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Media Review: November 2019

Ad Astra
Directed by James Gray
Produced by New Regency Pictures, Bona Film Group, and Keep Your Head
September 20, 2019

There’s a saying that I haven’t heard in a while, but I’m going to dust it off for this review: If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.

I’m going to start by telling you about the rabid space baboons.

I haven’t seen many other reviews of Ad Astra talk about this, I think because it’s too nonsensical and no one wants to acknowledge that this scene actually happened. But I can’t stop thinking about it. This takes place about a third of the way through the film. Major Roy McBride has escaped Moon Pirates in a moon buggy shootout and successfully reached his transport to Mars, where he will use the powerful Martian communications laser to send a message to a long-lost deep space mission led by his father that might not be so lost after all. En route, the transport gets a mayday from a Norwegian medical research and animal testing station that is just hanging out in the middle of space for Reasons. Unable to get a reply from the station crew, McBride and the transport captain suit up to take an EVA to investigate. Aboard the station, they find nothing, no crew, no bodies. One floating dead rat. McBride loses contact with the captain, goes to look for him, and discovers him being eaten by rage-filled baboons. McBride shoots the baboons, seals the captain’s smashed helmet with duct tape (really?), returns with him to the transport, but alas it is too late, the captain is dead, murdered by rabid space baboons.

I don’t understand the baboons. We never see what happened to the crew of the station. Did the baboons shove them out the airlock? Did they eat everything? Did the crew just step out for coffee? Apparently we don’t care. The transport simply leaves the station and continues on its way. The incident has no bearing on anything else that happens in the movie. (Neither do the Moon Pirates, alas.) Please don’t ask how the transport has enough fuel to slow down, stop, then accelerate again and still get from the Moon to Mars in nineteen days. This is so far down on the list of questions I have about this film that I will not be addressing it in this review.

Back to space baboons. Right after this McBride has a psych evaluation. He has a lot of them over the course of the film. Space Command is very concerned with the emotional stability of its people and so demands these self-administered evaluations before allowing them to continue on the next stage of their missions. In this one McBride talks about the incident with the baboons. You see, he understands their rage. He explains to the computer about his rage toward his father for leaving him, about his father’s rage, and how he understands why baboons would want to eat someone because Rage. (I confess, I sort of would have loved it if Brad Pitt gave into his baboon rage and tried to eat Tommy Lee Jones’ face off, at the film’s climax. That would have been different.)

Basically, this movie is so ham-handed it couldn’t find a way to talk about anger without detouring to encounter a couple of literal rabid space baboons in the literal middle of space for no apparent reason.

The whole film is a metaphor for emotional estrangement. Or it’s trying to be, but it does it badly. Not a single line of dialogue sounds like anything an actual human would actually say. The entire film is narrated by a plodding, morose voiceover in which McBride explains his feelings, or lack thereof. The movie is constantly explaining itself to the audience, and I just didn’t care.

Nothing about this story surprises. Roy’s voice over uses exactly the same cliché platitudes from every story about someone angsting about their emotional difficulties related to their absent father. The plot itself is vague. The Lima Project, in the vicinity of Neptune, fell out of contact, all hands presumed dead. Then these blasts of Earth-destroying radiation originate from the vicinity of the Lima Project’s last position. The elder McBride might still be alive and might know something about it. And he might have killed his crew. Spoiler alert: He totally does! He totally did! Turns out he’s really upset that they never found evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence (Did you look everywhere, McBride Senior? Are you sure?) and so is now trying to destroy Earth. I think? Roy arrives to find his father quite mad, like Marlow finally encountering Kurtz. Roy sets a nuke to destroy the station producing the radiation blasts and tries to get McBride Senior to come home, until Senior fires his suit’s jets and blasts off into the deep, never to be seen again. Roy decides not to go crazy and comes home. The end.

The film often feels like a throwback to those very serious science fiction movies of the fifties, the ones full of serious men in uniforms standing around utilitarian sets explaining the plot to each other. That, filtered through modern pop-psychology a la Facebook meme.

