Brad Pitt-starring sci-fi epic Ad Astra is now in cinemas, and adds a new entry into the pantheon of movies about men sadly introspecting in space and dealing with their emotional issues through the medium of multi-billion-dollar interstellar technology.
And in the epic sprawl of Ad Astra’s story, it’s only natural that a few key details fall by the wayside, which is why here at RadioTimes.com we’re taking you through a few of the lingering plot points left unclear at the film’s end.
And be warned - from hereon out we'll be dealing with major spoilers from the film.
1. When is Ad Astra set?
Ad Astra is set in a somewhat ill-defined “near future” where humans have slightly more advanced technology (the look and feel of which was influenced by NASA during production) but a similarly functioning society.
In other words, we have commercial travel to the Moon, and Mars, and the possibility of travel to Pluto, but geopolitics are roughly similar and (from what we see of it) the military also functions in a recognisable fashion.
However, we don’t see too much of life on Earth after early scenes introducing Brad Pitt’s Major Roy McBride, so it’s possible there are greater changes than first appear.
2. What is SpaceCom?
It’s a little unclear in the film, but it seems like the oft-cited SpaceCom seems to be a corporation with military elements as well as a public-facing travel agency. Within Ad Astra, it’s the driving force determined to track down Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride, and the employer of most (if not all) of the astronauts encountered in the film.
3. What do Moon Pirates even want?
While headed to a launch on the dark side of the Moon, Roy and Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and their escorts are attacked by pirates, who were previously mentioned as a danger in disputed territories of the lunar body.
However, it is slightly unclear what these pirates get out of their (presumably very costly) activities. Protection money? Well, maybe – it’s mentioned that some nations just pay them off – but that would make them mere gangsters. The specific labelling of them as pirates implies that they’re stealing goods, vehicles or cargo, and while it’s possible they do get on with some of this that’s not what we see in Ad Astra.
Instead, our one sighting of the Moon Pirates is them brutally attempting to attack and destroy Roy and Pruitt’s convoy for seemingly no benefit at all. They’re not carrying any goods, which is pretty clear on the open moon buggies. They don’t try to take hostages, or steal the vehicles – they just kill people and destroy their buggies indiscriminately, taking a lot of casualties and damaging their own expensive transports into the bargain.
Maybe, just maybe these pirates were advertising their protection racket – “look, here’s what happens if you don’t pay” – or maybe they were trying to see if they could steal any cargo or hostages, only to be surprised by the level of resistance they faced.
But frankly, as Moon Pirates go they weren’t nearly as concerned with Moon Piracy as you might expect.
4. Why were there deadly apes in space?
While en route to Mars the ship carrying Roy McBride picks up a distress call, which they investigate. Unfortunately, on the ship in question the mystery of the missing crew is answered when Roy and Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) are attacked by floating, blood-crazed baboons.
While not explicitly stated, it seems clear that the baboons were the subject of experiments in space, which could explain their aggression – it’s also possible that whatever was being down to them was done in space because it wasn’t fully legal on Earth, though Ad Astra doesn’t explicitly state this – but perhaps the baboons were just being themselves.
Whatever the reasoning, the baboons’ escape was only possible thanks to the power-outing “Surge”, emanating from Clifford McBride’s lab far in outer space. Presumably, the primates attacked and devoured any surviving crew when their cages stopped locking.
5. Why did Roy have to go to Mars anyway?
The driving force of the film is Roy’s journey to Mars, where over several attempts he sends a message via secure laser-link to try and get a response from his missing father, Roy McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).
In practice, this means just reciting from a pre-prepared statement in a room through an ordinary microphone over and over again, which rather begs the question – why bother bringing Roy through dangerous territory (Moon Pirates, deadly space baboons and so on) when they could just record his voice?
Yes, it had to be broadcast from the secure facility on Mars – but couldn’t they just record it on Earth, send it to Mars and play it from there? Orders and communication seemed to be sent fairly easily through the solar system, so why not audio?
And even if audio couldn’t be digitally sent, why bring Roy in person when you could just have his recorded message couriered into space more subtly? Sure, it wouldn’t be able to respond to a message back, but given that the higher-ups immediately cut Roy off when they DO get a response from his father, it seems unlikely they’d want to do that anyway.
So what is the answer? Well, from an outside perspective it’s obvious why Roy has to go there – it progresses the plot, and he wouldn’t get to his father’s base further in Outer Space otherwise – and within the story, perhaps his presence there was simply to help sell the lie.
After all, in the end Roy only gets through to his father when he goes off-script and speaks from the heart, and it could be that SpaceCom wanted to keep this option in play. Or at least to have enough varied versions from Roy that Clifford wouldn’t be sure of the deception.
6. Why wasn’t Major Roy McBride arrested back on Earth?
At the conclusion of Ad Astra, after finding and losing his troubled father and destroying his lab to prevent the Surges, Roy McBride manages to (sort of) bodyboard his way through an asteroid field to return to his ship. Later, we see him back on Earth in a coffee shop, apparently attempting to reconnect with his ex-wife (Live Tyler) after acknowledging that his closed-off state and focus on duty (a dark echo of his father’s obsession) was no way to live his life.
But audiences may have wondered how he managed to return to normality so easily considering that the last time he was in contact with SpaceCom he disobeyed their orders, stowed onboard a ship, attempted to take control of it (now THAT’S Space Piracy) and somewhat inadvertently caused the deaths of all three crew-members.
The answer? Well, it’s probably just spin. We already learned how Clifford McBride’s crimes (murdering his crew more than once) were brushed under the carpet, his legacy held up as that as a hero instead of the significantly more complicated man that he really was. It seems likely that Roy’s actions were similarly forgiven in order to save face from SpaceCom (as well as hide the source of the Surge and the subsequent deaths it caused), on the condition that he keep quiet about what happened.
7. And finally - is this even the sort of film that lends itself to nitpicky questions?
No, not really. While it does have some big, slightly surreal bits of set-piece action – it’s a credit to the authentic feel of the storytelling that the floating baboons, space pirates or meteor-boarding don't feel particularly odd while watching – Ad Astra is more concerned with emotional introspection than 100% internal logical consistency.
The journey Roy McBride is as much internal as it is interstellar, and to an extent all the weird and wonderful things he gets up to are separate to his emotional arc, and could be replaced by other events without making much of a change to the finished film’s conclusion.
All that Pitt’s Roy McBride really needed were obstacles, challenges to make his Heart of Darkness-meets-Space Odyssey a true quest, complete with a monster at the end, and if that means we have to swallow Moon pirates and Apes in Space, well, so be it.
To steal a phrase, non est ad astra mollis e terris via – there is no easy way from the earth to the stars.
Ad Astra is in UK cinemas now