Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #28 – Ad Astra

Posted: March 11, 2020 in Uncategorized

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before – “A long journey up the metaphorical river undertaken by an isolated protagonist to confront a missing metaphorical father figure over the consequences of his isolation from civilization brings dangers and greater wisdom to the protagonist.”

If your reply is to ask – “Yeah, kinda, isn’t that, like, the plot to Apocalypse Now, the preeminent movie about Vietnam?” – then you’d be right. If your similar reply is to ask – “Yeah, that’s, like, the plot to Apocalypse Now Redux, right?” – then you’d also be technically correct, though subject to me being a douchebag about your liking a bloated early draft of an otherwise great movie.

Anyway, enough trash talk upon Francis Ford Coppola, how was Ad Astra, the space movie with the same plot? It held my interest on average dark night in front of my TV. On a different night after many bad breakfast burritos, I might’ve hated it. It’s that kind of movie.

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) works on a SETI antenna array tall enough to reach just above the atmosphere, requiring astronauts with parachutes to work the upper decks. Power surges coming from Neptune orbit start blowing up all things technological across the Earth, including the array. McBride saves the array with a timely pull on a kill switch and then has to fall.

Thus, begins a movie in which Major McBride, the very model of what Tom Wolfe asserted was the common personality of astronauts and test pilots: buttoned up, always calm and unlikely to reveal very much personal or emotional…at least until long after they retire, must journey to confront his “heroic” father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) in Neptune orbit.

Plot wise, the movie proceeds very much along the lines of the Coppola movie. The protagonist takes the long journey. Nearly everyone who helps gets blasted out of the boat on the way. There is even a tiger scene, well, okay not a scene with an actual tiger, but would a pair of scared and pissed off baboons on a derelict research boat do nicely as a substitute, ya bloodthirsty mugs? You know, to reinforce – “Dear Mom, today we got attacked by a motherf@#king tiger, teaching me one important thing…never get out of the f*@king boat!”

The baboon scene begins with Major McBride trying to assert his authority as Classified Passenger to get the captain of the ill-fated USS Cepheus to ignore the distress call, we see filmmakers who have absolutely seen the Coppola movie go for concise. Consolidating the Tiger Scene with the Tragic River Interdiction Scene, yup, this is how a three-hour movie (the good version of Apocalypse Now) becomes a more manageable two-hour movie and get to the same place. This is always good.

The movie improves when we take the discussion out of the purely plot and into the much better characters and worldbuilding. Yes, Roy McBride has trouble relating to his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler) and is the sort of man who doesn’t have to take mood stabilizer pills before the mandatory psychological evaluations that the subject must pass every time before the next big task in space. He doesn’t end up that way.

We start with a man who is so Astronaut of All Astronauts that we might imagine Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong, both famously reserved on the job, shaking their heads and saying – “Guys, the man is borderline psychotic!” We end with a kinder gentler man who can smile at the end of the movie upon seeing his estranged wife enter the door at the coffeehouse giving hope of reconciliation.

We have no word if Major McBride quit Space, like his metaphorical uncle Captain Willard (Martin Sheen, not in the movie) quit the Army, or if he figured out how to do Space for the benefit of his country and still be a good husband. Something to discuss at a dinner party that the answer I suppose depends on how romantic one is.

Regardless, the move plays out in a narration very similar to the one in the Coppola movie. I thought this arc from buttoned up and angry over the abandonment to wise, human and caring as it plays out on Mr. Pitt’s face worked and was worth the price of admission. However, the arc isn’t solid enough for someone else with a different perspective (bad breakfast burritos) to see the same movie and not hate it. It’s that kind of movie.

I found Tommy Lee Jones doing well with his small part as the obsessed man willing to sacrifice everything on a fruitless search for extraterrestrial intelligence. When confronted with the in-story assertion of We Are Alone, he can’t let go and previously killed people mutinying over what should logically be the end of the mission. It means he has to go the way of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando, really not in the movie). At least, this time the nutter father figure has the realization to unhook the tether himself.

