“Chuck one over here, Candy Man!”

Watching Ad Astra for New Scientist, 18 September 2019

It is 2033. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is told that his father Clifford, the decorated space explorer, may still be alive, decades after he and the crew of his last mission fell silent in orbit around Neptune.

Clifford’s Lima mission was sent to the outer edges of the heliosphere – the region of the sun’s gravitational influence – the better to scan the galaxy’s exoplanets for intelligent life. Now the Lima’s station’s antimatter generator is triggering electrical storms on distant Earth, and all life in the solar system is threatened.

McBride sets off on a secret mission to Mars. Once there, he is handed a microphone. He reads out a message to his dad. When he finishes speaking, he and the sound engineers pause, as if awaiting an instant reply from Clifford, the message’s intended recipient, somewhere in orbit around Neptune. What?

Eventually a reply is received (ten days later, presumably, given that Mars and Neptune are on average more than four billion kilometres apart). No-one wants to tell McBride what his dad said except the woman responsible for the Mars base (the wonderful Ruth Negga, looking troubled here, as well she might). The truths she shares about Roy’s father convince the audience, if not Roy himself, that the authorities are quite right to fear Clifford, quite right to seek a way to neutralise him, and quite right in their efforts to park his unwitting son well out of the way.

But Roy, at great risk to himself, and with actions that will cost several lives, is determined on a course for Neptune, and a meeting with his dad.

Ad Astra is a psychodrama about solipsistic fathers and abandoned sons, conducted in large part through monologues and close-ups of Brad Pitt’s face. And this is as well, since Pitt’s performance is easily the most coherent and thrilling element in a film that is neither.

Not, to be fair, that Ad Astra ever aspired to be exciting in any straightforward way. Pirates and space monkeys aside (yes, you read that right) Ad Astra is a serious, slow-burn piece about our desire to explore the world, and our desire to make meaning and connection, and how these contrary imperatives tear us apart in the vastness of the cosmic vacuum.

It ought to have worked.

The fact that it’s serious should have worked: four out of five of writer-director James Grey’s previous films were nominated for Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. Ad Astra itself was inspired by a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems by Tracy K. Smith, all about gazing up at the stars and grieving for her father.

The film’s visuals and sound design should have worked. It draws inspiration for its dizzying opening sequence from the well-documented space-parachuting adventures of Felix Baumgartner in 2012, adopts elsewhere the visual style and sound design of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 hit film Gravity, and, when we get to Mars, tips its hat to the massy, reinforced concrete interiors of Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 Blade Runner 2049. For all that, it still feels original: a fully realised world.

The incidental details ought to have worked. There’s much going on in this film to suggest that everyone is quietly, desperately attempting to stabilise their mood, so as not to fly off the handle in the cramped, dull, lifeless interiors beyond Earth. The whole off-world population is seen casually narcotising itself: “Chuck one over here, Candy Man!” Psychological evaluations are a near-daily routine for anyone whose routine brings them anywhere near an airlock, and these automated examinations (shades of Blade Runner 2049 again) seem to be welcomed, as one imagines Catholic confession would be welcomed by a hard-pressed believer.

Even the script, though a mess, might have worked. Pitt turns the dullest lines into understated character portraits with a well-judged pause and the tremor of one highly trained facial muscle. Few other cast members get a word in edgewise.

What sends Ad Astra spinning into the void is its voiceover. Grey is a proven writer and director, and he’s reduced Ad Astra‘s plot down to seven-or-so strange, surreal, irreducible scenes, much in the manner of his cinematic hero Stanley Kubrick. Like Kubrick, he’s kept dialogue to the barest minimum. Like Kubrick, he’s not afraid of letting a good lead actor dominate the screen. And then someone – can it really have been Grey himself? – had the bright idea to vitiate all that good work by sticking Roy McBride’s internal monologue over every plot point, like a string of Elastoplasts.

Consequently, the audience are repeatedly kicked out of the state of enchantment they need to inhabit if they’re going to see past the plot holes to the movie’s melancholy heart.

