Independent-minded auteur James Gray gets a lot of things right in Ad Astra, his seventh feature as a writer and director, and his first venture into big budget sci-fi cinema. Whiz-bang, thrill-a-minute space opera this is not; Gray, as one might expect from a look through his previous films, is operating here at the more cerebral end of the genre. Space is mostly silent, even when things blow up, and the cosmos never seemed so vast or lonely as it does in Gray’s near-future vision. But typically for the director, the barren grandeur of his setting is merely the backdrop for one man’s intensely personal inward journey–although ultimately that voyage does not leave the viewer as moved as one might expect.
Brad Pitt is superbly restrained as Roy McBride, an astronaut whose utter calm and devotion to his job has vaulted him to the top of his profession (the movie opens with him literally falling to Earth off a space antenna while never losing his composure). But it’s predictably played havoc with his few personal relationships, including the one with his estranged wife, essayed by Liv Tyler in such a fleeting handful of scenes that she seems like a ghost. Actually Ad Astra is kind of a ghost story: McBride is haunted by the specter of his dad Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a brilliant scientist and space explorer in his own right whose outward demeanor makes his son look positively effusive.
Clifford, as it turns out, ventured to Neptune some 30 years earlier on a mission known as the Lima Project, which had to do with detecting signs of alien life out in the universe. He stopped communicating with Earth 16 years into the voyage and has been presumed dead ever since. But now a continuing surge of anti-matter that threatens the stability of the solar system–and the existence of the human race–is emanating from the very region where the elder McBride was last heard from, so it’s up to his son to follow his father’s trail, find out if Clifford is still alive and creating the surge, and if so stop him.
From this point on, Ad Astra plays out like a high-end mash-up of Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Apocalypse Now, with the latter providing much of the structure of the film’s second act. Perhaps mindful that the film’s otherwise stately pace might turn off the quantity of viewers needed to make Ad Astra profitable, Gray stages a modest series of action set-pieces, the best of which is a lunar vehicle chase across the craggy surface of the Moon, as McBride’s transport is attacked by space pirates. Where said buccaneers come from, or what they want, is never fully explained–one of the weird lapses in a script that sometimes seems as if it needed one more run through the laptop to fill in some blanks.
More adventures await though as McBride leapfrogs from the Moon to Mars and finally Neptune, including an eerie investigation of a derelict research vessel that turns shocking, plus an encounter with the head of the Mars base (Ruth Negga) that seems to be missing a few clarifying lines of dialogue. In fact, none of these stops on the journey–the lunar chase, the derelict, the Mars base–amount to much in terms of driving the narrative forward, with the exception of one sequence on Mars where the taciturn Roy finally shows some emotion as he broadcasts a message to his dad. But message, schmessage; we know that Roy is headed for the eighth planet, even if his regular psych evaluations (delivered at consoles that function almost like psychiatric ATMs) show signs that he’s cracking under the strain.
Roy’s final destination likewise provides more murk than clarity, and yet despite the lapses in writing, Ad Astra holds the attention throughout. A large part of that is down to Pitt’s natural charisma, which works well with his stoic performance. He’s onscreen for nearly the entire film and, even given a clunky voiceover narration from time to time, he ably delivers Roy’s quiet yearning and search for resolution with his father. It’s too bad that the other characters–Tyler, Negga, Donald Sutherland’s mentor astronaut, and Jones’ Clifford–are underdeveloped by comparison.
The film’s other strength is its depiction of a future where humankind is already expanding into the universe around us. While some ideas are less developed than they should be–like whose authority places such as the moon and Mars are unde–Gray ingeniously blends the familiar with the exotic, such as a moon base that comes complete with gift and souvenir shops. He also (with the help of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who shot Interstellar for Christopher Nolan) captures the wonder and terror of deep space, whether it’s high above the Earth or far into the empty reaches of the solar system, and subtly examines the effect that those titanic distances have on the human mind.
With that strong performance from Pitt at its core, and its constant visual inventiveness in portraying a realistic yet unknowable future in space, Ad Astra deserves a spot at the grown-ups’ sci-fi table alongside other similarly ambitious and thoughtful films like Contact, 2010, The Martian, and Sunshine, not to mention the other landmarks cited above. But the movie and its characters are missing the emotional connection that could also provide it with a true sense of transcendence or awe. I wouldn’t mind seeing Gray take another shot at this genre, but this time with a little more heart to go along with its brains and senses.
Ad Astra is out in theaters this Friday, Sept. 20.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye