Boy howdy, Hollywood needs science consultants. In fact, that’s quite an understatement.
I just watched Ad Astra with one of my girlfriends. I really can tell that the filmmakers were trying for a 2001: A Space Odyssey type feel here, with lots of moodiness and psychology and sometimes high drama and overall the solitude of Deep Freaking Space. They were working at that so earnestly that I feel bad reporting that the film is pretty much a turkey.
There be spoilers, yarrrr!
Early in the film, we meet the protagonist. (This is a rather grizzled looking Brad Pitt. Is Angie such a PITA that she’s prematurely aged him?) After a power surge, he suffers a near-fatal fall from a space elevator, saved only by his parachute. There actually has been a near space parachute jump before, so that much is realistic. Note well, space elevators aren’t entirely practical unless you build them out of carbon nanotubes, or use some other design like a Lofstrom loop, but I’ll let that one slide. Hey, it’s The Future, right? I might wonder, though, how was it that his tether came loose? Did I miss something?
So it turns out that it’s suspected that these power surges seem to be caused by a distant antimatter reaction. Too much of that could destroy the world. He’s told basically that this might be caused by his long lost father’s distant rocket ship sending power surges earthward. They want him to go to Mars so he can send some broadcasts to Dad on a special laser transmitter they have there. Uh – wait a minute, can’t they just have him record the messages, then they send the file to Mars? Wouldn’t that be a heck of a lot faster?
So first they send him to the moon. It kind of got turned into a tourist trap. I’ll give them points for an imaginative perspective on that. An announcer mentions territorial disputes and moon pirates. (Pay attention, they’re sticking the magazine into Chekhov’s Gun here!) One thing they don’t show is everyone bouncing lightly or shuffling from low gravity. Springy harnesses, bluescreened out later, could’ve produced this effect.
Then they have to cross to the far side of the moon, cutting through a rough neighborhood, to get to the launch pad with the Mars rocket. I’ll add that although the moon is considerably smaller than the earth, that’s still going to be a heck of a long drive. (When I wrote Space Vixen Trek Episode 17: Tomorrow the Stars, I had a lunar globe and carefully figured out what was going on where and what would be realistic.) Then – whaddaya know – along come these moon pirates! Fortunately, Brad Pitt is capable of holding a punctured part of his space suit closed as he pops a cap into one of the bad guys. I might even say that the whole concept is a little bit flaky, but I did have lots of space pirates in Space Vixen Trek Episode 4.135667: Walking the Planck. Still, might I ask, how come they don’t have shuttles like on Space: 1999? I’ll add that this 1970s TV series was a freaking classic, and superior to Ad Astra.
So he gets to the far side of the moon, and they blast him off in a huge rocket. “Get your ass to Mars!” as Arnold-chan told himself in a much better movie. This one is similar to a Saturn V, except that it doesn’t come apart in stages. A plot point is made later of how it wobbles off center during the landing on Mars. Well, a rocket that operates in a very thin atmosphere (at most) wouldn’t need to be needle-shaped for aerodynamic properties. What’s more staggering is that it gets there in a couple of weeks, and apparently not under constant propulsion. Nope, doesn’t work that way. A Hohman type 2 transfer orbit to Mars would take over a year, the exact length depending on the positions of the planets.
During the trip, they get a distress signal from a space station that just so happens to be on the way. They stop (apparently having enough spare fuel to brake and resume) to investigate. By the time they arrive, nobody is answering. By now, distress signals in space should be considered “Shmuck Bait“. If it happens in Star Trek, then some shit’s gonna go down very soon, often involving a dead redshirt. Whenever you get a distress signal in space, do as the New Yorkers do and don’t get invuolved! For that matter, hasn’t anyone on board seen Alien? That one should be like Moby Dick in The Future. Anyway, when they get there, it turns out that there was a BLM uprising going on in the space station, and Brad barely makes it out. The mission commander, however, is killed by one of the peaceful protesters.
So the spaceship gets to Mars, and I can really tell that the filmmakers were trying hard with their set designs. Actually, I’ll give them surrealism points for that. The protagonist finds out some secret information. It turns out that his dad’s mind slipped a cog out in deep space. (Well, we kind of figured that out already, but still…) The protagonist is ordered back to earth, but decides to go rogue instead. Brad gets back on the rocket by swimming through an underground lake (huh?), then jumping onto the rocket, now headed out to Neptune, just as it takes off. Don’t try that for real, kids; you’ll get burnt to a crisp.
The rest of the crew don’t take kindly to him stowing away, and try to kill him. He kills all of them instead, inadvertently, so they really sucked at fighting. I might ask, though – who the hell brings guns on board a spaceship? Even if his dad’s a loon and they have to neutralize him, why not use something like tranquilizer darts that won’t have the risk of puncturing a hull?
The rest of the trip takes – wait for it – 79 days. That’s from Mars to freaking Neptune. Nuh uh. Ain’t happening. Voyager II took a dozen years to cruise out there. In the movie, they’re in a rocket using old-school chemical propulsion, unlike the antimatter rocket used to send Brad Pitt’s old man out into the Great Beyond. If they’re using some other kind of propulsion, they can do that – this is The Future, after all – but they’d better explain it, at least in passing. That’s the right way to do suspension of disbelief.
So Brad finally gets to the rogue ship and brings a suitcase nuke on board. There, he confronts Dad. I’d expected a little more, after all this buildup – maybe some Apocalypse Now kind of thing – but I won’t mark off points. However, I certainly will do so for what follows. The antenna thing was a little much. Still, if his own spaceship just so happened to be in its rotational plane, and he just so happened to time it right, then he might could fling himself off of it and reach his destination accurately which is maybe half a mile away or so. The next thing to do is find the nearest Stop-N-Rob and buy a fistful of lottery tickets.
What follows is worse. So the suitcase nuke goes off on the other ship. Apparently it’s considerably more powerful than a Davy Crockett device. Well, what about the antimatter, though? If you nuke a ship that has an antimatter fuel tank, what’s gonna happen? That’s right – it all escapes the magnetic confinement, reacts with normal matter, and everything goes poof! If all that antimatter leaking out randomly was enough to threaten the earth at such a great distance, then blowing up the tank should’ve burnt Brad’s ship to dust and put a giant dent into Neptune rather like in Event Horizon. No such thing happens.
Anyway, Brad happens to be out of gas, but he uses the explosion of the suitcase nuke to propel his own ship. This actually is a design concept in Project Orion, but a spacecraft using nuclear pulse propulsion would need a specially designed push-plate for that, and surely a suitable shock absorber. Time passes, and Brad’s ship re-enters earth’s atmosphere. Uh, wait a minute – you have a nuke going off at point A, propelling an object at point B, and it lands perfectly at point C which happens to be 2.8 billion miles away, give or take. You could, if you wished, use a hand grenade to knock a billiard ball into one of the pockets. However, if your pool table is the size of the solar system, you’d better have everything lined up with great precision. It ain’t gonna happen by random chance.
When he gets back, Brad just has a modest amount of beard growth, so the return trip was a couple of months or so. Think of what kind of acceleration it would’ve taken to make it back that quickly. It all came from that single nuke burst. Therefore, it should’ve turned him into Pace Thick & Chunky Salsa. For that matter, that’s not how nuclear propulsion works. The Project Orion concept is to use a large number of small nukes to get the spaceship going, and once again to decelerate. On that note, the movie doesn’t go into what decelerated him. If there was nothing to slow the ship, it would’ve left quite an impressive crater somewhere, probably causing an ecological catastrophe too.
The film does end on a positive note, but overall, it was a few too many ass pulls.