The devil of this film is that it fails so badly, even as everyone is working so conspicuously hard to make a masterpiece. “Why go on?” Roy asks in voiceover, five minutes before the credits roll. “Why keep trying?”

Why indeed?

Lost in the quiet immensities

Watching Aniara for New Scientist, 7 September 2019

In the opening sequence of the Swedish sci-fi film Aniara, a space elevator rises into low earth orbit to meet an interplanetary cruiser, bound for new settlements on Mars. (The Earth, pillaged to destruction by humanity, is by now literally burning.)

But when we cut to its interior, the elevator turns out to be, well, a night bus. A tight focus on lead actress Emelie Jonsson, staring out a misted-up window into the featureless dark, accentuates, rather than conceals, the lack of set.

The interplanetary cruiser Aniara is a pretty decent piece of model work on the outside but on the inside, it’s a ferry. I know, because work for New Scientist once had me sailing down the coast of Norway on board the same vessel, or one very like it, for an entire week.

Have writer-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja turned out a film so low-budget that they couldn’t afford any sets? Have they been inept enough to reveal the fact in the first reel?

No, and no. Aniara is, on the contrary, one of the smartest movies of 2019.

Aniara’s journey to Mars is primarily a retail opportunity. Go buy some duty-free knits while your kids knock each other off plastic dinosaurs in the soft-play area. Have your picture taken with some poor bugger on a minimum wage dressed as large, stupid-looking bird. Don’t worry: in a real crisis, there’s always the pitch-and-putt.

When the worst happens — colliding with a piece of space debris, the Aniara is nudged off course into interstellar space with no hope of return or rescue — the lights flicker, someone trips on some stairs, a couple of passengers complain about the lack of information, and the hospitality crew work the mall bearing complementary snacks.

“Transtellar Cruise Lines would like to apologize to passengers for the continuing delay to this flight. We are currently awaiting the loading of our complement of small lemon-soaked paper napkins for your comfort, refreshment and hygiene during the journey.”

Not Aniara, this, but a quotation from Douglas Adams’s peerless radio tie-in novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, to which Aniara serves as a particularly bleak twin. Don’t think for a moment this is a film without humour. There’s a scene in which the captain (played with pitch-perfect ghastliness by Arvin Kananian) reassures his castaway passengers that rescue is imminent while playing televised billiards. Balls and pockets; planets and gravity wells. It’s every useless planetary mechanics lecture you’ve ever suffered through and you realise, watching it, that everyone is doomed.

“They awoke screaming and clawing at their straps and life support systems that held them tightly in their seats.” (Adams again, because I couldn’t resist, and besides, it’s as good a summation as any of where Aniara is headed.)

Not only will there be no rescue. It begins to dawn on our heroine, Mimaroben (a sort of ship’s counsellor armed with a telepathic entertainment system that (you guessed it) kills itself) that there there is no such thing as rescue. “You think Mars is Paradise?” she scolds a passenger. “It’s cold.” May as well be here as there, is her conclusion. Death’s a waiting game, wherever you run.

Aniara is based on a long narrative poem by the Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and the sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, reviewing a 1964 American edition of the poem, said it “transcends panic and terror and even despair [and] leaves you in the quiet immensities”. So there.

But I don’t care how bleak it is. I am sick to the back teeth of those oh-so-futuristic science fiction films, and their conjuring-up of scenarios that, however “dystopic”, are really only there to ravish the eye and numb the mind.

Aniara gets the future right — which is to say, it portrays the future as though it were the present. When we finally build a space elevator, it’s going to be the equivalent of a bus. When we fly to Mars, it’ll be indistinguishable from a ferry. The moment we attain the future, it becomes now, and now is not a place you go in order to exprerience a frisson of wonder or horror. It’s where you’re stuck, trying — and sometimes failing — to scrape together a meaning for it all.

“A wonderful moral substitute for war”

Oliver Morton and I belong to the generation sometimes dubbed Apollo’s orphans. We grew up dazzled (rightly) by Apollo’s achievement. It left us, however, with the unshakable (and wrong) belief that our enthusiasm was common, something to do with what we were taught to call humanity’s “outward urge”. The refrain was constant: how in people there was this inborn desire to leave their familiar surroundings and explore strange new worlds. Nonsense. Over a century elapsed between Columbus’s initial voyage and the first permanent English settlements. And yet this urge felt so visceral, so essential to one’s idea of oneself: how could it possibly turn out to be the psychic artefact of a passing political moment?

