So Ad Astra is a recent sci-fi movie starring none other than Brad Pitt and directed by James Gray (We Own the Night, The Lost City of Z) telling the story of an astronaut Roy McBride following in his missing father’s footsteps and dealing with emotionally crippling issues of his affectionate-less upbringing by his famous Space Cowboy of a dad, played by Tommy Lee Jones.
Avast! Spoilers follow.
As a writer, I can spot how the entire story arc followed the tried and true Hero’s Journey, and the movie manages to keep to tropes and key plot points fairly well. But that’s about all this film manages to do right. There are a number of scienc-y points that is gets very wrong that undermine the whole thing.
For those of you that may not know the ins and outs of the Hero’s Journey, it goes a little something like this:
Our hero is called out of the ordinary world to enter the spirit realm on a quest.
The hero normally refuses the call at first, then grudgingly accepts.
The hero has a mentor and is joined by several companions along the journey.
Challenges and temptations along the way to the goal of the quest.
The abyss of death and a rebirth.
The hero transforms
The hero returns to the ordinary world with a gift for his community.
Believe it or not, you’re very familiar with this sort of story. It’s been used for thousands of years and if you’ve seen Star Wars, you know it very well. And Harry Potter. And…you know what? I’ll just leave this right here:
Let’s go through how Ad Astra does the Hero’s Journey passably well:
McBride is a top tier astronaut and opportunistic BASE jumper (Normal world) and brought in to deal with the reappearance of his father which is somehow threatening to destroy the world because of plasma and…Neptune? Keep this confusion in mind.
McBride agrees to help reconnect, but then gets upset at Space Command for blaming his father when he’s been declared missing and dead for many years.
McBride gets a mentor in the form of another Space Cowboy, who promptly has a heart attack on the Moon and exits the movie without doing much mentoring.
McBride picks up companions in the form of Red Shirts along the way, who are killed off pretty quick soon after they make a bit of a connection with McBride. This actually fits in with McBride’s arc, and didn’t bother me too much.
McBride enters the abyss during a very long rocket flight after he GTA’s a ride to Neptune and reemerges in the world of death, where he finds his father.
Our hero decides to live life and try to connect with his father and others…though how this epiphany happens is rather weak.
McBride rides the blast wave of a nuclear weapon (yes, really) and comes back to Earth ready to recommit to his estranged wife, played by Liv Tyler. Wow, astronauts are really her type, eh? Did she upgrade, side-grade or downgrade from Ben Affleck? Discuss amongst yourselves.
There’s your basic story followed with decent competence. But you know what? With a budget of $80-100 million, you’d think they’d have spent a little change to polish the script because there are some serious plot issues that are road blocks to enjoying the movie.
Did I say road blocks? I mean the story goes right off the cliff more than once.
The Space Command in this movie is really in to SETI, with giant antennae on Earth that reach into the upper atmosphere and Moon colonies that the audience is specifically told are there to find aliens (and finding aliens is Space Cowboy Dad’s obsession, because reasons). Space Command’s raison d’etre is all about making first contact…but there’s a war on the Moon and on Mars.
It just strikes me as movie goer that first contact is so important, has so many resources put into it…meanwhile there’s a war on. It would be like America spending a significant part of its WWII budget on NPR and poetry retreats.
Speaking of this war, the only thing we get is this non-sense lunar buggy chase and shoot out, which was interesting to watch but had me squirming in my seat. Getting to the Moon is difficult and expensive. In the movie, it isn’t like getting on a trans-Atlantic flight today. That there are bandits on the moon who’re there to ‘take our valuables’ (the movie’s dialogue, not mine) as McBride goes from moon base to moon base.
It costs a fortune to get anything into space…and there are moon bandits out there after what’s in the trunk of their buggies? Come on, movie.
Other issue that made me go ‘huh’: Space Command decided to send McBride all sneaky like on commercial transport to keep bad actors from knowing about his mission…because reasons. So they tell McBride to get to the moon without getting noticed. He proceeds to put his military uniform on, that has his name on it, and travels under his true name and goes right through customs.
I’m sorry, but:
I have a military intelligence background. McBride was traveling with a giant neon sign on his head announcing who he was.
McBride gets to the moon and has to get his ass to Mars because that’s where a secure message can be sent to Neptune where Space Dad is floating out there. Why…does Mars have a thing that can send a secure message? A laser? You can shoot a laser from anywhere. Radio? None of the reasons to be on Mars make sense, other than the movie needs it to happen.
On the way to Mars, we have a moment that likely sent Neil deGrasse Tyson into conniptions. The space truckers taking McBride to Mars have to stop in the middle of space to help a research station broadcasting an SOS.
What do you think the chance of finding a space ship the size of a 7-11 in the middle of billions of miles between the moon and Mars? Right. Movie needed it to happen.
Now here’s the scienc-y part: You have to burn fuel to stop in space. There are no brakes to pump. The rocket had to burn a good deal of fuel to escape the moon’s gravity well and get to velocity to arrive at Mars in a week or so (I don’t remember how long it was in the movie). So, for this space truck to stop and dock with the science platform, they had to burn fuel. Then, they have to burn fuel again to get back up to velocity to get to Mars. Don’t forget to save gas for landing!
And what do they find on the science station? Monkey bastards. And a plot point for McBride to lose an almost-friend.
Bonus pet science peeve: McBride opens an air lock to kill the monkey bastards and one of them pops like a balloon. Gross. But that’s not what happens when a living thing is suddenly exposed to vacuum. They just suffocate to death and the moisture in their skin evaporates.
Let’s just skip to the part that is just awful. At the end, McBride has to get home from Neputne and he doesn’t have 17 weeks to do it. Good news! He put a nuke on Space Cowboy Dad’s ship to stop the fusion drive from destroying the Earth. Why is the fusion reactor able to do this? Hell if I know, the movie doesn’t tell us.
So McBride’s brilliant plan to get home? He’s going to ride the nuke back to Earth. You read that right. The astronaut is going to point his space truck at Earth and just Yee-haw all the way.
Can we just…think about this? A nuke is about to go off and his plan is to surf the blast wave without any navigation? Did the writer(s) get to this part of the story and just push a giant ‘It’ll be fine’ button?
As ridiculous as this plot point is, let’s talk about space for a moment. There is no medium to transmit a nuclear blast wave in the void. None. A nuke explodes outside of an atmosphere and it’ll release heat and radiation. No blast wave. There’s nothing to ‘wave’.
Now, the nuke did happen on the other side of Neptune’s ring. So if there was a blast wave, high velocity bits of rock and ice would’ve hit his space truck like a shot gun blast. Come on, movie!
This is an almost literal ‘nuke the fridge’ moment. And when McBride magically wakes up back on Earth after the blast…did the writers just quit trying? Because this is just unforgivable from a story stand point.
Sure, most movie goers aren’t Niel deGrasse Tyson, but they do have IQ’s over room temperature and the movie insults everyone’s intelligence. $80-100 million and they could’ve hired someone to do another pass on the script and smooth out why first contact was so important to space command, the war, basic physics…etc.
I know an expert on space craft and journeys through space…the final frontier. Picard?