“Ad Astra” (2019) carries a ‘heart of darkness’ to the stars…


Brad gets starstruck.

Before I begin, I should warn a reader and/or prospective viewer that the trailers for “Ad Astra” are a tad deceptive. If one is looking for for the action-packed late summer thrill ride hinted at in the trailer? You’re outta luck. “Ad Astra” is much more languidly paced and introverted; more “2001/Solaris” than “Gravity.” In fact, the action sequences glimpsed in the trailers are pretty much the sum total, save for some zero-gravity fisticuffs and other smaller bits of business. If you’re okay with that bit of marketing trickery, read on…

The Story.

Roy, preferring the solitude of space to dealing with people, and that excludes intimate relationships as well.

Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is a ‘right stuff’ style astronaut; cool under pressure, never gets his cage rattled, constantly monitors his own stress level for anomalies, and keeps relationships, emotional entanglements, and other ‘distractions’ at arms’ length, including his estranged wife Eve (Liv Tyler, in an utterly thankless role). He admits (via “Blade Runner”-like narration) that the thought of being too close, or even touched by people is just not his bag. Perhaps this was the ideal temperament for the iconic, steely-eyed missile men astronauts of the 1960s (such as the late Neil Armstrong, depicted in 2018’s “First Man”) but it seems very anachronistic for an astronaut in a “near future” of the latter part of our 21st century. Matt Damon’s affable smartass “Mark Watney” in “The Martian” felt much more ‘real’ to me as a 21st century space traveler.

Roy is following in the footsteps of his legendary pioneering dad Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who set off in the Lima spacecraft to study the outer planets of the solar system before being declared MIA near Neptune.

The late sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke (among others) wrote of ’space elevators’ in some of his novels; these elevators could take occupants and materials from the surface of the Earth into space in a matter of hours.

At the start of the story Roy is working on the International Space Antenna complex (carrying people/equipment along its towers directly into space, like Arthur Clarke’s ’space elevator’). The columns of the antenna complex rise from the ground straight into a fixed point in space. As Roy is working on the complex, mysterious and deadly “power surges” (like EMPs but more explosive) hit the ISA, and Roy plunges to Earth, saved by his emergency parachute (a nod to Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner, whose 2012 suborbital skydive from the upper stratosphere seems to have inspired this sequence).

At a classified briefing that plays out almost beat-for-beat like the mission briefing in “Apocalypse Now”, Roy learns that his famous dad might still be alive out near the orbit of Neptune, and that Roy must fly to the Moon, which has rockets capable of going to Mars. Mars’ underground base is where Roy will ultimately attempt to contact his missing father using secure, laser-coded transmissions. The roundabout journey to Mars is the most interesting act of the film, as it gives us the greatest view into “Ad Astra”’s reality. In this ‘near future’, space travel is nearly fully privatized, and Roy takes a commercial rocket flight to the Moon aboard a SpaceX-like capsule. The spaceport Roy departs from has arrival time boards. Inflight Blankets and pillows will set you back a couple hundreds bucks as well (one of the movie’s few jokes, like the ‘zero gravity toilet’ gag of “2001: A Space Odyssey”).

The moon trip is reminiscent of Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) taking his Pan-Am private shuttle to Clavius moonbase in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but rendered in the harsher realism we seen in “Gravity” (2013) and others from the newer breed of quasi-accurate space adventure films.

Aging “Space Cowboy” Donald Sutherland suits up…

Joining Roy on his moon flight is an old friend of his father’s, Col Pruitt (Donald Sutherland, who costarred with Tommy Lee Jones in 2000’s “Space Cowboys”). On the moon, we hear Roy’s interior monologue (much like Captain Willard in “Apocalypse Now” or Deckard in the original cut of “Blade Runner”) lamenting how crass and commercial the lunar colonies had become, with much of the same greed and competition for resources we saw on Earth. Roy’s shuttle lands in a ’safe’ zone, because other ‘lawless’ areas of the moon are subject to international piracy. Great

The moon buggy chase is probably the single most exciting sequence in the film; imagine if the speeder bike chase in “Return of the Jedi” had been the story’s climax and you get the idea.

Roy and the Colonel are being transported in a moon buggy to the long-range rocket center when their buggy caravan is attacked by pirates. The wild moon buggy chase is arguably the single most exciting sequence of this surprisingly languid space adventure. Following the chase, the ailing, elderly Colonel has to remain behind on the moon and is unable to accompany Roy to Mars. He gives Roy a cryptic warning or two before screaming at him to “Go!”

“All aboard!”
The Cepheus leaves the moon for Mars.

Roy leaves the moon for Mars aboard the Cepheus rocket shuttle, flying with a gaggle of greener astronauts who are not informed of Roy’s secret mission. The Martian transport’s captain, Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) is forced to answer a distress call from a civilian science vessel (against Roy’s better judgment) and it’s an absolute disaster. Rogue research apes killed the crew, and they kill Tanner as well, leaving nervous exec Stanford (“Gattaca”’s Loren Dean) in charge. Another power surge launched from Neptune knocks out automatic guidance in the Cepheus during descent, and the more experienced Roy is forced to manually execute the landing in the underground Martian base.

