Both Ad Astra and Interstellar deal with juggling space travel and interpersonal relationships in a not-too-distant future, making them the sort of modern sci-fi stories that are more focused on the cerebral platitudes they present than on the authenticity of their science. Both focus on men who must go on daring missions into space to save their species, while wrestling with their own inner emotional turmoil on their journeys to the stars.
But getting beyond the layers of subtext and the contrite messages they both espouse, how well does Ad Astra hold up against Interstellar, now five years past its debut? Ad Astra certainly builds upon a foundation created by Interstellar, but can audiences care about Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) and his mission to find his astronaut father, if they don't get an accurate sense of his humanity? Read on for 5 things Ad Astra does better than Interstellar, and 5 things it missed the mark on.
10 BETTER: CHARACTER STUDY
Interstellar is an ensemble piece, and as a result has a lot of dynamic performances to juggle. Coop is arguably a more likable character than Roy, but we don't spend as much time with him, and he doesn't have an inner monologue guiding his actions and reactions to the events around him.
Roy, by contrast, is the central focus of the film. Like Gravity and First Man, Ad Astra closely follows the highs and lows of his space journey while also tracking the same internal emotional journey. He is the man he is because he's had to be, but after he reaches his journey's end, he may have a choice after he's stared at the heart of darkness.
9 MISSED THE MARK: VIOLENCE IN SPACE
If Ad Astra fails to launch on anything, it's with its depictions of violence in space. So that this film isn't just a slow burn, it amps up its steady locomotion of tension with several violent sequences that while exhilarating, are also head-scratching.
In one notable scene, Roy tries to sneak aboard a rocket heading to Neptune (never mind that he had to swim through an underground Martian lake that would actually be frozen) where he's confronted by the gun-totting captain. Who would shoot a weapon in a vessel where one hole could kill everyone with depressurization? The violence that results is not only unintentionally comical, but wildly inaccurate.
8 BETTER: THE RIGORS AND PERILS OF SPACE TRAVEL
The film focuses mainly on the effects of space travel, in a way that's much more realistic than in Interstellar. The rigors and perils of interacting with space are shown in a stark, unremitting light, which makes it into a much more grim film, but necessarily so.
Throughout Interstellar, the actual space travel never feels as isolating or depressing as it does in Ad Astra. It's presented as a wonderment, a testament to humanity's great achievements. Ad Astra may posit that space can be tedious, dangerous, and lonely, but it also galvanizes the human spirit.
7 MISSED THE MARK: THE SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF
Ad Astra has several scenes in it that require audiences to suspend their disbelief to such an extent as to be almost comical. It is buoyed off that adage of "If there's a will, there's a way," and the power of Roy's will in the film is just strong enough to defy reality concerning stowing away in a rocket and navigating the asteroid belt around Neptune.
In Interstellar, the concept of space is warped into an almost fairytale, but in a way that suits the narrative structure of the film. Its "twist" is logical within the framework of its perspective and Christopher Nolan's vision, and so we can accept its merit without being pulled out of the film.
6 BETTER: IT FELT LESS EMOTIONALLY CONTRIVED
One of the biggest problems with Interstellar is that it often felt emotionally manipulative. When the characters are running the waterworks in a vain attempt to get you to purposefully empathize, the storyline needs to have a strong enough foundation of empathy to ensure your emotions align with the characters. Otherwise, the scenes feel contrived.
In Ad Astra, the emotional current is understated. It ebbs and flows, with no giant tidal waves of superfluity. Some may say it's compartmentalized, but the characters are not prone to superficial emotions, either. Less emotional characters may be harder to connect with, but they also can't be used to manipulate an audience into sympathizing with them.
5 MISSED THE MARK: ROCKETS IN SPACE
Interstellar may be unnecessarily maudlin, or feel emotionally contrived, but it had a scale that was larger than Ad Astra. The scope of what Coop's mission represented, the future of humankind, didn't necessarily require accuracy of the minutiae of space travel.
Ad Astra, due to its focus on Roy (an astronaut) and his relationship with his father (an astronaut) had a utilitarian approach that guaranteed a lot of focus on the space travel. This means that having chemical rocket ships like the Cepheus be able to stop and answer a distress call, which would require a ton of fuel to do, wouldn't be possible because of the rocket equation. It would have taken them weeks to slow down and aid the medical ship.
4 BETTER: THE OVERALL MESSAGE
Interstellar had a specific message: love is bigger than space. The love of one man for his family, the love of one man for his species, the love of one man for his planet. It was the driving force that allowed him to do the impossible things he was able to accomplish light years away from his loved ones.
Ad Astra may be slow and more contemplative, but its message is more relatable. It explains that you don't need to go to space to figure out that you love your family. Rather, you need to show it to them. It's not about man's colossal achievements and the wonder of space travel. It's about making time for your loved ones and the people around you by putting your self-important endeavors aside.
3 MISSED THE MARK: THE SCIENCE
Like most space movies, Ad Astra has some faults with its science. For instance, the matter-antimatter engine on Clifford McBride's ship floating near Neptune. The engine malfunctioning is what's causing energy waves to ripple through the galaxy and strike Mars and Earth, killing tens of thousands of people.
The rays apparently "grow stronger" as they head towards Earth, and apparently the engine could cause a "chain reaction" that would essentially destroy life as we know it. Cosmic rays wouldn't grow stronger as they radiated, but dissipate. They would fall off in proportion to the distance they're traveling squared. Also, the antimatter engine wouldn't cause a "chain reaction" unless they were talking about nuclear fusion.
2 BETTER: THE DEPICTION OF THE NEAR FUTURE IN SPACE
Interstellar takes place in the 2070's, while Ad Astra takes place somewhere in the "near future" according to its opening title card. Whereas Interstellar posits that the space program will become a relic only continued in the private sector, Ad Astra promises that it will be stronger than ever and heavily commercialized.
Ad Astra's depiction of the near future in space seems spot on. Lunar travel (while ridiculously expensive) is available, and operated by Virgin Airlines. The "airport" on the moon is also heavily commercialized (there's an Applebee's), and there's even a thriving colony. On Mars, there are inhabitants that have only ever visited Earth once.
1 MISSED THE MARK: THE DEPICTION OF EARTH
Interstellar does a great job of showing, rather than describing, life on Earth ahead of Coop's space trip. It tethers us to it because we feel a part of it. We meet Coop and his family, their friends and neighbors, and empathize with their concerns for the planet's future and their fear for their loved one's safety.
Ad Astra, by contrast, shows us very little of Earth except in flashes on the news about apocalyptic-levels of devastation, which makes us feel very detached from it. That may have been the point, considering much of our association with Earth comes from Roy's detached inner monologue, but it doesn't make us care about it.