Reading Oliver Morton’s The Moon and Robert Stone and Alan Adres’s Chasing the Moon for The Telegraph, 18 May 2019

 

 

Not your typical fictional voyage to Mars

Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton

Watching The First, Beau Willimon’s new TV series, for New Scientist, 3 November 2018

FOR reasons that remained mysterious by the end of episode one, veteran astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) has been grounded. This left him watching helplessly as a launch accident wipes out his former crewmates, bound for Mars on a rocket bankrolled by prickly space visionary Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). By the episode’s end, the disaster has taken a huge psychological toll, not least on Ingram herself.

Welcome to the future – don’t expect it to be easy. Set 15 years from now, the world of The First is not very different from our own. Some cars drive themselves. Media gadgets proliferate. The women who currently hold high executive positions in private space companies are now public figures.

The First is not your typical fictional voyage to Mars. “It would have been safer to just get into space in the first episode,” says series creator Beau Willimon, best known for his stylish US remake of political thriller House of Cards. “But space exploration, with all of its excitement, doesn’t happen overnight. A Mars project will take years of planning.”

Virtually the whole of the first season of this intriguing Martian epic will be set on Earth. It is a risky approach, but one that persuaded Charles Elachi, a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to be a consultant for the show. “Only one organisation has successfully landed something on Mars,” he tells me with relish, “and I used to head it.”

“What attracted me,” says Elachi, “was Willimon’s desire to look at the Mars project in the round, taking in the scientific aspects, but also all the technical and personal and political challenges. How do you convince people to commit to these amazing projects? Important as the science is, exploration is a human endeavour.”

Elachi has seen the truth of this at first hand, having witnessed the decades of effort and sacrifice required to land rovers on Mars, and he is impressed that the series, although it accelerates events tremendously, still reflects the likely scale of a Mars mission.

“The series starts 15 years in the future, but for me, as the show’s technical consultant, it’s really a story of the next 15 years,” says Elachi. “It’s about all the things that come before that first flight: the power sources, the vehicles, all the equipment that needs to be developed and deployed before a human ever boards a rocket.”

Building the backstory to the series was essential. And according to Willimon, it was cool: “A lot of the questions we had were questions that researchers themselves are asking,” he says. “Every design element on the screen has a clear function and a precise reason for being there. We don’t want this to be an 8-hour science lecture, but it’s important for the audience that we can explain everything in the frame.”

It takes thousands of people to get one astronaut into space. Engineers, scientists, the medical team, the ground-support team: people bring thousands of years of combined experience to the business of making several minutes tick by without failure.

Willimon, whose father served months at a time on nuclear submarines, also knows the sacrifices families make. While his father was away, he says, “I used to make these drawings and maps and plans, trying to figure out where he was, under what ice shelf, in what ocean? And I’d try to work out what he was doing.”

This makes The First a very personal project. “We all ask ourselves, What does it all mean? Is there a God? Where’s my place in the universe?” Willimon reflects. If we asked these things of ourselves all the time, we’d go mad. “But space travel,” he says, “literally travelling into the heavens, forces your hand.”

Lunar renaissance

The punchier contestants who entered the never-awarded Lunar X Prize are racing to launch their probes. Who will make moonfall first? My money is on Israel’s SpaceIL. While everyone else was crashing through the X Prize’s deadlines, trying to design wheeled vehicles for their rovers, SpaceIL was racing ahead with a vehicle that bounces about the lunar surface like a steel bunny.

A preview piece for New Scientist, looking forward to the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing

NASA, Kennedy and me

(Not that I wish to oversell this, you understand…)

Come along to New Scientist Live at 2.30pm on Saturday 22 September and you’ll find me talking to documentary-maker Rory Kennedy about how NASA shapes life on the ground, how it juggles the competing promises of the Moon and Mars, and how public and private space initiatives can work together. Kennedy will also be discussing her life as a documentary film-maker,  her memories of her uncle “Jack” Kennedy, and how the Apollo program inspired her philanthropic career.

