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Film / Ad Astra

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"The world awaits our discovery, my son."

"Exploration isn’t always a noble venture. We have to hold out the possibility that your father may be hiding from us."
Thomas Pruitt

Ad Astra is a 2019 aesthetically hard science fiction Space Opera with a dash of action/adventure written and directed by James Gray with Ethan Gross attached as a cowriter. The film stars Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride, Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride, Liv Tyler as Eve McBride, Ruth Negga as Helen Lantos, and Donald Sutherland as Colonel Pruitt.

In the near future, the Solar System is struck by mysterious power surges of unknown origin, threatening the future of human life. After surviving an incident on an immense space antenna caused by one of these surges, Major Roy McBride is informed that the source of the surges has been traced to the "Lima Project" base, a space station orbiting Neptune where his father, Clifford, was stationed twenty-nine years ago. And there's reason to believe that his father may still be alive. What follows is a race against time as he and Colonel Pruitt, an old friend of the senior McBride, try to locate Roy's father and find out what exactly happened to the Lima Project.

The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival on August 29th, 2019 before enjoying a wider release by Disney on September 20th, 2019.

Not to be confused with the visual novel of the same name.

Previews: Trailer 1, Trailer 2, IMAX Trailer.

Ad Astra contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The opening credits scrawl specifically says the film takes place in the not so distant future. However an adult claims to have been born on Mars, so the film is set several decades after Mars was colonized.
  • Absent Aliens: The film ends with the Lima Project considered a failure after decades of being unable to find any trace of extraterrestrial life, let alone intelligence.
  • Accidental Murder: Roy's boarding the Cepheus results in the deaths of the three astronauts manning it, mostly due to their own incompetent attempts to arrest him while taking off from Mars. Roy still considers their deaths his fault.
  • Antimatter: Apparently the Lima Project's main power source and the reason behind the electromagnetic surges that have been devastating the solar system. Its presence is the first sign that the film isn't quite as hard scifi as it initially appears to be.
  • Anti-Villain: Clifford is the closest thing the film has to a villain, but his only real goal is to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life, and most of his evil acts are the result of his extremely single-minded focus on this.
  • Apologetic Attacker: Roy becomes one of these when he attempts to hijack the Cepheus and tries to force the crew to stand down. Unfortunately, his pleas are unheard.
  • Artistic License – Physics:
    • Deliberately invoked. When Roy cries in space, the tear streams down his face instead of bubbling up by his eye like it normally would. Brad Pitt tried to change it to be correct, but director James Gray vetoed it because the acting was "too good".
    • If you want to make a hard scifi movie, don't let your space station run on antimatter as its power source, at least not over decades.
    • Matter-antimatter annihilation does produce lots of radiation and occasionally some exotic particles. However, the way the interaction with Neptune's atmosphere creates a massive EMP that surges through the entire solar system with enough power to disable half the planets in its path stretches the Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
    • On the other hand, the EMP from the nuclear explosion probably would fry the Cepheus.
    • Given the logistical effort required to launch Roy and three others from Luna to Mars, the entire maneuver they'd have to pull off to investigate the Norwegian distress call (changing course, decelerating to a full stop, accelerating again including another course correction) doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
    • Mars has significantly stronger gravity than Earth's moon, yet the rocket that lifts off on Mars seems to make do with a smaller booster instead of a larger one.
    • What happens to the primates on the Norwegian Station when Roy opens the airlock is highly unrealistic, as is any Explosive Decompression played straight.
    • The brawl aboard it also would have resulted in the fighters being Punched Across the Room every time they dealt or received a blow.
    • Roy's stunt with the radar antenna on the Lima never should've worked for a number of reasons, like the fact that you can't just stand on something to create traction in zero-G, or because of how the countless impacts from hurtling through Neptune's ring system would've thrown Roy off course before he was even halfway back to his ship.
    • An antimatter explosion in space would likely not be able to thrust a vessel with considerable force, due to dissipation. There would, however, be a major burst of gamma rays (enough to fry electronics in the general vicinity), and a fairly impressive light show.
