Sunday, January 19, 2020

Ad Astra

When I first saw the trailer for Jim Gray's Ad Astra I had a sort of deja vu. It seemed like some old sci-fi novel from the Asimov era or something. But it was in fact an original script. It might be that this project has been talked about since 2013 and was officially announced by Gray in 2016. His aim was to create a very realistic project of man's push into the outer solar system, with a story experience something akin to Heart of Darkness. And the title phrase, which means "to the stars" in Latin, has been used by a few other authors like Jack Campbell and Kevin McLaughlin to create anthologies within the same general framework. So when I recently rented the film I found myself delighted that it was living up to its reputation.

There is a lot to take in over the course of this film. I am not a huge fan of the ominous psychological sci-fi (see Solaris). But in this film it works decently for several reasons. First, the psychology is not alien - it is grounded in family relationships and universal struggles that many of us face in life, especially that between fathers and sons. Second, the near future world that the story lives in is grounded in all the promised realism. A lot of thought went into what that world might actually look like. As I describe some of it I think I should put in the spoiler warning here.
============================spoilers below==============================
We have colonized the moon, but instead of the pristine look of Space 1999, we have a typical airport with shops and conveyer belts. And there are war zones representing territorial disputes over whatever mining resources are in play. Trips to the moon are like airline flights, the only difference being the huge price tags for amenities due to inflation. Launches from the moon take you to Mars which is more of a research facility. All this technology is beautifully re-created on screen without using any distracting futuristic gadgetry. The attention to detail is impressive.

There are some really memorable sequences that are integral to the story but that I've never quite seen done before. The opening includes an accident on a giant space antenna which is designed for a long wave type of SETI effort. The way it plays out on screen is spectacular. There is also chase sequence on the moon where space pirates use fast moving rovers for their attack but the low gravity environment is still represented nicely.

But I have to put just as much credit on how the story points move the narrative along with urgency, mystery, and heart. Brad Pitt's character, astronaut McBride, comes across as outwardly stoic but inwardly extremely compassionate toward all those he encounters. He slowly makes contact with his inner feelings at the same rate as he approaches his long lost father near the planet Uranus. It will move slowly for some, but for me, it was just enough to take it all in.

There are a few places where the physics doesn't quite add up, but they are generally peripheral save for the one that forms the basis for the entire journey. This is the idea that a particle surge in the outer solar systems can travel all the way to earth and cause any significant damage. I mean, if the reason his father went out there was to get away from solar wind interference, how could any "surge" travel all the way back against that wind and still be stronger than the sun's own radiation when it reaches earth enough to puncture the magnetic shield? If you can forgive that story point then I believe sci-fi fans will be treated to one of the few real efforts to do science fiction on film in a long time.

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