Ad Astra

When the Earth is struck by deadly power surges, US Space Command calls upon the services of astronaut Roy McBride. Years ago, McBride’s father was declared missing, presumed dead, in the vicinity of Neptune, and SpaceCom now believes that he is the source of the bursts. McBride is sent on a mission to Mars to contact his father, before further surge harm Earth any further.

Ad Astra was the big budget sci-fi title of 2019, and at the time, I felt a little disappointed that I hadn’t got around to seeing it in the cinema. Now that I have seen it, I feel only glad that I didn’t waste my money.

Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as the brooding scientisy Roy McBride, a man who prides himself in never letting his pulse go over 80bpm. McBride expresses his thoughts through lengthy and portentous inner monologues. He’s meant to be the hero of this piece, but he comes across as That Guy on the internet – you know, the self-professed expert who claims only to believe in logic even as he fails to spot the gaping holes in his arguments. He is, of course, utterly committed to his work, so much so that his wife has left him. I’ve seen people praising Liv Tyler for her role as McBride’s wife Eve, but as far as I could tell her role was almost exclusively confined to brief flashbacks of her walking out on McBride.

McBride is called up by the imaginatively named Space Command (aka SpaceCom) in the hopes that he can make contact with his long lost father, who is now believed to be sending deadly power surges from the vicinity of Neptune. Naturally, McBride has his own daddy issues – in order to go on the mission to Neptune in the first place, McBride senior left his family behind some decades ago. Nonetheless, consummate professional that he is, McBride agrees to go on the mission.

McBride heads out to the Moon on a commercial flight, accompanied by Colonel Pruitt, a former associate of his father. Pruitt spends his screen time looking increasingly unwell, until he inevitably has to bow out after suffering a heart attack. To be honest, given that no one other than McBride ever seemed to interact with Pruitt, I was half-expecting to turn out to be a figment of McBride’s imagination.

Anyway, the pair arrive on the Moon, where McBride beholds outlets of Starbucks and Subway, and bemoans the creeping tide of commercialisation. “My dad would have torn this all down”, he proclaims, sounding less like the masculine hero he aspires to be, and more like a petulant child declaring that “my dad could beat up your dad”.

Next stop is the dark side of the moon, where the SpaceCom base sits right in the middle of a disputed zone. There is a conflict going on over the Moon’s resources, and McBride’s party is attacked by lunar pirates on their way. This is one of several big set pieces in the film – a heated battle between lunar buggies where characters you barely know or care about get killed in the name of dramatic action.

Having left Pruitt behind, McBride now boards the starship Cepheus, bound for Mars. The Cepheus’s crew aspire to be traditional sci-fi stereotypes, but sadly they aren’t allowed that level of character development. Along the way, McBride tries to earn some hero points by insisting that the Cepheus stops to answer a distress call from another ship. As it turns out, everyone on that ship has already died, and during the investigation, McBride and the Cepheus’s captain, Tanner, are randomly attacked by a feral baboon. No, I really don’t know why that happens – it’s completely random and has no relevance to anything else that happens in the movie.

Sadly, Captain Tanner dies of his baboon-inflicted injuries, leaving command of the Cepheus to his first officer. Said first officer seems to have some undisclosed anxiety issues, leading to him freezing up while landing the ship on Mars. Of course, the unflappable McBride steps in to land the ship safely.

On Mars, McBride sends some messages to his father, at which point SpaceCom thanks him for his service and orders him to go back home. McBride discovers that this is because his father did indeed respond, and that the Cepheus have been ordered to head directly to Neptune and kill him. Armed with this information, McBride instead commandeers the Cepheus for himself, accidentally killing the entire crew in the process – hardly a good look for a heroic main character.

Alone with only his beloved inner monologues, McBride journeys to Neptune, where he finds the space station where his father has somehow survived for the last sixteen years or so (no, I don’t know either). Now, the entire reason McBride senior was even out there in the first place was because he became utterly obsessed with his original mission – monitoring for extraterrestrial life. When his crew tried to give up and go back to Earth, he treated it as a mutiny and turned off their life support, killing them. He then steadfastly remained aboard the station by himself, convinced that he would find proof of alien life eventually.

McBride rescues both his father and his research, before using the sci-fi tried and tested technique of planting a nuke to blow up the station and put an end to the surges. Unfortunately, he fails to get his father back to the ship, and instead has to abandon the old man to drift into space – so much for that, then. Before he dies, McBride senior admits that he headed into space to get away from his family, and never actually wanted to be taken back to Earth anyway. No wonder McBride is so emotionally stunted.

Nonetheless, McBride makes it back to Earth somehow, where it is implied that he has turned a corner in his emotional development, even reconnecting with his wife. This is perhaps the saddest moment of the entire movie – we barely know Eve, but we can be sure she deserves so much better.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the story of Ad Astra feels nonsensical and barely coherent, with little characterisation for anyone other than McBride himself. If you want to watch a brooding man take part in a number of grand set piece space conflicts, then by all means watch this. Otherwise, save yourself the trouble.

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