Over the next few centuries, if we can make it through climate change intact, human beings are going to be building homes wherever they can in the vast frontier of the solar system. That means we urgently need feature films that take the settlement of the solar system seriously, as it’s only through science fiction that we get to explore the shapes of our possible futures.
Given that imperative, as an astrophysicist, a passionate advocate for space exploration and a scientist who has consulted on numerous movie scripts (including Marvel’s “Doctor Strange”), I was excited to watch “Ad Astra,” the new Brad Pitt space thriller. The film was promoted with the promise of scientific realism in depicting a solar system well on its way to being settled by humanity.
While the plot ventures out to the farthest planet Neptune, the demands of the film’s theme cramp its science fiction imagination.
Unfortunately, despite very good intentions, “Ad Astra” strikes the wrong balance between story and fact, art and artifice. While the plot ventures out to the farthest planet Neptune, the demands of the film’s theme cramp its science fiction imagination. Instead of letting us explore a vision of our common future in space, “Ad Astra” delivers a solar system stripped down to fit a very particular story.
The first thing you need to know is that “Ad Astra” is not really about space travel and settlement. Instead, it’s a story about an emotionally isolated man yearning for human connection. Set in the near future, astronaut Roy McBride (played by Pitt) is sent to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a renegade scientist running a dangerous experiment at the edge of the solar system. Making the main character an astronaut simply allows the interplanetary void to become a metaphor for that isolation, and the dark tone of this son-searches-for-father story infects its portrayal of the science.
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Before I go any further, let me state that I am not one of those scientists who demands that science fiction get all the science right. My job on “Doctor Strange” was not to ground the hero’s magic in some obscure theorem of quantum physics. Instead, it was to help the writers build a consistent universe for the film that used their fictional version of science consistently.
The point of good science fiction is always good story telling. It’s about using ideas inherent in science’s ever-expanding vision of the universe to tell new stories about human beings in that universe. And there is much to admire in the treatment of our future in space in “Ad Astra.” The filmmakers clearly listened to their own scientific consultants in important ways, bringing us stunning views of shadows on the moon and the face of Neptune.
But narratively, the film drops the ball in some surprising ways (spoiler warning here). The plot is driven by the idea that Jones is orbiting Neptune in a ship whose antimatter engine has broken open and is now exposing the whole solar system to catastrophe. The solar system, however, is a very very big place. You would need a whole lot more antimatter than is likely contained in Jones’ fuel tanks to threaten it. Then there’s the idea that a couple of decades in space lets Jones prove there’s no other life in the universe. With 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone, it’s going to take a lot longer than that to say anything definitive about life and the cosmos.
The plot also makes a big deal about Pitt going slightly mad during his three-month (seemingly) weightless journey to Neptune. Three months is actually pretty fast to cross so much space (Neptune is 2.7 billion miles away when it’s closest to Earth). Given that astronauts have spent a lot more than three months in space, it's hard to see why the trip would be so hard on Pitt.
And to get to Neptune that fast, the ship’s engines would have to be running the whole time, meaning Pitt would experience “gravity” because the acceleration produced by his rocket motors (what’s called thrust) would push his back into his chair (or his feet onto the floor). It’s possible that he wasn’t weightless for this entire journey and I missed it — but if so, the film did a very poor job of depicting it.
Now you might scoff that this is a silly, minor point. But a really good science fiction movie about traveling around the solar system wouldn’t miss these details. Instead, they would be used to enhance the story, just as turning the real physics of space exploration into a kind of character was done wonderfully in “The Martian” and Amazon’s “The Expanse.”
Perhaps the greatest failing of the science-fictioning in “Ad Astra,” however, is its art direction, a crucial component of any futuristic movie as it gives us a visual sense of a future era of human experience. What will it be like to live and work in space? What, for example, are you going towear?
Unfortunately, “Ad Astra” presents a picture that looks decidedly backward. The helmets seem like something from the Mercury program in 1963 and the suits appear to come from the space shuttle era. There is a cool chase sequence on the surface of the moon, but I honestly thought they were using Apollo-era moon buggies complete with gold foil on the wheel rims. Why would the future look like that?
The movie’s vision of space travel is always in service of the overwhelming melancholy of its emotional tone. While some of this serves scientific realism (cramped long-distance space transports), some of it is pointless (a Mars base that looks like an insane asylum). Too often the design choices reflect the needs of the movie’s intended mood at the expense of what makes sense for the science.
Too often the design choices reflect the needs of the movie’s intended mood at the expense of what makes sense for the science.
In the end, I found “Ad Astra” to be both ponderous and flat. The remarkable film “Gravity” by Alfonso Cuarón used space to consider life’s connections in a far more honest and engaging way (which made it far easier to forgive its own science flubs). And Pitt’s portrayal of a man distanced from his emotional life was more intimate and raw in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” (which also had underlying science themes).
There was a time when science fiction was just for nerds, the realm of B-movies, bad TV and dumb-looking aliens with cheap prosthetic foreheads. Those days are long gone, with science fiction films such as the latest Star Wars installment routine box office hits. But beyond ticket sales, in our current high-tech culture, science fiction at its best helps us explore our possible future. Sadly, “Ad Astra” failed in this mission.