Recently, I had a two movie day. The next week was busy, and there were two new movies I wanted to see. It’s been a long, dry spell on the big screen, and the times worked. Downton Abbey was first, of course, and that may make next week’s blog. I did shop in between and grabbed a pair of leggings for $5 after Penney’s discounts and a $10 coupon. Great! That’s how life on Earth is, not the film I’m about to review.
Ad Astra pits Brad Pitt’s Roy against an impious universe, a piteous voice in the void. The alliterations in the last sentence don’t have meaning but are just for show, like most of what happens in the movie. Having been negative twice now, I will continue briefly in that vein before a slightly more positive conclusion.
Rotten Tomatoes, the go-to for reviews, has Ad Astra at 83% positive critic ratings and 41% for viewers. As I’ve said before, the opposite reaction is more telling to me. This breakdown in positivity, however, is particularly stark and probably more accurate. This isn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey, folks, not even close. Roy’s repetitive psych reports are dull, with two exceptions. He rambles through one near the end that suggests he is losing touch. The final one does make the movie worthwhile, almost.
In the beginning of the movie, we assume Roy is in space and about to walk out on some task. He has on the suit, a good sign. Soon we learn that he’s on a high tower that’s anchored to the Earth. When mysterious blasts destroy his footing, we see him and many others plummet toward the Earth. He has a parachute, luckily, and makes it down safely even though shards of metal shred the ‘chute. (Sorry.) Anyway, those bursts are called The Surge and come from Neptune, where Roy’s presumed-dead father was last seen. My own cleverness lacking, a number of reviews (including this one and this one) noted that the tower was reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. Perhaps I’m too literal. It becomes Roy’s task, first, to establish contact with his father (Tommy Lee Jones) and, on his own initiative, to end the attacks.
Along the way, two things are remarkable: needless carnage and religious references. The deaths begin early, with a man taking Roy to a shuttle via armed moon transports amid pirates. He’s a good guy, and we see pictures of his family on the dashboard. These days, you see the pic, you know the fate: he’s toast. Roy arranges for his body to be retrieved, of course.
Once on Mars, Roy sits repeatedly in a sound room sending messages out into space in the window of time needed to reach Neptune. No response. Until there is one, perhaps. He has broken protocol and script to offer his father a final plea. Roy’s attempt at humanity and connection results in his being scrubbed from the mission to Neptune. With the aid of the base chief, Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), he catches (rather literally) a ride on the departing ship because her parents were on his father’s mission, and his father killed them. Once on board via an unbelievable arrival, he kills the crew in self-defense. Also ridiculous. Luckily, he can get himself to Neptune without help. Unrealistic: it’s a 12-year journey, says CalTech, at its closest to Earth of 2.7 billion miles. Once there, he would like to redeem his father, who is insane. Clifford McBride does not want redemption, preferring instead the horror of solitude. He ends his life before they can reach the escape vehicle before the original station blows up, helping propel the ship toward Earth. Sigh. Didn’t they have scientists to consult?
Now for the good parts. Religion is important here. The prayers that are said, the allusions of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, are lovely, especially considering the lack of resolution. The idea “At least we know we’re all we’ve got” seems premature, really. The funereal prayer includes the line “May you see the Redeemer face to face, and enjoy the vision of God forever.” This comes from a set of Catholic texts but has echoes of meaning throughout. If Clifford has found nothing beyond our solar system, does that suggest nothing is really there? Brian Tellerico, a major reviewer, writes, “Science fiction is often about search for meaning, but this one literally tells the story of man’s quest to find He who created him and get some answers, including why He left us behind.” I disagree with Tellerico that this movie is “masterful.” I think its conclusion has, in fact, nothing to do with science fiction but represents one more example of the family-and-love-are-everything cliché.
In another movie with a similar plot, A Dog’s Way Home (2019) involves Bella trying to obey her last command to “go home” with a years-long, dangerous journey. Along the way, she finds several owners. One set believes she belongs to someone else because she saves his life in an avalanche. She doesn’t, and the really mean man doesn’t want her or even his own dog. She comments, “He deserves to be alone.” She is finally reunited, of course, and love triumphs, of course. The line resonates, however, and may be what saves Ad Astra: Even if mankind is alone, at least there is love.
In the final scene, as Eve walks back into Roy’s life, his psych eval has included a refreshing turn. He uses words that are from Galations 6:2—“Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” He says he will love as well. It has a sweetness that is beyond what the movie would seem to deserve. That search for meaning doesn’t have to wonder/wander so far afield. Christians have long said that we walk by faith, not by sight. We’ve got the songs to prove it, that atheists don’t. Thanks, Steve Martin.