Roy meets Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga); someone who shares a greater connection to his family history than he initially realizes…

Safely on the Mars colony, Roy is met by facility director Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) until he reaches a point even she can’t follow (security clearance). An escorted Roy is directed to a soundproof room in order to broadcast messages to his father from a prepared script. During one of the many unsuccessful attempts to reach his dad, he breaks from the script and attempts a more natural tone. Apparently this one does the trick, but Roy isn’t allowed to hear his father’s response. He is instead hurriedly sequestered to a ‘relaxing room’ (a really chintzy holodeck) where he is told to calm down before returning to Earth. News of his dad has triggered the normally unflappable Roy.

Testing one, two, three, do-re-mi…”

Helen breaks his solitude and offers him some information; her parents were part of the crew aboard the Lima. Roy’s father squelched a mutiny when the crew didn’t follow his orders, cutting off the mutineers’ life support and effectively killing them off. Like “Apocalypse Now” ’s Col. Kurtz, Roy’s old man apparently has a demigod complex.

A classified video log tells the full story of Cliff McBride’s descent into madness and murder.

Roy is burdened with the knowledge that his dad is a murderer, and may very well be responsible for the deadly ‘surges’ from Neptune that are killing thousands throughout the solar system. Helen offers to take Roy in a rover out to the surface in order to try and sneak aboard the soon-departing Cepheus that is now going on a seek-and-destroy mission to Neptune.

Roy preparing to go into an underground water reservoir in order to sneak back aboard the Cepheus.

Smuggling back aboard the outbound Cepheus, Roy is attacked and forced to kill the crew (just like his old man), the same crew who first brought him to Mars in the Cepheus. Roy is now alone and en route to Neptune to try to stop dad by any means necessary (just like Capt. Willard & Col. Kurtz). Along the way, the movie takes a few moments to ooh and aaah at beautifully rendered vistas of Jupiter and Saturn. During the long flight to Neptune, Roy begins to feel the effects of prolonged zero gravity as well as the isolation. Is Roy going mad as well, just like his pop?

Tommy Lee Jones, playing Roy’s reclusive, crazed dad; the formerly ‘heroic’ Cliff McBride, reduced to a raving madman hunting ETs to the exclusion of everything, especially his family.

Arriving at Neptune, Roy boards the derelict Lima and finds the old man looking semi-feral after living for 30 years by himself. In an odd confessional, the elder McBride tells his son that he never really loved him or his mother, and never thinks about them at all (gee, thanks dad). Roy takes it in stride, as he is similarly detached from his own emotions (wife Eve could attest to that). During dad’s subsequent ‘monologuing’, the elder McBride says that the Lima crew refused to believe their deranged skipper’s insistence that there was intelligent life out there, despite years of negative contact results. The crew weren’t ‘true believers’ as Cliff was, hence, they mutinied and he killed them. Dad tells Roy that the deadly ‘surges’ are due to leaks from the Lima‘s antimatter power source, which was damaged during the mutiny. The surges are apparently radiated outward via the Lima’s transmitter somehow and hit various targets throughout the solar system.

No shock waves in space because there’s no atmosphere to transmit them; hence, no thrust to boost a spacecraft. One seriously flawed bit of physics in a film that otherwise seems to have some sense of science literacy.

After arming the nuclear bomb from the Cepheus to blow up the dangerous Lima, Roy and his dad don their spacesuits and exit the airlock tethered to each other. En route to Cepheus, dad begins to pull on the tether and thrust in the opposite direction of Roy. Threatening both their lives, Cliff asks his son to kill him. Roy complies. After letting dad go, Roy returns to the Lima to retrieve his dad’s precious mission logs of his priceless planetary encounters. Returning to the cockpit of Cepheus, Roy remotely detonates the bomb, somehow safely using the explosion as thrust for Neptune orbital escape velocity (?!?), which helps to fling him on the trajectory back to Earth. That old sci-fi staple of ‘shockwaves in vacuum’ is trotted out once again…

Rocketman…burning out his fuse up here alone.

On the way home, an isolated Roy (via that interior monologue) begins to realize that he misses people, emotions and yes, even attachments. The landing capsule from Cepheus parachutes to Earth, and Roy smiles at the sight of his rescuers through the opened hatch. Sometime later, while enjoying a nice cup o’ coffee, Roy sees his wife in the coffee shop window.

Liv Tyler is utterly wasted in the film as Eve, Roy’s appendage of a wife.

We’re left with the understanding that the previously distant and detached Roy will work harder at being an emotional, engaged human being. And to think… it only took flying across the entire solar system and being forced to kill his dad to do it.

The End.

Under the influences.

The scientists and administrators populating “Clavius Base” in “2001: A Space Odyssey” seem a lot more esoteric than the more ordinary folk who visit (and live) on the moon in “Ad Astra.”

Directed by James Gray from a script by Gray and Ethan Gross, “Ad Astra” is yet another variation on Joseph Conrad’s famed 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness”, which was most famously adapted in 1979 as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” “Ad Astra” is essentially “Apocalypse Now” in space, and little else. This space-age adaptation of Conrad’s novella has a beautiful production design and visual effects, but its adherence to the beats of its source leave it somewhat lacking in suspense.