    • After recording and sending his first message to his dad, Roy stays for a while clearly expecting an answer, before declaring that he would try again later. Given that his dad is on Neptune, signal travelling back and force would take about 8 hours at best, even if his dad responds immediately. The second time the response actually comes, although SpaceCom doesn't let Roy hear it.
    • The rings of Neptune are depicted a rather bright blue in the film. In real life, they are extremely thin, dark, and a very, very slight reddish hue.
    • Escalators on the Moon would be more amusement park ride than conveyance. The average escalator runs at about 55 m/s. While not enough to launch the passengers into the ceiling, it would be tossing them off the top rather than letting them gently step onto the floor.note 
    • After setting out from Mars to Neptune, Roy says that he is "going dark" to prevent detection. The journey is stated to take 79 days. Current unmanned craft take years for this journey. The amount of energy required to decelerate from what must be a huge peak velocity would likely be very noticeable around Neptune, radio silence or no radio silence.
  • Artistic License – Military: There are multiple uses of the phrase "over and out," which is not actually used in Real Life.
  • Artistic License – Space: The Norwegian research station that Roy investigates on his way to Mars is stated to be orbiting an asteroid. There are no asteroids in stable orbits between Earth and Mars (the asteroid belt is further out, between Mars and Jupiter), and there's no reason to tow one there just to have a space station zip around it.
  • Asteroid Thicket: Neptune's rings, which Roy has to fly through twice in the climax. He's piloting a pod the first time; the second time, he has to use an improvised shield to prevent himself.
  • As You Know: A military officer lays out a collage of pictures of Roy's father when discussing the man, prompting Roy to respond, "Yes, that's him." This is obviously for the viewer's benefit.
  • Beard of Evil: Clifford McBride sports one of these by the time we see him at the Lima project.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The pulses devastating Earth are stopped and Roy makes it back to Earth where it's implied he won't repeat his father's mistakes and will try to reconnect with the people in his life, but the Lima Project is destroyed having failed to find any proof of extraterrestrial life despite the ludicrous cost in human life.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with Roy narrating virtually the same lines for his psychological evaluation. Both are also accompanied by Roy taking rough landing onto Earth's surface, with rescuers coming over to help him get back on his feet.
  • Broken Ace: Roy McBride and his father Clifford are both famous, accomplished astronauts. However they have completely dysfunctional lives back on Earth and suffer varying levels of Sanity Slippage.
  • Broken Faceplate: Happens to Lieutenant Levant to indicate Boom, Headshot! during the Moon chase, as well as the Cepheus's captain who has the entire faceplate smashed in by an escaped lab monkey. Roy tries to duct tape up the massive hole but he's already dead.
  • Burial in Space: How astronauts dispose of their own, notably the first captain of the Cepheus. And later the rest of the crew.
  • Casting Gag: Once again, Liv Tyler plays the Satellite Love Interest of an astronaut who goes on a dangerous mission to save the world by detonating a nuclear warhead in space.
  • Casual Interplanetary Travel: There are regular commercial flights from Earth to the colonised Moon. It takes just 19 days from the Moon to colonised Mars and Cepheus takes a detour to investigate a distress signal without worrying about using up resources. It's a 79-day trip from Mars to Neptune, which is definitely considered long range, but characters treat it without fanfare and Roy's presence is alarming because he's not authorized rather than an extra body who'll use up air, water, and food.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • You may expect trouble when you see astronauts with guns, in spaceships that are not designed for combat. The last time an astronaut shoots a gun while in space, it backfires terribly.
    • At one point, Roy is given a mood stabilizer pill by the Cepheus crew so that he can pass his psychological exam. Never having needed one before, he is shown to pocket it. Later, he is unable to control his high pulse in an exam needed to re-board the Cepheus, but in an aversion, he does not take the pill, fails the exam, and has to find another way onto the rocket.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Roy is noted as having "combat training" at the beginning of the film, which sticks out in what appears to be a space exploration film, but, sure enough, Roy gets into several combat situations through the course of the plot.
