Thursday, 3 October 2019

Ad Astra

As a piece of cinematic spectacle, I found Ad Astra to be very impressive, with convincing effects and some gorgeously rendered space vistas, underpinned by a powerful Max Richter score. The acting is good, even if some of the cast are under-used, and the film has to be admired for its relative sense of restraint.

From a scientific point of view, though, it was incredibly frustrating. I wouldn't quibble if this was a Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy film, but at every step Ad Astra seemed to want to us to believe that it was a thoroughly authentic portrayal of near-future space travel, with all the attendant hazards. The director, James Gray, even stated that he wanted the film to be the most realistic such depiction ever made.

Unfortunately, very little about the film makes any sort of scientific or astronautical sense, from the very first scene on.

We meet Brad Pitt's character aboard a vast structure rising high in the Earth's atmosphere - a huge communications antenna focused on the search for extraterrestrial life. Nothing about this structure has any logic to it, though. It doesn't seem to be an optical array, so what is it? If it's based around radio reception, there's no advantage in height: it's the reason that radio astronomy facilities are sprawling complexes built at ground-level, often in deserts. There is an advantage in height for optical astronomy, but if you're going half-way out of the atmosphere, you might as well go all the way into orbit or indeed beyond. If the detector is designed to pick up high-energy radiation, such as X-rays, it needs to be entirely located in space or it won't work at all.

Secondly, how is it standing up? Tall structures are under an immense compressive load. Yet what we see of the antenna suggests that it's bolted together from numerous airy modular cylindrical components, exactly like the International Space Station. That's a valid engineering approach for a free-flying weightless structure, but not a vertical object still feeling Earth's gravity. If anything, this antenna - even of there was a sensible reason to build it - ought to look like the Burj Khalifa on steroids.

So why does it look like it's made from bits of the ISS? I think that's because, in those early scenes, all the film makers are really interested in is a bit of bait and switch - let's set up the scene as if it's happening in space (astronaut proceeding through airlock, onto outside of structure) and then flip our perspectives so that we suddenly realise we''re on a building, not an orbital station, and then Brad Pitt can get to do a parachute jump off it.

Things settle down for a bit as the film gets into its stride and we learn a bit of backstory about Brad and his father. Soon, though, the duff science rears its head again. It turns out that the father was on an expedition to Neptune to do more alien-intelligence studies, because - hey - Neptune is a great place to do SETI studies. Except it isn't, because Neptune, contrary to what the film tells us, is not on or near the edge of the Heliosphere, which lies at least 100 AU from the Sun, more than three times further out than Neptune. Neptune is also a planet, and planets have moons and storms and magnetospheres and so on. If you're capable of going all that distance about from the Sun, and your main objective is ending up in a low-electromagnetic noise observational environment, why would you head to a planet in the first place? I'll give this latter point a nod as maybe there were some other mission objectives that we don't hear about, but all the same - Neptune is not, a priori, a particularly great place to go looking for alien intelligence, other than providing something to orbit around.

It's when we learn that the vanished ship around Neptune has been causing electromagnetic storms on Earth that the film really lost me. Clearly, the writers had no clue how to science-up this lunacy in a way that made it even vaguely plausible. There's some mumbo-jumbo about matter-antimatter reactions on the ship going out of control, which are in turn exerting some influence on Neptune, causing it to spit out these storms ... which then intensify on their way to Earth. This is crackers, though, because even if there was some means by which a malfunctioning ship could somehow "excite" Neptune in this way - and keep in mind this is the "near future"! - and secondly because, as a rule of thumb, nothing in space ever intensifies once it's left its point of origin. Instead, things weaken and disperse with distance. It's why our eyeballs don't melt when we look at stars.

But you can see why the writers had to throw that bit of crackpot physics into the mix, as it's the only get-out clause for the later problem of explaining how Brad Pitt is able to get anywhere near this malfunctioning matter-antimatter energy source. In a logical universe, the energies would get stronger nearer the source, rather than further away from it, so Brad would be crisped long before he ever gets aboard the vanished ship.

That's probably the most egregious example of bad - or non-existent - science in the film, but hardly any scene went by without at least one questionable statement or effects point. Let's consider the initial plot driver, for instance. After being debriefed by Space Command, Brad is required to send a signal out to Neptune to persuade his father to stop with the storms, or something. The military don't know where the ship is, or even if his father is still alive, but once this message is sent they'll be able to "track it" to its point of origin. So how does that work, exactly? Once a message is transmitted, it's just a string of electromagnetic waves sailing off into deep space. It's not "trackable", as if it's got an RFID tag on it. Perhaps they're hoping to pick up an electronic signature indicating receipt of the message, sort of like how a base station can pick up a cellphone's location? Perhaps ... just possibly. But what would motivate Brad Pitt's father to allow such a detection, given that he's been hiding out in deep space for decades? If he has the means or desire to contact Earth, wouldn't he have done so already? If he doesn't want contact, all he has to do is turn off all the signalling systems on his ship.

