Film Review: Ad Astra (2019)

One very hot afternoon when I was feeling a bit ‘floppy’, I sat down to watch this film that I had recorded from the TV a while ago. It is a Space/Science Fiction film set in an unspecified future not that far removed from what we know now.

People are living on The Moon, and commuting there by commercial spaceship. Others are living on Mars, long enough for someone in their late 20s to have been born there. On Earth, we would recognise daily life, though NASA has been replaced by ‘Spacecom’, a branch of the US Military.

Brad Pitt stars as astronaut Roy McBride, a major in Spacecom. He is dedicated, committed, and very focused. So much so that his wife has left him. He is the son of a very famous astronaut, a man who travelled to Neptune to try to discover alien life and is believed to be dead. Then strange energy pulses begin to cause devastation on Earth, as anti-matter is projected through space. The authorities trace the source to Neptune, and believe it is something to do with the earlier mission involving Roy’s father.

So Roy is recruited to travel to Mars, where a special laser-guided communications system can project his message to Neptune, hoping to discover if his father is still alive, and responsible for the anti-matter pulses. First he travels to The Moon, where a special rocket wil take him to Mars from the dark side. We soon discover that The moon is a dangerous place. Not unlike the old Wild West, it is lawless, and bothered by Space Pirates trying to steal the valuable minerals. (Or anything else) After an encounter with said pirates, Roy gets to his spacecraft to travel to Mars.

On the way, they answer a Mayday call from a Norwegian spaceship. (Norway apparently has a space programme by then.) If you have ever watched any modern Space epic, you can guess that doesn’t end well. But Roy survives, and continues on to Mars. Once there, he is used by Spacecom to contact his father, and then suddenly told he is being sent home. When he discovers that they intend to explode a nuclear bomb on his father’s old spaceship, he hijacks the ship carrying the bomb.

No more spoliers in this long film, (124 minutes) so I will stop outlining the plot.

What we have to do is to suspend some belief, ignore the science, and treat this a lot like an adventure film set in space. Yes, we have elements of Conrad’s book ‘Heart of Darkness’, and the film ‘Apocalypse Now’, but ‘Ad Astra’ manages to overcome those comparisons with some excellent special effects. Those effects are never overblown, and mostly believeable. In fact, they are on a par with Kubrick’s ‘2001’ at times.

Much of the film is slow-paced, but the viewer always understands why. I didn’t feel it dragged too much, though some complained that it did. If you can forgive the liberties taken with some of the science, and treat it like a drama, you should not be disappointed. Hollywood stalwarts Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones make the most of small but significant roles, and though I didn’t know anyone else in the cast that well, they all did their jobs supporting. (Including Liv Tyler as Roy’s wife, mostly seen in flashback.)

This is Pitt’s film completely. He is in every scene, and earned his money. Brad stepped up, delivering a quiet performance with no flash, in a film that I surprised myself by enjoying.

Here’s a trailer.

In The Eyes Of A Child

With our grandson staying here overnight, I naturally avoided the news on TV. However, he asked to watch a cartoon this morning, and while scrolling numerous channels to try to find what he wanted, I momentarily clicked on the channel BBC NEWS 24.

Of course, it was about the situation in Ukraine, and a live report from Kiev.

I flicked off more or less immediately, but he had already noticed it.

Turning to me, he said this.

“The world is going to be broken. I don’t want to live here when the world is broken, so I am going to live in Space with mummy and daddy. I like the idea of living in space, as I can float around”.

He is 7 years old.

The Mind-Blowing Universe

The new James Webb space telescope is soon to be operating, and sending back images from parts of our universe never seen before.

That made me think about something that happened when I was in junior school, around seven or eight years old. (Before space travel) We were learning about the planets, and their distances from Earth.

Then the teacher showed us a photo of The Milky Way, taken by a telescope on a high mountain somewhere. Someone asked her how far away The Milky Way was. She talked about estimates, and said it was around 30,000 light years from us.

I had no concept of what a light year was. (To be honest, I still haven’t.)

Someone else asked her if The Milky Way was the end of outer space. She smiled, and shook her head. Then she said something I have never forgotten.

“The universe is limitless, so it has no end. The next nearest galaxy is two million light years from Earth.”.

Ten years before I ever tried mind-expanding drugs, her statement completely blew my mind.

Sixty-two years later, I still cannot get my head around the concept.

The Second Biggest Bang

In case you hadn’t noticed, there has been some fascinating news from outer space. The second biggest explosion in the history of the universe has been captured on a telescope.

The facts surrounding this are mind-blowing.

The huge release of energy is thought to have emanated from a super-massive black hole some 390 million light years from Earth.

“To give it another dimension; [the cavity] is about one-and-a-half-million light-years across. So the hole that was punched in the surrounding space in the hot X-ray plasma would take light itself one-and-a-half-million years to traverse”. (A Scientist)

‘A super-massive black hole released the energetic explosion over 240 million years ago. The explosion occurred in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, about 390 million light-years from Earth, and was so powerful it blasted a hole in the cluster plasma – the super-hot gas surrounding the black hole’. (Science Focus)

So, the light from this explosion was so far away, it took almost 400,000,000 years to reach Earth. (And I think Norwich is a long way to travel.)