  • Color Contrast: Roy and Helen wear contrasting colors in their scenes together — he wears white, she wears black.
  • Colonized Solar System: The Moon has been successfully colonized (with the downside of conflicts being imported on it) and scientific stations have been built on Mars. Spacecrafts have been sent much further, but no other planet has been colonized (for the likely reason that it's all gas giants and ice giants after Mars).
  • Cruel and Unusual Death:
    • One astronaut in the opening scene gets knocked off the space antenna and falls to their death from the upper atmosphere.
    • Captain Turner gets mauled by a baboon, and it can be seen that his nose has been eaten off.
    • The crew of the Lima Project all suffocated to death after Clifford severed their life support systems.
  • Disappeared Dad: Clifford McBride openly admits he's this, even stating that he never really cared about Roy or his mother which made it easy for him to go on the Lima Project.
  • Deadly Gas: An accidental version when a poorly-aimed shot ruptures an oxygen-displacing fire extinguisher and contaminates the atmosphere of the spacecraft, killing the firer as he isn't wearing a spacesuit.
  • Determinator: Thoroughly deconstructed with both Roy and his father Clifford. Both of them are so dedicated to their work to the point that they won't let anything to distract them from their goals, and they became apathetic to the things that happened around them, and eventually, being responsible for the deaths of those around them. Roy was able to realize this in the ending and goes back to Earth to reconnect with those around him, however, while Clifford has already gone off the deep end in his futile search for alien life.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Clifford has dedicated his life to proving the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. When his decades of research seem to instead prove that we're alone in the universe, he loses his will to live, which leads to...
  • Driven to Suicide: ... him intentionally drifting off into deep space.
  • Due to the Dead:
    • When someone dies in space his/her body gets prayers, then is Thrown Out the Airlock in his/her space suit. This is in contrast to the Lima crew who have been left floating where they died.
    • Roy has to throw Levant's body off the Moon buggy so he can Take the Wheel as they're still being chased. He later gives an approximate position to base of where the body can be retrieved.
  • Easily Forgiven: After everything he's done, viewers would expect Roy to be court-martialed at best, if not shot outright upon his return to Earth. The ending shows him at a coffee shop reconnecting with his wife, implying that he at least maintained his freedom. Successfully saving all life in the solar system may have given him some leeway. Cynically, a court case against him might also open an investigation into things Space Comm wouldn't want coming out, giving them incentive not to pursue..
  • Emotion Suppression:
    • What Roy has learned to do and did throughout his astronaut career. It took a toll on him.
    • The crew of the spacecraft taking Roy to Mars are required to take drugs for this, a process that they openly mock. Roy quietly palms his pill when no-one is looking as he doesn't need it.
  • EMP: A series of these wreak havoc on Earth, the Moon, and Mars, then are found to be originating from Neptune, which is what starts the plot.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Roy's first full scene has him on a space antenna that starts exploding. He calmly attempts to cut the power, then jumps off, reorients himself from a wild spin, and lands safely among falling debris, all without ever even raising his voice. This establishes him as The Ace with Nerves of Steel, which will then get deconstructed over the course of the film.
  • Explosive Decompression: Roy opens an airlock to dispatch the killer primates. It results in Ludicrous Gibs.
  • Facial Horror:
    • Getting your face gnawed off by a raging primate sure ain't pretty.
    • On entering the Lima, the first body is shown to be inside a spacesuit, but there is no helmet covering the head, only a bloody plastic bag.
  • Fallen Hero: Clifford McBride, which is a fact SpaceCom has been concealing from the rest of the world.
  • Fatal Family Photo: The Red Shirt lieutenant on the Moon really shouldn't have taped a photo of his wife and kid to his rover's dashboard. Though the audience is shown it after he's dead, not before.
  • First Contact: The stated goal of the Lima Project, which is why it was set up at the edge of the solar system where its long range sensors would not get interference from the sun's magnetic field. It failed, and may have proven we are alone in the universe.
