Ad Astra Writes the Textbook…

posted in: movies 0

…on how NOT to write plausible science fiction.

I saw Ad Astra on Saturday. I was really looking forward to it—a movie touted as a thoughtful film, possibly the best for depicting space travel in a realistic way since 2001. In fact, it’s a beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted science fiction movie… that ultimately makes almost no sense at all. Far from being realistic (or plausible, the director’s preferred term), Ad Astra is a Swiss cheese of logical gaps and science absurdities.

SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS!

Let me preface this by saying that Ad Astra has many strong points. It has great production values, and some of the world-building touches are nice. (Pillow and blanket on the shuttle to the Moon? That’ll be $125. Franchise fast food in the lunar city? That’ll probably happen. Pirates on the prowl between lunar outposts? Maybe.)

To its credit, the main thing this movie does right is the character building—specifically, Brad Pitt as an astronaut traveling to Neptune in search of his missing dad, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who is suspected of being responsible for deadly energy bursts coming Neptune. The effects of solitude, both self-imposed and externally imposed, on each of them? Spot on. Fantastic performances. For this, I came away with the feeling that the movie was well worth seeing. For me, it was a failure but an interesting failure. I’ll probably watch it again.

Unfortunately, too much in the story is just dumb. For example, the notion that:

  • A search for intelligent life in the universe is best conducted from Neptune—why, we’re never told, because what we actually need is large detectors and telescopes, not distant ones—and that a negative finding there means that’s it, we’re alone in the universe.
  • A Neptune-orbiting antimatter reactor gone wrong would release bursts of world-busting energy directly at the Earth, and that the energy would magically intensify as it approached Earth (energy and radiation tends to dissipate, not intensify, with distance).
  • If you have a world-critical need to get from Point A to Point B on the Moon, and you know the intervening territory is infested with pirates, the thing to do is travel by lightly armed, open rover instead of… I don’t know, flying in a shuttle?
  • If you vent a compartment to space, the organisms inside will explode and splat on the viewports (they wouldn’t).
  • You would send a radio signal to Neptune and sit listening for an answer (the round-trip signal time is around eight hours).
  • If you need to get right now to a rocket that’s a mile away on Mars, and there’s an underground lake between you and it, definitely go underwater and pull yourself hand-over-hand along a cable, which wouldn’t take long at all.
  • If you need to get inside a rocket that’s moments from liftoff, and you’re coming up from beneath, you can expect to find an airlock hatch right next to the engines—and anyway, what’s a little smoke and fire to a tough astronaut?
  • The flight crew on a deep-space mission would carry guns as side-arms, because you never know when you might want to fire bullets inside a pressurized spaceship. And they would definitely abandon their stations during a launch (including the pilot!) to subdue a stowaway who poses no immediate threat.

I know you can come up with more. Talk to me about that tower in the opening sequence. It looks cool, but what is it, and what’s it for, and what’s holding it up? And near the end, what about that jump away from the station and through the battering rings of Neptune, and coming out right where you parked your spaceship (which you could not see through the rings)? Stop me before I go on.

When I attended the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop for writers, we screened the movie Armageddon, so that we could deconstruct the science mistakes afterward. I believe that Ad Astra may be a good candidate for that role. But I will say this: They got the far side of the Moon right, and didn’t call it the dark side of the Moon, even though it happened to be in darkness due to the Moon’s being at its full phase.

I have no wish to disparage a sincere effort by a filmmaker new to science fiction. But it appears to me that writer-director James Gray had a vision, but not the depth of understanding of his subject matter to pull it off. Or maybe he understood it, but misjudged where it was reasonable to take liberties. I acknowledge that this probably puts me in the minority of reviewers, many of whom seem to love the movie. God bless ’em.

But if you are an aspiring science fiction writer, study this movie critically. Appreciate the character-building, which is genuinely rewarding. And then learn the difference between cool looking and plausible.

For extra credit, go back and do the same exercise with Sunshine.

 

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