For hand-wavey reasons, Brad can't just transmit the signal from Earth - he's got to all the way out to Mars to do it. This involves, initially, a trip to the Moon, which is actually very well staged and (for my money) easily the most impressive part of the film, with the main Lunar complex being a convincingly over-commercialised hell-hole, like an airport terminal gone mad. Quickly, though, we're back into questionable science territory. The launch pad for the Mars crossing is described as being on the "far side" of the Moon, which is fine - at least they didn't say "dark side" - but the means of getting there is absolutely nuts. They get into little lunar buggies and set off! This is as if Brad Pitt landed at the Kennedy Space Centre, and was told that he needed to get to Houston for the next rocket, and they all get into jeeps. This only makes any sort of sense if "the far side" is only, at best, a few tens of kilometres away from the main base.

Kurbrick got this right 50 years ago. The Moon is indeed smaller than Earth, but it's still bigger than the surface area of Africa. For any sort of long-range journey, it would only make sense to use some sort of low-flying spacecraft/hopper type vehicle. Hell, even UFO got that right! Driving is madness. It's even more madness to go out in flimsy, skeletal buggies in which the passengers have to wear Apollo-type spacesuits for the whole journey. Let's hope none of them get itchy noses in the days and days it'll take to drive to the other rocket.

It was at this point that I realised that much of the film's design aesthetic - not to mention its entire plot logic - is constrained by a deep fear of the future. The film is set far enough from now that an adult character (if I'm remembering rightly) has been born on Mars so unless we're in an alternate timeline, we must be in the 2050s or even 60s.

And yet at every step the film shies away from any sense of futurity.

Brad Pitt's spacesuit is pure Apollo/shuttle era - it looks nothing like the next-generation suits already on various space agency drawing boards. The rockets all look like Apollo-era tech, scaled up a little. The interiors are messy and functional, like the ISS - even when the spacecraft is supposedly a commercial operation run by Virgin Atlantic. Again, Kubrick got this right. The lunar buggies make no sense as a means for travelling on the Moon, but they are very obviously derived from the Apollo rovers. They look nothing like any of the concepts I've seen for next-generation Lunar or Martian rovers, most of which seem to (sensibly) allow for a pressurised cabin.

There's lot's more to say, but I think I've probably made my point - this is a terrible film from a standpoint of any sort of scientific or astronautical rigour.

But it is very nice to look at.


  1. Have you played Kerbal Space Program? You only need to rove in low gravity a couple times before you abandon the idea completely for long distance travel. The filmmakers obviously didn't do their homework. Anyone wanting to make a film taking place in space in the near future need to play some Kerbal first.

  2. Sounds like another one to add to the list of sci-fi movies that make no scientific sense. Quite a few were made recently. I'm not surprised that Kubrick is not on the list. He did do it right.

  3. Thank you. I was definitely disappointed - I seemed to enjoy many of the scenes while I was watching them. But then I'd stop to actually think about what I'd just watched and it would all fall apart.

  4. I feel this is spot on, along with the rest of this criticque. From everything I've seen, the logistics in this imagined future are not all that... well, logical in their underpinnings. The over-reverence of past astronautics iconography is somewhat puzzling too. I remember when Nolan used a very slight retro esthetic for Interstellar (e.g. the 60s-evoking shape of the spacesuit helmets), but there, it made a sort of artistic sense within the setting. It was a diminished future world, far from any will left for bold engineering projects or exploration, with a "society in retreat". Some of the technology there was clearly several decades more advanced, but it was a beat-up world where that subtle "retro" sensibility felt quite at home. In Ad Astra, I feel it's more of a self-indulgent flourish, esthetics for esthetics' sake, and with a reverence for the past that goes into unnecessary overdrive.

    One of my friends even theorised that Ad Astra's future is not a result of our present, but actually the result of an alternate history, with the Apollo era tempo of the Space Race never winding down in the 70s, at least not for the US. In the alternate decades since, all those old mainstays of Space Race hyper-optimism about the colonisation of our system "in no time flat" came true in Ad Astra's setting. While that's a fun idea, I don't think it salvages the film for me on a deeper level.

    I've seen some people read into the film's over-reverence of the past and past esthetics in a more political manner. I've even come across as article that argued Tommy Lee Jones' character is supposedly some political symbol, for an angry and disaffected older-generation space pioneer. Even if that was the film's philosophical undertone with regards to the past and future, the themes of the "old guard" and the new generation, it seems really clumsy to me. Along with the "go back to Earth and stop seeking potential alien life" message at the end.