Try getting your head around that, I can’t!

(Anyway, better than me moaning about the weather, which by the way is bloody awful!)

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

A woman on The Moon.

This month sees the 50th anniversary of The Moon landings, in 1969. When I woke up today, I was thinking about that, and the sheer scale of Space, as we understand it. And that’s the second time this year I have done that, and been prompted to write about it here.

I was seventeen years old at the time, and watched it on television, along with everyone else on Earth who had access to a TV set. To be honest, I was unimpressed. I didn’t think it looked much like The Moon as I imagined it, and the limited walkabouts gave me no impression of size, or any vast landscape to admire the strangeness of.

Maybe that sounds churlish, to not be impressed by what so many believe to be mankind’s greatest achievement? Sorry if it does, but I wasn’t, and I am still indifferent to it. Even as a teenager, I just could’t see the point of it. All that time, and a huge amount of money, just spent to land some men on an uninhabitable rock. Science and exploration were the reasons given at the time. We would learn so much, discover wonders, and change the future for the better.

I didn’t buy that. It was just about who got there first, and which flag was raised before any other.

It wasn’t too long before I happily joined in with the conspiracy theorists. Did they actually go? Was it all possibly filmed on a secret film set, tucked away in some remote part of America? The footage sent back was ‘limited’ at best. It could certainly have been a set, there was no doubt about that. But although I still have some nagging doubts, I was captivated by later views of The Earth from space, and on balance, I believe they did go.

But I still believe it was ultimately pointless, and that so much more could have been done with the vast amounts of money spent on what was ultimately a ‘vanity project’.

Like most people, I am rather fascinated by the size of the Universe. The stars are amazing, and the incomprehensible distances involved are impossible to imagine. Fifty years later, and we have satellite technology, space junk floating around, and talk of a new mission, Artemis, in 2024. This time, they want to put a woman on The Moon. I am all for equal opportunities, but I think that a country with a health care crisis, unresolved environmental issues, and a propensity to invade any other country they don’t like could find a better use for the (at least) $30 BILLION it will cost.

But it will be a woman on The Moon. And an American woman, of course.

I’m no scientist, but it seems to me that fifty years later, they have learned nothing.

Thinking Aloud On A Sunday

Space: The Final Frontier.

I woke up thinking about Space today. Probably because there has been a lot of fuss this week about the photo of a black hole in space. Scientists don’t really know what happens inside a black hole, but they have theories of course. They may lead to another dimension entirely, or back to one that is parallel to our own. Time might stand still inside a black hole, creating a Star-Trek style time warp, changing the concept of time as we understand it.

That sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

But then I heard that this monster black hole is actually 55,000,000 light years away from Earth. I don’t know a lot about light years, but driving 130 miles to London seems like a mission to me, so I am guessing that 55,000,000 light years is a considerable distance, to say the least.

I looked up how many miles are in just one light year. I don’t really understand the answer, but here it is. 5.8786254 x 1012 miles. Sounds like a lot of miles to me. I multiplied that by 55,000,000, and got this answer. 327 204 289 764 miles. I’m guessing the 327 is ‘trillion’, and the 204 is ‘billion’. If so, it’s a lot further than my imagination can reach, in terms of comprehending distance. Much further away than anything else that is a long way away, I’m guessing.

Is it just me, or does this all seem rather pointless to anyone else? The cost of producing these current photos alone is estimated to be around $16,000,000 dollars. And it’s not actually a photo of the black hole at all. It is the result of pointing a number of radio telescopes into the region, and then getting a computerised prediction of what it would look like, based on the ‘findings’. If you gave a group of nursery children enough marker pens and asked them to draw a black hole in space, they would probably have come up with something remarkably similar. A big red circle, with a black hole in the middle of it.

I am old enough to remember when the first spaceships were launched, and I have always wondered about the point of it all, and how much better the money could have been spent on problems we face on Earth. Since then, we have had Moon Landings, (or did they?) Space Walks, Space Stations, Space Weapons, and Satellites. Then there were ‘ robot landers’, small vehicles creeping around on planets that looked a lot like Death Valley in America, sending back hazy images of ‘other worlds’.

Now there is talk of an American ‘Space Force’, armies based in space, presumably on very large space stations. In the decades following Yuri Gagarin’s trip into space in 1961, we have had some very nice photos of planet Earth from above, the idea of teflon-coating saucepans, (apparently) and satellites to make using mobile phones and TV channels easier. The military can watch their drones and bombs kill people across continents, in real time, and terrorist suspects can be observed as they enjoy a mint tea in Damascus.

But was it all worth it? Do we still need to keep spending money on something so far away, we cannot even imagine the distance in our educated minds?

I suggest not.

Not on a planet where we face untold issues around climate change, plastic pollution, water shortages, disease, and a list of other problems too big to add here.