  • Ghost Ship: The Norwegian space station and Lima station.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Touched upon with Roy who admits he once thought he'd enjoy not having people around and now can feel himself losing his grip on reality during his 79 day solo voyage between Mars and Neptune. Turns out this has already happened to his father.
  • Gratuitous Latin: Right in the title, which is Latin for "to the stars." The phrase itself tends to show up a lot in Pretentious Latin Mottos, often as part of a longer phrase (per aspera ad astra), which is fitting for a show about astronauts facing hardships for the sake of exploration.
  • Great Off Screen War: When asked if he's seen combat, Roy cites "three years over the Arctic Circle." It's implied there's a Space Cold War going on over resources with privateers being given safe haven by certain countries on the Moon.
  • The Greys: During his stopover on the Moon, Roy notices a man dressed up as one of these having his photo taken with tourist children.
  • Honor Before Reason: The crew of the Cepheus values the orders of their superiors over their own lives when Roy McBride hijacks the shuttle from them and tells them to repeatedly stand down. Their refusal to listen to him gets them killed for their actions.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: How Clifford McBride rationalizes shutting off life support to part of the station, killing not only those members of his crew who were mutinying to go home, but several who weren't. This stands in cold contrast to his son's My God, What Have I Done? moment. Both men acted to safeguard the mission they were on, but whereas Roy is horrified by the accidental results of his actions, Clifford feels justified in the deliberate consequences of his in service of the mission.
  • I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: Played with. Col. Pruitt suffers severe health problems (most likely a heart attack) shortly after arriving at the spaceport to Mars, which prompts him to hand Roy a small data storage device with classified information about the mission because he won't be able to accompany him any longer. It clues Roy in on what SpaceCom is really up to. The last we hear about Pruitt is that he had to undergo emergency surgery, so it's unclear if he actually died.
  • Internal Monologue: A LARGE part of the movie features Roy McBride as the narrator.
  • It's All About Me: Clifford was absolutely dead-set on discovering alien life in deep space, believing it to be his destiny, at the expense of his family (whom he admits he never cared for and didn't miss during his decades out in space). He even considered his crew to be completely expendable (and killed several when they mutinied against his fruitless search) so long as he completed his mission.
  • Killer Space Monkey: Literally with the voracious baboons Clifford bumps into in the Norwegian space station, even though they come from Earth.
  • Law of Inverse Recoil: Even firing an energy weapon is shown to produce enough recoil to throw off the shooter when he's in zero gravity.
  • Lineage Comes from the Father: Roy McBride is the son of famed astronaut Clifford McBride, whose heroism is commented on several times by different characters. Their relationship and, particularly, Roy's fears that he's becoming his father form the backbone of the movie, while his mother is mentioned only in passing and we never even learn her name or if she's still alive.
  • Like Father, Like Son: Clifford and Roy McBride respectively. And Roy is very much aware of it. Clifford even gripes how time robbed him of the perfect mission partner.
  • Majorly Awesome: Roy holds the rank of major in the US Space Command.
  • Maniac Monkeys: Deranged primate test subjects are loose in the Norwegian space station.
  • Manly Tears: Roy sheds one of these when his father tells him he never cared about him or his mother, making it easy to abandon them. As noted above, Brad Pitt's crying was invokedunscripted and zero-G-defying, but the director decided it was too good not to use.
  • The Mutiny: A portion of the Lima Project's crew mutinied against Clifford McBride during their voyage to Neptune. His solution was to vent the atmosphere and kill them.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Roy monologues, "What have I done?" after his attempt to infiltrate the mission accidentally kills the entire crew of the Cepheus.
  • Nerves of Steel: Deconstructed with Roy. It's mentioned that his heart rate has never risen above 80 BPM on a mission and he is always cool and collected, but this is largely the result of emotional repression and refusal to confront his personal demons. His character arc reveals him to be decidedly Not So Stoic.
