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Sunday, January 12, 2020

Ad Astra Exasperata

Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019) is sumptuously gorgeous, with incredible production design and breathtaking interplanetary vistas. Its music is understated and effective, and Brad Pitt's vulnerable, melancholic performance is touching.

But on a story level, Ad Astra fails.

First, because grounded science fiction stories like this demand fidelity to real-world science, or at the very least, the issues presented must be hand-waved with some kind of plausible explanation. Audiences who recall their grade school physics and astronomy lessons will be pulled out of the film throughout its running time. This fault alone sinks the film.

Second, the father-son dynamic here is unnecessary and uncompelling--even distracting.

Third, the film's fundamental premise - that humanity would spend gazillions of dollars searching for extraterrestrial life - simply isn't believable as presented. While I would love to know the answer to the question of "Are we alone?", it beggars belief that any human society would invest in spaceships that look like they're worth more than Earth's entire current GDP. No, in order for me to believe that we would pursue this endeavor, we need to know more about how civilization on Earth has progressed. Having the luxury of answering the question at such vast expense would have to mean that Earth is, essentially a utopia, and that we've solved the majority of Earth's problems: climate change, disease, poverty, human rights. Had the filmmakers presented this quest as humanity's last great mission, I could have believed it. But we barely see Earth at all in this film, and what we see of human culture seems somewhat paranoid and invasive.

I wanted to love this film, but it collapses under the weight of its own implausibility. It's too bad, because the film almost becomes interesting in the final moments, when we learn that humanity is, in fact, alone. (Though how would we ever know for sure?)

Our collective response to the answer to the question "Are we alone?" is fascinating to imagine, and Pitt's response is, at the very least, interesting and believable.

In a better film, it might even be profound. 

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