In a word, it was regrettable.
- The godawful storytelling.
There was little in the way of a consistent story. The major plot thread was Brad Pitt conquering his daddy issues and “toxic masculinity” by chasing said daddy. Hmm. Okay. Right.
But beyond that, it was an incoherent mess of seemingly random scenes that accomplished little or nothing. What was the point of the Moon-pirates scene? What did the diversion to the space station with the mutant space-monkeys accomplish, story-wise? What purpose did Donald Sutherland’s character serve that made it necessary?
- The clumsy cinematography.
One example: the scene where the operations director of the Mars base introduces herself in the weirdly-lit mausoleum (or whatever that space was supposed to be), with the creeping darkness following her along the corridor. Too unsubtle, and ultimately meaningless – it made me expect some sort of ominous turn from the character, a turn that never materialized.
Another example: the shell thing that Pitt places the nuke atop inside the Lima. It was featured so prominently, from multiple angles, that (like the woman on Mars) I expected there to be some significance to it. But there wasn’t, unless (as I discuss below) it was meant as a symbolic altar (and if so, the symbolism was wasted because like the light-and-dark in the corridor the story never delivered on it).
- The cringe-inducing dialogue.
The scientific, engineering, and military jargon sounded like it was written by someone who had never observed or even encountered actual practitioners in these fields, but had watched a bunch of corny sci-fi and action movies. The “top secret” messages are but one example – given how many other elements of the movie were borrowed from 2001, it’s not like they didn’t have a decent example to follow in the Heywood Floyd message that plays after Bowman disables HAL.
- The physics.
They couldn’t keep straight what the gravity conditions were from moment to moment, even within the same scene. Brad Pitt arrives on the Moon with Donald Sutherland, they step off an escalator…and walk off normally, surrounded by others walking normally, and are passed by a couple of skateboarders. Skating past normally, of course.
The unnecessary rover chase in the absurd Moon-pirates scene alternated between simulating 1/6G by cancelling inertia and ignoring it altogether to replicate Bullitt. Primed by this and other scenes, when Pitt finally arrived inside the Lima and Jones makes his appearance, I was unsurprised to see Pitt floating around inside the ship while Jones stood casually on the upper deck waiting for him to float up.
Gravity aside, how was it that the plume of cosmic rays emitted from Neptune (somehow involving Lima’s antimatter) grew more concentrated as it approached Earth, as the Space Command officer briefing Pitt explicitly stated? And if the Lima Project’s mission was to loiter beyond the heliopause looking for signs of intelligent life elsewhere, what were they doing at Neptune in the first place?
- The engineering.
The International Space Tower? How? Why? A huge rocket takes off from Earth and takes Brad Pitt and a dozen others to the Moon, where a tiny part of it detaches and lands at the lunar base – there are no space stations en-route where the passengers could transfer to more efficient vehicles? They have hyperloop subways in the lunar base, but they can’t dig an extension to the deep-space launch facility to avoid the Moon-pirates? (Don’t get me started on the practicalities and economics of Moon-pirates.)
The Cepheus appears to be as big as the rocket that ferried Pitt et al to lunar orbit – but it lands on both the Moon and Mars, without using a small lander? Why would an interplanetary spacecraft be capable of (and streamlined for) landing at all? Where did the Cepheus carry enough propellant to get from Mars to Neptune in what appeared to be a few weeks? You know that thing had some serious total impulse when it could rendezvous with the mutant space-monkey farm on short notice and then continue on to Mars. Why would the ship have taken 19 days to get a few tens of millions of miles from the Moon to Mars, and only a few weeks to cross the hundreds of millions of miles to Neptune? (Pitt’s character killing and jettisoning the rest of the crew couldn’t have lightened the load that much.)
Why would any space agency allow aboard a spacecraft a fire extinguisher so immediately toxic that even a small whiff of it from an adjacent space is fatal? And did Pitt really try to seal the captain’s shattered helmet by covering the gaping hole with…duct tape?
Given the involvement of Lockheed Martin and Virgin Atlantic (not Galactic) in the making of the film implied by their prominent logo placements in the first half, you’d think that a little more effort would have gone into getting these elements correct using these companies’ expertise.
- The suspicious allusions to Christianity.
It’s plain to anyone what Hollywood thinks of Christianity. So it made me immediately suspicious when the crew of the Cepheus displayed Christian sentiments on several occasions (the prayer to St. Christopher at launch, the service for the captain after his mauling by the mutant space-monkeys, etc.).
It was presented in a matter-of-fact way, even positively, and would have been a nice touch of character development if I thought for an instant that it was presented that way sincerely. I was genuinely impressed when this element like so many others was completely wasted by not being followed up on later in the movie – I fully expected the typical oh-so-clever Hollywood “twist” on it to show the Christian crew as hypocrites or villains or whatever, but it never came. On the other hand, if you’re looking for it there’s a certain maliciousness to giving each one of them completely meaningless demises: being half-eaten by a mutant space-monkey, clumsily brained on a hatch, and suffocated by the aforementioned fire extinguisher.
Then there’s the altar symbolism of the cargo crate aboard the Lima. It’s shown significantly in several shots, and especially in the final scene aboard the ship when the world’s smallest multimegaton bomb sat atop it (with nothing to hold it there in zero gee, I should point out) ticking down the seconds to party time. It was plainly obvious to me that I was supposed to see it as an altar, yet like so many other things in this movie there was no effort made to connect the symbolism to anything. Is the bomb a sacrifice, a “burnt offering” so to speak, meant to atone for Jones’ sins? A cleansing fire to clear away the sins of the father?
- The wasted actors.
