The movie playing in Morris this week is Ad Astra, so I went to see it. No, really, the reason I see a lot of bad movies is because we have one movie theater, it gets one new movie a week, and so I’ll go no matter what it is, and sometimes I’m trapped in some tepid piece of crap for a few hours, and sometimes I’m surprised with something unexpectedly enjoyable. That’s life, a throw of the dice.
This week, it was snake eyes. Ad Astra is part of this peculiar genre that has taken over “realistic” space movies: the poorly written plot that is covered over by focusing, sometimes blurrily, on a solitary sad-eyed handsome astronaut against a background of blinking lights and switches. See also First Man. See also Interstellar. This one features Brad Pitt, so if you like his looks, you will get to linger over them for long, long stretches of time while he’s acting stoic and emotionless. The camera violates his personal space nearly constantly so you can see how he doesn’t react to anything intensely.
If you don’t like staring at Brad Pitt (what’s wrong with you? He’s a very good looking man), you can stare at intricate space technology. The opening scene is of Pitt working as an astronaut, which seems to be the role of maintenance engineer, on the gigantic space antenna — it’s a huge gadget with a base on the ground and a skyward stalk stretching out into space, bristling with spiky things and girders and solar panels and semi-random girders, and Pitt is climbing down a ladder, as are many other brightly-colored space suits, to fix something or other. Then, explosions. Bodies blown out of a habitat to plummet from space to the earth. Astronauts flailing frantically in their suits as they fall. But Brad Pitt remains totally calm as he tumbles to Earth, informing Mission Control that he’s going to get his spin under control, and he does so, opening a parachute when the atmosphere is thick enough to land safely.
He then goes blank-faced into a psych eval, which he does often in the movie, talking at a computer and self-reporting that he’s fine. We learn that his heart rate never exceeds 85 beats per minute. He is the perfect space robot.
The movie then destroys itself with backstory and explanation. The giant space antenna is a colossal project dedicated to … searching for extraterrestrial intelligence? It’s a kind of techno-cult object assembled to communicate with aliens who have not been detected, but hey, cool, let’s build this immense Tower of Babel. We learn that Brad Pitt’s dad was also an astronaut who was lost decades before on a mission to Neptune, the object of which was … you guessed it, to aim telescopes and antennae outwards to search for aliens. There’s a weird obsession underlying this whole movie project.
Further, we learn that the explosion on the space antenna was caused by inexplicable “power surges” that are causing all kinds of explosions and disasters on Earth, killing tens of thousands of people, and threatening the stability of the entire solar system!!!. These mysterious space zaps are emanating from Emperor Ming the Merciless — wait, no, this isn’t Flash Gordon. It doesn’t have enough enthusiasm to be Flash. No, they come from — duh duh dunnnn — Neptune. Pitt’s dad is alive, and he is somehow using his space ship’s antimatter fuel to destabilize the solar system and fling energy surges at Earth. Why, we don’t know, and mild spoiler here — we never find out. His dad is obsessed with communicating with aliens, and how this translates into zapping Earth is never explained.
So now the plot is set up. The Space Bureaucracy is going to send unflappable Brad to Neptune to tell his dad to stop farting antimatter at the Earth, and if he won’t, to blow him up with a backpack nuke, because he’s so calm and emotionless, I guess. Off he goes on what the writers imagine would be sci-fi wet dream, lots of spaceships and zooming off to other planets. Except they’ve also got to make it “realistic”, which means “boring”, which means they’ve got to spice it up with “action”, which demolishes most of the movie’s credibility.
They go to the moon. For some reason, the they then have to drive moon buggies a long ways across the lunar surface to their next step, and they are set upon by Moon Pirates in their own moon buggies. It makes no sense, but OK.
The next step is to fly to Mars. They get in another fancy new spaceship with the usual ESS esthetic, lots of tunnel tubes and messy panels and cables and plumbing hanging out, and set course for Mars, a 17 day journey, which tells me they’re going pretty darned fast. Except there’s a mayday halfway there! They just stop to call on a mysterious derelict space ship (there is zero awareness of the problems of navigation, or fuel), and climb aboard. Murderous space monkeys! I was relieved. Finally, they had some actors who were expressing some genuine emotion, even if it was bitey clawing rage.
I think I was empathizing with the space monkeys at that point.
They get to Mars, where Brad sits in a booth to send a scripted message to his Dad on Neptune. Again, why he had to be on Mars to do that, I don’t understand. He goes off-script and gets a tiny bit emotional while sending a live message to Neptune, which pisses off the Space Bureaucracy so they tell him he’s going home and doesn’t get to go to Neptune.
So he does something perfectly normal: he drives across Mars to the launch site, swims through a huge underground Martian lake, climbs up into the rocket as it’s taking off, gets into a fight with the crew, and kills everyone. Emotionlessly. Accidentally. He didn’t mean to. They shouldn’t have come after him. I guess Brad Pitt is playing a robotic space psychopath here.
The journey to Neptune is about 6 months of Brad Pitt moping and floating in an empty spaceship growing a stubble. It’s played in real time. He finally meets his suicidally stupid dad who, like his son, had murdered the crew of his spaceship, and stupid things happen. I’ll just tell you one: to escape Dad’s ship, Brad rips off a surface panel and uses it as a shield as he jumps up through the flying rocks of Neptune’s rings, which smash into his shield and splatter, doing no damage to him or his trajectory.
God, this movie was awful, scientifically illiterate, and unforgivably tedious. And yet, it’s got so many glowing reviews! I really don’t understand that, unless maybe all the other reviewers were mesmerized by Pitt’s stony face and were so enthralled by his masculine hunkiness that all their higher brain functions were paralyzed.