Cinematically, the film is obviously reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I know it’s kind of a bummer that we can’t seem to have a space movie without comparing it to the granddaddy of them all. But this one shows our hero being given a secret mission, put on a commercial transport to the moon, a journey we are shown in loving detail, where a flight attendant in graceful weightlessness comes to the cabin to check on him. All that’s missing is “The Blue Danube.” Ad Astra is also, inescapably, reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, or Heart of Darkness—the company officer being sent on a harrowing journey to check on a formerly loyal man who has apparently gone mad. Except more Apocalypse Now, because of that droning, relentless, and ultimately meaningless voiceover. There are shots of McBride in his craft and on Mars, subjected to weird lighting, pacing, going slowly mad unless he can pull himself out of it, just like Willard in Saigon. Frankly, it’s so derivative it’s ridiculous that we are meant to take any of this seriously. It’s like the filmmakers watched the two films and missed the point of both. There is nothing tense or harrowing about this journey.

Actually, there’s a really weird subtext to the whole thing I’m still trying to pick apart. I may be overthinking this in an effort to try to make it mean anything at all. Roy McBride is uber-competent. In the first scene—the only scene where I felt any kind of tension—he’s at work on the International Space Antennae, which is something like a space elevator, a structure climbing up to the edge of the stratosphere. A power surge from the blast of Neptune radiation all but destroys the tower, and Roy is sent plummeting. He has a parachute and survives. (As a fan of Project Excelsior [bit.ly/2mskDd6], I loved this bit. It’s the best action sequence in the film.) Further, he is constantly taking over for and doing a better job than the trained professionals ferrying him from point to point on his journey. His moon buggy driver has a photo of his wife and child taped to his dash so you know he’s doomed. After he dies, Roy deftly takes over the buggy and kills all the pirates himself without breaking a sweat. He lands the ship on Mars himself when the pilot freezes. He almost seems bored doing so, like he expected this to happen.

The Mars transport’s crew dutifully take their “mood stabilization” pills at the start of the journey. Roy pockets his. He’s uber-competent, in perfect control of himself without any outside help. His low pulse rate is the subject of admiration. He looks on with disdain when the crew comforts themselves with religion, praying at the start of the journey, over the captain’s body, and so on. He’s not like these other people who need constant monitoring and guidance. Like his father, he’s a throwback, a good Heinleinian space hero who can do it all and definitely doesn’t need feelings. “We’re a dying breed,” his father tells him when they finally reunite, and I think this is what he’s referring to: rugged men being rugged and capable, alone.

And yet, the film implies that the price for independence and uber-competence is madness. Ultimately, Roy rejects his father and that isolation, returns to Earth, and states that he is looking forward to ending his solitude. In the last scene of the film, he’s smiling over a cup of coffee, anticipating meeting his estranged wife. The voiceover is another one of these psych evaluations, which Roy sends with a command, the very last word of the movie: “Submit.”

Which is when I thought—is this is satire? Is this whole thing . . . commentary? That it’s better to be a happy cog than an independent mad hero? Is Roy really happy here or has he just given in? Is conformity good or bad? It certainly wasn’t depicted as a good thing earlier in the film. The subtext remains: There’s no place for an uber-competent, independent, emotionally reserved hero in this world. And it’s either/or—there’s nothing in the middle.

Well, no, we get a brief glimpse of one alternative outside this binary of tranquilized conformity and independent madness. There is exactly one bright spot in the midst of all this nonsensical plodding moroseness, even though I think that bright spot was an accident: the intake official on Mars, a woman with crazy hair and too much eyeliner, who is the only character in the film who talks like an actual person, matter-of-fact and doing her job—we’ve all met that official who is doing several things at once and doesn’t have time to look at you and yet exudes a vast confidence in the middle of her domain. You imagine that she might actually like her job, and like living on Mars and dealing with these weird-ass sad people. She’ll go home at the end of the day to her wife, and they’ll make cocktails out of the home-cooked hooch they’ve been distilling in their closet and settle in to watch reruns of their favorite show. This character is played by the only actor in the film not phoning it in: Natasha Lyonne, and I may finally get around to watching Russian Doll now because of this.

So, well done on that score, film.

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s latest novels include the post-apocalyptic murder mystery, Bannerless, winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, and its sequel, The Wild Dead. She wrote the New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, along with several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, and upwards of 80 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at carrievaughn.com.