In Ad Astra, Brad Pitt plays astronaut Roy McBride, the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who disappeared 16 years earlier on a mission to Neptune. When mysterious explosions start to rattle the solar system, Space Command starts to suspect that Clifford might still be alive and dispatches Roy to journey through the solar system to help get to the bottom of it. It turns out the solar system is a pretty dangerous place, filled with pirates, dangerous animals, gun-toting humans, and psychological trials.
Aside from being a film critic, I’m also a professional astronomer, TV host, and science advisor for books, comic books, TV, and movies. A movie like Ad Astra puts all my skills to the test. I wrote an article about the science in the movie over at Gizmodo, so if you want a detailed breakdown of the science, check it out. And, along with James Darling I’ve made a Science Vs. Cinema video about Ad Astra, which I’m excited to debut here! Warning, in the video and in this review I’m going to get into spoiler territory.
In this article, I’ll focus instead more on the film’s merits or failings itself. Many people think that if the science is wrong, I just won’t like the movie, or if the science is right, I will. That’s just not true. Movies like Gravity get plenty of the science wrong, as I explained here, though I still love it. And an example of a movie that gets all the details of being an astronaut right is Proxima, which bored me to death. Instead, my principle is that if you need to bend a few rules to tell a better story, that’s fine. Just don’t get things wrong because you don’t know what you’re talking about. And by all means, go beyond what we know now — that’s what science fiction is all about! Two great examples of this are The Martian and Arrival — in our Science Vs Cinema videos about them we talked to both scientists and filmmakers about the tradeoffs you have to make between getting the story and the science just right so that both work.
In the Ad Astra universe, humans have started to settle the solar system, and have finally elevated the idea of searching for alien life to one of their top priorities. That is a great concept for a movie! Can you imagine seeing this interplanetary version of humanity — one that has adapted to life outside Earth, is curious about the cosmos, and is thoughtful about our place in the universe?