^ “Apocalypse Now”’s Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and “Ad Astra”’s Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) both have to stealthily submerge in water in order to sneak up on their targets.
“Ad Astra” borrows many story beats (too many, in fact) from its source material.

Stylistically the film is served with a large helping of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), and more than a dash of Roy Ward Baker’s “Moon Zero Two” (1969), a campier space saga which imagined the moon as a new ‘wild frontier’ for settlers, pirates and loner ‘space cowboys’ from Earth. The lunar sequences of “Ad Astra” are arguably more influenced by Baker’s space opus than Kubrick’s, especially with its depictions of the settlers’ greed and decadence.

“Moon Zero Two” (1969) a campy space melodrama starring James Olsen (left) as a pre-Han Solo space cowboy for hire, living on the moon and doing dangerous jobs for the highest bidder. The environment of a moon all-too-quickly corrupted by international competition and greed is something echoed in “Ad Astra.” Given the increasing privatization of space travel in real life, this sort of future seems very likely.

Character flaws.

Brad Pitt’s emotionally distant astronaut feels like a relic from the 1960s.

While I enjoyed “Ad Astra” on a visual level, none of the characters were terribly memorable or interesting. Despite my own semi-introvert nature, I found Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride to be a little overdone, especially given how important socialization is in modern astronaut training. The days of the solitary “rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone” are long gone; they’ve been over for as long as actor Brad Pitt (b. 1963) has been alive. Granted, Roy is dealing with some serious abandonment issues courtesy of his rotten father, but this would most likely be a liability in astronaut training, not an asset.

In October of 1998, astronaut Senator John Glenn Jr., one of the pioneering “Mercury Seven” astronauts (and first American to orbit the Earth), rode along with a seven person space shuttle crew to study the effects of age on spaceflight. At the time, he was 77 years old. One of the original ‘lone’ astronauts of the 1960s successfully integrating with a multi-person crew of the 1990s. The solo space cowboy played by Brad Pitt in “Ad Astra” feels more like a relic of the 1960s than a modern or future astronaut.

The multi-person crews common in modern spaceflight don’t work as well with ‘lone wolf’ personalities. Crews have to bond successfully because they need to know how to ‘read’ each other in emergencies, especially since their lives depend on one another. Roy’s emotional detachment was perhaps the ideal temperament for the iconic, steely-eyed missile men of the 1960s (such as the late Neil Armstrong, as depicted in 2018’s “First Man”) but it feels somewhat anachronistic for an astronaut in the present-day, or the “near future” of the late 21st century. The lovable smartass “Mark Watney” (Matt Damon) in “The Martian” seems much more relatable as a 21st century space traveler. In fact, I don’t think Roy McBride even laughs or cracks a joke once in the entire film.

Tommy Lee Jones, a former member of the “Space Cowboys” (2000) goes full Colonel Kurtz in “Ad Astra.”

Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride is no more knowable than Pitt’s Roy. In fact, he’s a hell of lot worse. Cliff’s killing his mutinous crew for not believing in his little green men seems a bit slim for motivation. After years of negative results from Project Lima’s quest to find extraterrestrial signals, you’d think Cliff would eventually make his peace with the Fermi paradox. There is implication of Cliff being a religious man in the classified visual logs, where he makes numerous references to God, but the parameters of Cliff McBride’s demigod complex are poorly defined at best. The terrific Tommy Lee Jones does what he can, but the character is more a collection of demented ticks and ill-temperament than a strongly motivated antagonist.

With the possible exception of ‘wisened sage’ Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), the human characters of “Ad Astra” are largely forgettable.

The rest of the characters are ciphers at best; mere tools to transport Roy from one place to another, get in his way, or provide exposition. None of the other characters truly click as people. I felt nothing when any of them were in jeopardy, let alone died. Giving Roy an estranged wife (Liv Tyler) seems almost like an afterthought. None of the “Ad Astra” characters have the warmth, dimension or desperately-needed splashes of humor now and then that made the characters of other recent ‘realistic’ space epics (“Interstellar” “Gravity” “The Martian”) so vivid and memorable. Making a movie with an emotionally distant lead character can work, but none of the other characters rise to fill the void of emotion left in Roy McBride’s wake.

Summing it up.

“Ground Control to Major Tom…commencing countdown, engines on…”

Despite grandiose visuals, some beautifully realized spaceflight sequences and a genuinely exciting (if too short) moon buggy chase, “Ad Astra” is a film that, like its protagonist, keeps emotional human connections at arm’s length. We’re never quite allowed to empathize with Roy, despite Pitt’s (somewhat flat) narration throughout the film.

After two hours and five minutes, “Ad Astra” never fully engaged my emotions the way I wished it had. Yes, the movie is a beautifully-made, thoroughly serviceable space adventure, but its lack of emotional depth is an issue. While adapting Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” for outer space is an intriguing idea on paper, James Gray’s realization of it never quite fires on all thrusters.

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