I mentioned worldbuilding. Where director and co-writer James Gray really went right was creating the world (well, Solar System) in which the many set pieces that serve to wipe out people on the boat. The mission starts from the Moon where you land in the nice neighborhood areas presumably on the Near Side, but have to travel by rover to the launch facility on the Far Side. A route beset by crater pirates in their own moon-buggies.

Yes, you could deride it as a way to have the PBR Streetgang (yeah, it’s a lot of Coppola references) get mugged…killing everyone but Roy McBride. But it also serves as a launching point for all kinds of fan fiction and other movies about how the crater pirates got their start and, more importantly, if the United States military might send in the space-qualified Delta Team to clean up the pirate base? You know, Against All Flags meets The Guns of Navarone set in Space?

You’ll read in a lot of places about how this movie fits into the Real SF tradition that includes Gravity and so on. Certainly, the movie handled zero-G decently well as I didn’t get the sense of actors on wires having to act like Earth Normal at Sea Level still isn’t pulling them to the bottom off the access tunnel set. But there are things I still want to hear about from the current crop of TV physicists and science presenters …paging Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.

The Tiger, sorry Baboon Scene, resolves with the last baboon getting shut into an airlock and the protagonist hitting the Red Button (air vent). Said simian splatters all over the interior side of the window in the hatch, a nice crowd-pleasing SPLAT of Strawberry Jam (what the mess looked like), or Chunky Salsa (the common metaphor among science explainers for the same thing). Problem, other sources assert rapid decompression is more likely to result in freeze-dried bodies and boiled away fluids. Still messy, but not quite the cinematic pop we bloodthirsty filmgoers love so much.

Next we have the Suborbital HALO, actually a Suborbital High Altitude High Open jump if we are to judge from when the stuntman doubling Mr. Pitt pulled the ripcord. Looks good on the surface. Real life nutjobs with endorsement deals with Red Bull have gone up in balloons to the edge of space (you get astronaut wings going into the very thin parts of the atmosphere, not vacuum as is believed) and jumped out. The devil’s in the details. Roy McBride wore what looked like a standard issue orange spacesuit/flight suit that say a Shuttle crewmember might wear to survive launch. The record setting Red Bull nut wore a suit more like a Mercury astronaut, a more robust garment.

Lastly, the plot revolves around antimatter. We have Star Trek to thank for our misconception of this substance as the end all be all fuel source cum convenient detonation to end movies that seem have a union mandate for a big explosion at the end. However, ask a real Trekkie and you’ll get this answer…by itself antimatter colliding with matter (proton and antiproton) doesn’t power the warp drive. In addition to needing a scarce We Could Run Out of Gas substance to drive the Cold War conflict metaphors of the original show, lots of physicists wrote in explaining how antimatter couldn’t provide enough energy to crack dimensional barriers without the unobtanium of dilithium crystals to act as fuel additive.

Bringing this thread back around to Ad Astra and the antimatter reactor on the Lima Project boat/space station, we might learn that the threat of ending the whole Solar System is overblown. Matter and antimatter collide releasing vast energies related to the calculated values for protons and the nearly identical antiprotons essentially annihilating two protons into energy.

This means that the Lima Project ship has to bring enough antimatter to blow up the whole Solar System on a one for one basis, or in layman terms drag along enough mass of antimatter equivalent to the mass of the Solar System. Which is clearly not how the model/CGI departments built the boat. Keep the threat to random power surges causing disruptions to all things tech and you have more plausibility.

Anyway, driven by an interesting acting performance to play out the arc of the isolated protagonist who needs the one last bad mission to recapture his humanity, the movie is fun and interesting to watch. This takes the movie well out of the cellar where we like to laugh at our entertainment because we have otherwise seen the story before. There are worse ways to spend an evening at the TV.

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