You know that feeling you get when you’re trapped in a cinema with a dud film?
You’ve handed over your cash and realise half way in you only have 2 options remaining; either walk out, or stay and watch how the train wreck unfolds.
Last week, I found myself in such a place.
Lured by Brad Pitts’ knock out performance in once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I succumbed to the hype about Ad Astra and bought another ticket to the cinema. As Ad Astra unfolded before my incredulous eyes, I made the decision to stay.
I will not get that 90 minutes of my life back. The 20 bucks, as they say in finance, is a sunk cost.
So, there are plot spoilers ahead, BUT I can report there isn’t much plot in this mess of a ‘thinky’ SF film to spoil.
Ad Astra plays like a bad mash up of Apocalypse Now, 2001 and Space 1999. There is so much about this movie I dislike. Continuity? Plot holes? Dubious Homage? A voiceover worse than original Blade Runner? Check. It’s all in there.
After mysterious energy waves from Neptune knock out the Earths energy grid, Brad is enlisted to go check up on his old dad. That’s the last we really hear about this plot device.
Why? When? How?
After arriving on the moon with a quite bit of 2001 homage (and a bit of Space 1999), we cut to a moon buggy chase with moon pirates.
Moon. Fucking. Pirates!
Why are they there? Why are they shooting at Brad Pitt? Who cares? Will this plot point be resolved?
No. Not in this movie.
Faster than you can say “Moon Buggies Were More Fun in Diamonds are Forever” and with the moon pirates despatched by bad driving, our hero blasts off to Mars.
Why Mars? Care was beyond me at this point. We were about to have a Cooks Tour of the inner Solar System.
When a mysterious SOS signal is received from a nearby ship, the crew argues about abandoning their mission to go and check it out. When is this ever a good idea? You don’t walk down the basement stairs when you hear a noise and you don’t stop your rocket ship to checkout mysterious SOS signals.
Our heroes board the derelict spaceship only to discover the only life forms are KILLER MONKEYS IN SPACE who are in a very, very bad mood. After the ill tempered apes rip the face off the hapless rocket pilot who had led the mission, our Hero manages to eviscerate the ill-tempered simians by exposing them to the vacuum of space. Woosh. Splurp. Splat. As the Pixies put it; This Monkeys Gone to Heaven.
As our intrepid travellers resume the trip to Mars, the quickly promoted co-pilot chokes during the final approach, nearly crashing the rocket ship. Our square jawed space hero, Brad takes over, landing safely at the last minute. Brad assures the co-pilot he won’t report him. Really? Can you imagine an Emirates pilot choking the landing on final approach and the co-pilot doing the same?
Not in the odd world of Ad Astra.
But it’s not just killer monkeys and co-pilots on the verge of a nervous breakdown that make this movie so vexing.
After being specifically selected for the mission to ‘terminate his father with extreme prejudice’ to quote the film this trope was pulled from, our hero is mysteriously pulled off the mission by the same people who convinced Brad he was the only man for the job. Luckily, Tulip from Preacher (in a great cameo) has some words of wisdom for our hero and manages to drop Brad out in the Martian desert, fully space-suited. He quickly disappears beneath the Martian dunes through a convenient manhole and in total darkness swims to the launch pad where the Neptune mission is about to blast off.
As. You. Do.
There is nothing like a ticking clock to put some fake tension into a scene and it’s already T-MINUS 10 at this point. Brad climbs inside the crafts rocket engine and, just in time, finds a secret hatch. Our hero climbs inside the Neptune rocket AS IT LAUNCHES.
Now the fun really starts.
Guns are drawn by the surprised crew. I’m not quite sure if firing bullets inside a launching rocket ship is part of the NASA operations manual, but before long Brad manages to kill them all because he’s inadvertently caused all the oxygen to rush out of the ship.
The fun aint over yet folks.
Brad finally arrives at Neptune where his Colonel Kurtz pa has been going quietly insane searching for technological signatures in the vast cosmos. Apparently this has something to do with the power surges on Earth that set the narrative forward, but it’s never fully explained. The energy surges are a bit of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin.
Finally after finding Colonel Kurtz, (the Apocalypse Now references start piling on), and convincing him to come spacewalking, the insane Tommy Lee morphs into dear old Pa as he beseeches Brad to untether him, and finally, floats away into the void leaving the eternal question unanswered.
We’re not done yet. There’s another 3rd act ticking clock to provide more fake tension. This time it’s an actual nuclear bomb counting down to armageddon. With his untethered spacecraft miles away from dear old Pa’s orbiting Skylab, Brad must propel himself through an asteroid field with only a bespoke shield ripped off a communications antenna for protection, deflecting debris like a boss in the final level of a crap space video game.
Just in the nick of time. As the nuclear munitions destroy his fathers research outpost, Brad rides the nuclear shockwave home like a boss.
I’m still not sure what this mess of a SF movie is supposed to be about? How deep space travel will send astronauts barking mad? How family ties are more powerful than anything in the universe? How we should never leave monkeys untended in space? That the film makers wanted to make a thinky art SF film like 2001?
Now, I love both thinky and genre SF. I love a good space opera. I’m just as happy watching Star Trek: Discovery as Solaris but Ad Astra left me feeling that the whole Enterprise was rushed into production once Brad Pitt became attached.
Ad Astra needed to Ad a Plot. The movie went from Earth, to the Moon and Mars and on to Neptune but I’m afraid, the script was clearly from Uranus.
Or, perhaps you disagree…