Science and Exploration

A Review of “Ad Astra”: Apocalypse Now In Outer Space

By Keith Cowing
September 21, 2019
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A Review of “Ad Astra”: Apocalypse Now In Outer Space
Brad Pitt in "Ad Astra"
20th Century Fox

“Ad Astra” should really have used the entire phrase “Ad Astra Per Aspera” – “through hardships to the stars” – as its title. Brad Pitt certainly endures more than his fair share of hardships during his Homeric trek across the solar system to find and then confront his father.
Under secret orders, Brad Pitt (Major Roy McBride) begins his quest across the solar system in search of his famous astronaut father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). The elder McBride, once thought to have died many years ago, is still alive and is up to some dangerous stuff in the outer solar system that is wreaking havoc on Earth. And Earth wants him to knock it off.

As I watched this saga unfold Roy McBride’s inner motivations and misgivings immediately reminded me of what Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) went through as he sought out the mysterious Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in his remote lair in the classic film “Apocalypse Now”. Roy McBride’s travels toward his singular destination were equally challenging internally as well as physically.

I recall reading about the toll that the filming of “Apocalypse Now” took on Martin Sheen since the film literally rested upon his shoulders. The same is true about “Ad Astra” and Brad Pitt. In my opinion Pitt carries this film as well as Sheen carried his. I am equating two films here for a purpose: these stories could easily have been set in each other’s locations and worked. Their respective backdrops serve to heighten the physical risks so as to amplify the internal turmoil.

In the past few years we’ve had a series of space films that were widely received and embraced: “Gravity”, “The Martian”, “Interstellar” and now “Ad Astra”. The first three films were inspirational – and aspirational. In the end you experience the triumph of the main characters as they over come adversity set against stunning extraterrestrial backdrops. And you may wish you were there with them.

In “Ad Astra” its hard to figure out what will happen next which often makes for a good movie. For Roy McBride to overcome his challenges means a potentially lethal confrontation along the way with his father as either a potential military target or rescue mission or both. When it is all over its hard to see who – if anyone – has won. But life is more like “Ad Astra” than the other space movies – there is not always a grand, feel-good finale. But the ending is sublime and satisfying.

As for the technical execution of the film – its is splendid in every frame. You rarely stop to question the reality of it all. Some of the vistas just take your breath away. Alas, as a former NASA space biologist who worked on Spacelab missions in the 1980s and 1990s there is one sequence that just had me thinking back to safety reviews where some of the worst case scenarios actually happened. I’d be astonished if anyone would do this sort of research. But it serves a plot purpose, so …

The film’s trailers show gun fights between lunar rovers on a Moon covered with lots of commercial signs and Starbucks. Very early in the film it becomes clear that the near future is being depicted. Everyone is everywhere in the solar system and they are not getting along. Cold War-esque names for places on various worlds abound. While there is mention of space companies and a ubiquitous military entity called “Space Com” – short for “Space Command” think of the newly formed Space Force with boring uniforms and constant invasive psychological testing. There is no mention of NASA or a civilian space presence.

In my short list of recent space movies, you really want to live in their worlds – where exploration and adventure drive the narrative. The future space civilization of “Ad Astra” is not a place I’d look forward to living in. It’s a future where people seem to make mistakes and not stop to think about how to work together. There is not much in the way of wonder and awe – even when wondrous and awesome scenes are shown. Imagine if the lunar bases depicted in “2001 A Space Odyssey” with Soviet and American sectors continued their mutual suspicions for decades – with space pirates.

But that is the world against which this story is told – and this story works. This is a fine film and it draws you in and holds on to you. At its core it speaks to things that children often grapple with when it comes to their parents and the sacrifices they make to pursue careers of risk and adventure that call for difficult personal decisions – and the effect those decisions have on those who stay behind.

I was disappointed in one aspect. This was just not the film I was expecting to see and, like most space people, one that I needed to see. I’d like to think that we’ll only take the best of what humanity has to offer as we expand out into space. That may well be naive.

Above I noted that the film’s title might have been different since this film depicts a laundry list of reasons why the people in its universe are simply not ready for the stars. They are in constant need of medication and robotic psych screenings. This is not a starfaring race.

There is another famous Latin phrase that comes to mind. “fortuna audaces juvat” which is usually translated as “fortune favors the bold” – a latin proverb most prominently repeated in Virgil’s “Aeneid”. You have no doubt seen this phrase before. Along with ad astra per aspera it is common in the military.

In the end it is being bold – despite hardships – where Roy McBride transcends his challenges.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.