  • Never My Fault: When they meet, Roy's father laments that "the fates deprived me of my perfect teammate," almost willfully ignoring that one scene earlier, he bludgeoned his son with the admission that he never loved or cared about his family and abandoned them for space. Clifford blames on destiny something that's absolutely his own responsibility; had he been there to be a father for his son, they could have been astronauts together rather than separated for most of their lives.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Helen Lantos has her career ruined and the remaining crew of the Cepheus died just because Roy McBride had to reconnect with his daddy. Had he obeyed the order to go back to Earth after finishing his mission on Mars, the Cepheus crew would have probably destroyed the Lima ship anyways. McBride's punishment? Back on Earth he also gets to reconnect with his estranged wife instead of being arrested.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The captain of the Cepheus insists on answering an SOS from a Norwegian space station between Earth and Mars, over Maj. McBride's insistence that his mission takes priority, and even goes so far as to go himself, noticing that his copilot is petrified at the thought of going on a space walk. The captain doesn't make it back.
  • Not the Fall That Kills You…: Justified examples
    • In the Action Prologue, Roy falls from the International Space Antenna which is so far up there's no atmosphere to slow his fall. However he keeps his head and waits till he's fallen enough that his parachute will work; even then it gets damaged by falling debris.
    • During the Moon chase, Roy's buggy gets rammed off a cliff, but fortunately the Moon's lower gravity enables him to land with such minimal impact that he can even drive off afterwards.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The crew of the Cepheus respond with cold silence to a friendly greeting from Roy, despite hero-worshipping him earlier as the son of the famous Clifford McBride. As they've just been given the mission to destroy the Lima project, it's implied they were told the same Awful Truth that Roy is shown shortly afterwards. This is likely why they respond aggressively to Roy trying to board the Cepheus.
  • Old Soldier: Roy is a 55-year old major, and Pruitt is a 84-year old colonel.
  • Orange/Blue Contrast: At the Lima station, there are multiple shots contrasting blue and yellow lighting. In at least one scene, this contrasts the coldness and isolation of space with humanity and human connection.
  • The Paragon Always Rebels: Clifford is universally considered the greatest astronaut to ever live, but he eventually succumbed to Space Madness and killed everyone else in the Lima Project so he could continue a failed mission, unintentionally causing power surges that threaten all life in the solar system while he's at it.
  • Planet Looters: Roy disdainfully slaps this label on mankind itself. He claims that if his father could see the ultra-commercialized mess they've made of the Moon, he'd be disgusted.
  • Putting on the Reich: Roy's uniform is extremely similar to the Wehrmacht's splinter pattern camouflage, in terms of shapes, number of shades, and "rain" pattern overprint. Soldiers on Mars likewise wear one of the Waffen-SS camouflage patterns.
  • Race Against the Clock: Roy has to get on board the Cepheus before liftoff. He barely makes it, but his unexpected appearance causes tragedy.
  • Ray Gun: Hard to tell at first but, as some gunfights happen during the film you noticed that each pistol used by the characters shoots out a pulse energy bolt. And seems to be quite powerful as it takes one or two shots max to down anything organic.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: The basic story is Apocalypse Now in, well, space. Both feature a protagonist who must voyage beyond civilization to confront a man who seems to have gone insane and presents a threat to his homeland. In both stories, the external voyage mirrors an internal journey of self-discovery.
  • Red Shirt: You could count on one hand the number of characters Roy interacts with that don't wind up either dead or dying over the course of the movie and still have fingers left over.
  • Ridiculous Future Inflation: Roy asks a space-flight attendant for a concession and gets charged $125. Part of this is future inflation, and part is probably just a crazy mark-up on everything in space.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Roy's wife is largely superfluous to the plot.
  • Scenery Porn: The film provides several breathtaking space vistas, like Earth as viewed from Luna, or Jupiter and Neptune from up close.
  • Schizo Tech: Space technology is so advanced that you can book scheduled flights to the Moon without much ado, the Moon itself is heavily developed, Mars has been settled as well, and there's mention of numerous other outposts throughout the solar system. At the same time, some elements of the space ports on Earth and the Moon sport a visual style straight out of The '60s, as do the lunar rovers Roy uses to reach his connecting flight to Mars. Meanwhile, most of what we see of contemporary society seems nearly unchanged from the late 2010s (Subway still has the exact same logo, for instance).