Tickets and details here

“We don’t know why we did it”

Two views of the US space programme reviewed for New Scientist, 2 July 2014

“WE HAVE no need of other worlds,” wrote Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science fiction writer and satirist in 1961. “We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.”

A few years later, as NASA’s advocates hunted for suitable justification for the US’s $24 billion effort to put a man on the moon, they began to invoke humanity’s “outward urge” – an inborn desire to leave our familiar surroundings and explore strange new worlds.

A hastily concocted migration instinct might explain tourism. But why astronauts visited the moon, described by the 1940s US columnist Milton Mayer as a “pulverised rubble… like Dresden in May or Hiroshima in August”, requires a whole other level of blarney.

In Marketing the Moon: The selling of the Apollo lunar program, released earlier this year, David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek curated that blarney in their illustrated account of how Apollo was sold to a public already paying a bloody price for the Vietnam war.

Historian Matthew Tribbe, on the other hand, looks in an almost diametrically opposite direction. His No Requiem for the Space Age sweeps aside the Apollo programme’s technocratic special pleading – and the subsequent nostalgia – to argue that Americans fell out of love with space exploration even before Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon in July 1969.

There is no doubt that national disillusionment with the space programme swelled during the 1970s, as counter-cultural movements sent the US on “the biggest introspective binge any society in history has undergone”. But digging beneath this familiar narrative, Tribbe also shows that opposition to Apollo was both long-standing and intellectually rigorous.

The Nobel laureate physicist Max Born called Apollo “a triumph of intellect, but a tragic failure of reason”. And novelist Norman Mailer considered it “the deepest of nihilistic acts – because we don’t know why we did it”.

Apollo was the US’s biggest, brashest entry in its heart-stoppingly exciting – and terrifying – political and technological competition with the Soviet Union. By the time Apollo 11 was launched, however, that race was already won, and only a fanatic (or a military-industrial complex) would have kept running.

There was a fairly concerted attempt to sell Apollo as science. But that never rang true, and anyway what we really seek in space, as the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke told the American Aeronautical Society in 1967, is “not knowledge, but wonder, beauty, romance, novelty – and above all, adventure”. Apollo was supposed to offer the world’s most technologically advanced nation a peacetime goal as challenging and inspiring as war.

But the intractability of the war in Vietnam put paid to John F. Kennedy’s fine words to Congress on 25 May 1961, about sending an American safely to the moon before the end of the decade. As the Washington Evening Star columnist Frank R. Getlein observed: “The reason you have a moral equivalent of war is so you don’t have to have war… For us Americans, unfortunately, the moral equivalent of war has turned out to be war.”

Tribbe argues that popular enthusiasm was doused as soon as people realised just who was going into space – not them, but the representatives of the very technocratic power structure that was wreaking havoc on Earth.

This, you could argue, was hardly NASA’s fault. So it is reassuring, among all this starkly revealed futility, to see Tribbe expressing proper respect and, indeed, real warmth for NASA and its astronauts. NASA had labelled them “super-normal”; with such a moniker, it was perhaps inevitable that they failed to capture hearts and minds as easily as everyone had assumed they would. While public uninterest is Tribbe’s theme, he does not lay the blame for it at NASA’s door.

Explorations rarely inspire contemporary stay-at-homes. For example, over a century elapsed between Columbus’s initial voyage and the first permanent English settlements. Lem was right. We don’t need alien places. We need an ever-expanding supply of human ones. The moon may yet provide them. This, at least, is the compelling and technically detailed argument of Arlin Crotts’s forthcoming book The New Moon: Water, exploration, and future habitation – a perfect speculative antidote for those who find Tribbe’s history disheartening.

Tribbe quotes an unnamed journalist who wrote, during the Vietnam war: “The moon is a dream for those who have no dreams.” This may sum up many of the problems people had with Apollo in the 1970s. But Tribbe is no pessimist, and history need not demoralise us. Times and technologies change, so do nations, and so, come to think of it, do dreams.