As noted above, Donald Sutherland’s role is completely useless. His entire appearance could have been deleted in editing and nobody would have known. Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t so much play a role as rant semi-coherently like the metaphorical crazy uncle in the attic – I was half expecting at the end that we would find out that he wasn’t psychotic but senile. And then he dies. Liv Tyler plays a mute woman in a trenchcoat. Brad Pitt, who ordinarily is pretty good in anything he plays, sleepwalks his way through what passes for the story, mumbling in his sleep about his daddy issues and assorted neuroses. The voiceovers would have been annoying otherwise, but the half-articulated nasal drone in which he voices them makes them grating.
The filmmakers seem to go out of their way to make all three of the most famous actors (Pitt, Jones, Sutherland) look as old and haggard as possible. Jones is almost unrecognizable, Sutherland looks like a frame from the Melting Nazis scene in Indiana Jones, and Pitt, while not nearly as bad, looked about twenty years older than the last time I saw him in a movie. Yes, I realize that these men are not young anymore, but like Laurence Fishburne’s gigantic pores in the Matrix sequels, IMAX exaggerated the aging so much that it was distracting. A little makeup (or less, if they intentionally aged them) would have gone a long way.
- The wasted characters.
There was not one character in this movie that I cared about or took any real interest in. Donald Sutherland’s character appeared and was gone having accomplished nothing of importance. The only thing that differentiated his from the rest of the secondary characters in that regard was that he’s Donald Sutherland.
Jones’ character was built up over the course of the movie, and when you finally encounter him, he’s just…there. He turns out to be a self-absorbed prick (on top of being a psychopath), but even then he’s not made interesting enough to loathe – he’s not motivated by any grand vision or evil plan or even some petty malice indulged to excess, he’s just a spoiled and delusional genius who only cares about his research, even after it’s been proven fruitless. There was nothing to really draw the audience to him, and nothing to really repel them. When he drifted away to die it didn’t seem to make any difference. You could sense the collective “Whatever” ripple through the theater.
Pitt’s character was boring and his arc was inconsistent and unrealistic. The Martian woman was vaguely likeable, but they did almost nothing with her. The Cepheus crew started out promising, but then abruptly weren’t, and then were dead.
- The worldbuilding.
The world of this science fiction story didn’t add up. It’s not clear how far in the future it is, but at the same time things are similar enough today that it wouldn’t seem to be too far from now. There’s no explanation as to why the search for alien life is so important to this future world. The Space Command is presented inconsistently as being part of the military of the United States and of “North America”, and there appeared to me in the brief moment when I thought to look for it that there were more than 50 stars and 13 stripes on the flag on Pitt’s coveralls, hinting at a political realignment that goes unexplained. No explanation for why there’s a secure military communications hub on Mars. There appears to be no orbital infrastructure around Earth, but an enormous base and lots of commercial (and Moon-pirate) activity on Luna and a 2100-man (IIRC) base on Mars that’s been around long enough for what appears to be a 40-year-old woman to have been born and raised there. I’d say that nothing about it makes sense, but I just don’t know – there was so little explained about what that world is like or how it works or why the things we see are happening that there’s just no way to judge.
The focus on psych evals and the mood-controlling drugs and the like hint at a totalitarian state which obliges its citizens (or at least the male ones) to medicate their behaviors and thought-police themselves. But we’re never shown if this is in fact what’s going on, if it is generalized or just something peculiar to the people working in space, or either way, the reasons and meaning behind it.
- The au courant feminism.
It wasn’t entirely on the nose, but it was pretty clearly there. Pitt’s character for some unspecified reason is obliged to undergo constant psychological monitoring administered by what appears to be an AI (which every time brought to mind the monitoring of K’s stability in Bladerunner 2049). His chats with the machine, and the voiceover ruminations that take up about three-quarters of the film, gradually reveal his emotional rigidity and distance along with his suppressed anger and hurt over being abandoned by his father as a boy. He’s so supremely skilled at repressing his emotions that his heart rate has supposedly never gone above 84, even under highly stressful situations. So, then, he’s your typical American male as the avant garde Women’s Studies ladies would have it, conditioned from birth to reject and repress all emotions, leaving him a robot incapable of feeling anything at all. Once you pick up on this as a commentary on “toxic masculinity”, it becomes more noticeable each time the character examines his navel.
Which is often.
There’s also something in the scene where Pitt is forced to take control of the Cepheus and land it on Mars when the lieutenant/pilot freezes under stress, something that I can’t quite put my finger on – and no, it’s not only that Pitt’s character’s promise to keep the incident quiet is a death-warrant to some future crew when the man panics again. Perhaps it was the obvious contempt on Pitt’s face when mouthing the “compassionate” and “caring” words that let the lieutenant off the hook, contempt for a man who unlike himself is unable to completely suppress his emotions like a true Toxic Male.
There’s a lot to dislike about this movie, enough that I couldn’t possibly catch it all without watching the damned thing a few more times – and that’s not going to happen. Likewise, I could probably piece together a coherent idea of what the symbolism and themes might have been trying to say if I watched it several more times, but why should I put effort into salvaging the filmmakers’ failure? Overall it struck me as a nihilistic film, in the colloquial sense that it portrayed a world in which nothing and nobody really mattered to anyone and there was no meaning to anything. People just do things, things just happen, “you go to work, and then you die” as Pitt’s character says at one point. But who can tell whether that was intentional or merely a byproduct of the filmmakers’ ineptitude?
And what was with the last word of the film? He recites his psych-eval mantra, but ends it with a twist, promising to “submit”. To whom? The mute woman in the trenchcoat? The totalitarian state hinted at throughout the movie? Who knows? Who cares?