  • Shout-Out: The scene where a protagonist is attended by a stewardess on a trip to the Moon base, then ascends to the base in a pod-like landing vehicle, appears to be a Shout-Out to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Sleeper Ship: Cepheus is shown to have equipment to allow crew to spend parts of long trips in sedation. Roy fits himself with a feeding tube and applies electric muscle stimulators to his limbs before going under.
  • Single Tear: Roy's manly tear prompted by his father's callousness.
  • Sole Survivor: Roy for the Cepheus, Clifford for the Lima Project.
  • Space Is Noisy: Largely averted. Most of the sounds heard in space have a muffled quality, as if they were vibrations transmitted through Roy's spacesuit.
  • Space Madness: If Clifford McBride didn't go through this, the primates aboard the Norwegian ship sure have.
  • Space Pirates: Large swathes of the Moon are a lawless no man's land where rival countries compete over the local resources by any means necessary, including giving safe haven to gangs of pirates who have zero qualms about going Mad Max on convoys of the US military.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Gray's The Lost City of Z. Both films are character studies about explorers venturing out into the great unknown in search of another world that face mortal dangers, strained relationships with family, fathers and sons reflecting the desires of the need to know more life out there, and marvelously well done visuals. But where the two differ is in perspective and origin: Z was Based on a True Story of the real life Percy Fawcett whereas Ad Astra was an original idea Gray had cooking in his noggin since 2011. On top of that, whereas Z was about a father searching for unknown civilizations and then having his son almost inheriting that desire, Ad Astra is about a father who becomes a lunatic and the son, who is a fellow explorer, is terrified of becoming his dad due the actions his father committed.
  • Starscraper: The film's Cold Open is set on the International Space Antenna, a gigantic triple tower that reaches from the planet surface all the way into the upper atmosphere.
  • The Stoic: Deconstructed with Roy McBride who's BPM is said to have never gone above 80, even when he was plummeting off the International Space Antenna. Turns out this has less to do with Nerves of Steel than it does his disconnect from the world itself.
  • Take the Wheel:
    • Roy ends up having to do this when, during the landing on Mars, a pulse knocks the Cepheus off its landing trajectory and the Captain, formerly the second, of the ship freezes up rather than manually correcting the ship. He's actually quite understanding and tells the man when it's over he won't mention this to their superiors.
    • Roy does this with the lunar rover during the pirate attack, after the driver is shot in the head.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The three surviving crew members of the ship Roy takes to Mars are scientists, yet they try to kill him, an experienced and highly decorated astronaut, the moment someone on the radio tells them to. Roy doesn't even kill them himself. The first dies when the ship accelerates while she's in zero-G, causing her to fatally slam into the airlock on the other end. The remaining two suffocate when one of them ruptures a fire extinguisher containing oxygen-displacing gas by firing a weapon inside the ship, poisoning the air and killing them in under a minute.
  • Uncertain Doom: We don't learn if Colonel Pruitt survived the emergency surgery he had to undergo. We also don't learn the fate of Helen Lantos after she helps him sneak onboard the shuttle bound for Neptune. Roy tells her it's not going to end well for her helping him sneak on such a classified ship, but she says she doesn't care.
  • Unfit for Greatness: The Cepheus's second captain after the first one is killed by baboons expresses anxiety and cowardice from the very start that Roy picks up on immediately. This leads to Roy having to take control of the Cepheus during a problematic landing on Mars due to the captain locking up in fear, but Roy afterwards promises not to report the incident to SpaceCom.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Even though Roy saved their lives when he took manual control of the Cepheus during their descent to Mars, the crew tries to arrest and then murder him when he sneaks aboard for their trip out to Neptune. Though to be fair, he was an intruder on a highly classified mission that would determine whether the human race is destroyed.

"What did he find out there, in the abyss?"