    And concerning the themes of alien life in the film... As you note, it's not like it would do much good if all our effort ended in the Solar System proper, even as far away as the outer giants. Even without any FTL or STL capabilities, there's still the very edge of the system to consider, on the outer side of the Oort cloud, as distant as that is. Maybe it would be a better listening post, if still leaving us humans with our hands tied concerning visiting another world with life of its own. But it would be one possible improvement to this whole notion of deep-space listening posts.

  5. (cont'd)

    I myself had to wonder what purpose does a lone asteroid-orbiting research station housing lab baboons have in the grander scheme of things. Why use these primates in micrograv conditions, when you can work directly on monitoring the health of humans inhabiting microgravity ? Doesn't exactly add up.

    I think it says a lot that, when I first learned the sense of danger and urgency driving the entire plot of this film is a malfunctioning antimatter-powered device, I raised my eyebrows. As nasty as an antimatter-powered machine would no doubt be if it detonated - something you yourself described aptly years ago in Chasm City - I really don't see how any antimatter-powered construct could become some magic instrument of doom. Detonation, or no detonation. The fact that it's somehow magically influencing Neptune just adds to the questionable premise.

    The rather dour tone of the film and its notion that "we did better before in spaceflight and now it's all humdrum" reminded me a bit of Cuarón's Gravity. Both are skillfully made films with some nice spectacle and thrills, but at the end the day, they have a fairly killjoy, "bah, humbug" sentiment towards spaceflight and space exploration. I'm not one of those people who are (pun intended) too starry-eyed about these fields - it is true that it's mostly about the hard work, often busy schedules and trying to do a lot even with less. Hardly glamorous or romantic stuff, as perceived by parts of the public. That's part of my disappointment, though: The film seems to borderline argue that all that effort, all that research done outside of Earth to date, by thousands of passionate and dedicated people worldwide, is somehow meaningless. Pouring the baby out along with the bath water... The film's other message, "Hey, don't muck up the Solar System too much while settling it", is more laudable, but combined with that skepticism towards the worth of space exploration, it makes me think this flick has a bit of that "rotten 70s, throw away any optimism" vibe films from that period had, science fiction ones included. Maybe the film says more about the mood in the US and parts of the world now. This rather defeatist sentiment of giving up on things, while trying to (IMHO, feebly) argue in favour of the nobility of doing so... Frankly, not a sentiment I've ever endorsed, even in harder and more turbulent times.

    P.S. Mr. Reynolds, I'd like to make a minor request: Could I use your artwork of Yellowstone and the Glitter Band (featured on your website) for the main header of the Revelation Space series Wiki ( ? I'd like to make an integrated-looking header, keeping the base colour while having the image fade in and out faintly on the central and right side of the header. Just to mildly differentiate the wiki from the others that use the same blue header, blue links, on a black-and-grey background template. Thank you for any help. Me and the rest of the community at the wiki, relatively small as it is, appreciate it. :-)

    1. Yes, please use that artwork as you see fit.

  6. To be honest, Al, I'm disappointed in you. ;-) It took us until afterwards to realise it, but Ad Astra is *surely* meant to be a comedy. The "back door" scene is the giveaway, no? In which case you've spoilt all the jokes!

    If it's *not* a comedy then it's truly one of the worst films I've ever seen. I admire your ability to salvage the good points out of the film but to me the plot made little sense - what was with the baboons? And it also poses other questions -
    How does such a film get made?
    Was the idea for the plot developed by 2 primary school children?
    Did Donald Sutherland realise what he'd got himself into after he'd started shooting and demand that he be written out after the moon sequences?

    Having said that it has the potential to enjoy an afterlife as one of the 'so bad it's good' films.

    But at least we're talking about it!

    1. I wonder whether the presence of Sutherland and Jones was pitched to the execs approving this flick as "Oh, it's be like a reunion of the cast of Space Cowboys, for sure... Okay, maaaybe...". :-P :-)

  7. Ad Astra
    A pitiful reworking of Heart of Darkness, up the river to Neptune.

    Dullest turkey of the year so far, with an uninterrupted 45 mins of Brad Pitt closeups thinking meagre and whiny thoughts out loud. Terrible. And I don't blame Pitt.

    Also, the most cringeworthy, stupid space physics and "science" I've ever seen in a modern sci-fi film, e.g. full gravity on the Moon and Mars, floating in the spaceship while it's under acceleration, launching through the rings of Neptune by flying off a rotating radar antenna and hitting the target kilometres away with perfect accuracy, and much much more. Not even Laughably bad. Insulting in every way.

  8. Pretty much concur with everybody else. Deeply disappointing, unsatisfying film. Occasionally nice design aesthetic undermined by really strange decisions. Not as profound or interesting as the surrounding promotional bubble would have us believe (in fact I nodded off at one point).

  9. I nodded off near the end.

    1. It would have worked better as a VFX demo for a studio trying to get hired to work on a real movie.

  10. At least Spiral is back on the TV ...