to Mars to communicate with his father because it is unaffected, at least until the plot needs it to.
Firstly, radiation emits using what’s called an r-squared law, which is fancy maths talk saying that it dissipates very quickly. Every time it a unit of distance from the emission point the strength of the preceding wave is quartered. The explosion at Tommy Lee’s ship would have to 900 times stronger than the Sun to have a stronger effect on Earth than the Sun does, let alone do damage when the wavefront got to Earth.
This movie fell away in the second act. Characters start to exposition everywhere and setups from act one are either not revisited, or turn out to be disappointing.
The climax of the story turns out to be pretty miserable and depressing, which I’m fine with; the story doesn’t need a happy ending. But at the end of the story, it leaves you thinking about the themes of the story.
The movie is trying to say things about the father-son relationship, trying to explore what happens when a father focuses on his work to the exclusion of family. I didn’t feel like it achieved its goal in that. I couldn’t help coming away from the film thinking that it was trying to say that life is meaningless no matter what you aspire to – probably the worst possible theme for a scifi story.