You don’t see many movies like Ad Astra these days—movies that depict space exploration in the future, but in the forseeable future. Ad Astra falls in that narrow, but vital window in storytelling with Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian in showing what could be rather than what has been (Hidden Figures, First Man, etc.) or what probably can’t be (Star Wars, Valerian, etc.). This is the kind of movie that we hope will inspire people to explore, not just entertain them.
Unfortunately, while Ad Astra is a cinematic achievement, it doesn’t actually do those things that well.
My rating: 3 out of 5.
In an ambiguous “near future” in which humankind has colonized Mars and made the Moon a tourist destination (and spawned Moon pirates, apparently), astronaut Roy McBride is tasked with contacting his father, Clifford, long presumed dead at Neptune, who seems to be involved with mysterious electromagnetic surges that threaten the entire Solar System. These surges are by far the most outrageously nonsensical “science” of the film, which otherwise gets things mostly right. The offered explanation doesn’t even match what is shown on screen! But in response to them, McBride is led on a harrowing journey both across the Solar System and personally to reconciliation with his father.
The good part of this film is that it shows (in my opinion) such a plausible depiction of colonization of the Solar System. I won’t quite say “realistic” because realistic would be cramped underground tunnels that look more like a submarine than an airport terminal. But from a suborbital fall ripped straight from Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 stunt, to a well choreographed and silent high-speed chase on the Moon, to a beautiful if slightly stylized depiction of a mission to Neptune, a setting you don’t see very often, the look of the film is very real. Even with the scientific errors, I only really begrudge them the “surges” mess.
The bad, however, is (to start with) that the film is very slow-paced. I still rather enjoyed it, and if that were the only problem, I would have rated it higher, but you have to have the right attitude going in to appreciate it. There’s a certain class of science fiction that you’ll see in books like Mission of Gravity, Helliconia Spring, and The Left Hand of Darkness, where to varying degrees, the planet is the main character, not the people. I enjoy those kinds of books because they bring a sense of wonder that few others do. (Granted, I do need some characters. In books like Helliconia Spring where it starts to skip across decades or centuries of time, I lose interest fast.)
That is the feeling I get from Ad Astra. That’s not actually what kind of story it is. The movie is very much about Roy and Clifford, their relationship, and the concept of fatherhood, but seeing the Solar System colonized like that brings that same sense of wonder, and I don’t mind the story taking its time with it.
However, that’s not the only problem with this film. The other big problem, the one that really hurts it in my mind, is that the writing is substandard. The whole plotline with Clifford and what he’s been doing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and the way each of the two men go about resolving it doesn’t feel like it fits their characterization up to that point. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what gets resolved in the end.
It’s this substandard writing that really bumps this movie down to so-so for me, but thus qualified, if you’re into this kind of sci-fi, I still think I can say it’s worth a matinee or rental price to see it and enjoy it as a treatise on exploring the Solar System.