When was the last time you went to the movies just because you heard it was a technical marvel that needed to be seen on a jumbo screen? Chances are, the picture in question was set in outer space. Gravity. The Martian. First Man. Avatar. A Star Wars flick. These aren’t just films; they’re immersive experiences in which we’re reminded that the world is small and ideas are big. The atmospheric, set-in-the-near-future drama Ad Astra shoots for the same CGI’ed stars and succeeds. But in terms of an engaging and original story, it fails to launch.
Visual wonders aside, Ad Astra is worth a watch because of a certain star walking around in our galaxy: Brad Pitt. He digs deeps as Major Roy McBride, an astronaut extraordinaire. Somber and pensive with a subconscious deeper than the ocean, he’s the personality opposite of his Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — though both characters share an innate confidence. Roy’s pulse rate never goes above 70, not even in the opening sequence when he’s knocked off a sky-high antenna by a mysterious power surge and plummets to Earth.
As the NASA honchos later explain, this freak and deadly event was caused by one of cosmic rays zapping us from a billion miles away on the other end of the solar system. Its origin is a space station once commanded by Roy’s own father (Tommy Lee Jones). He’s been presumed dead for 13 years. But, wait, maybe not so much? And maybe he’s not even lost in space but actually hiding from his superiors? Maybe because he’s still determined to find intelligent life, even at the expense of rejoining civilization and his family?
Roy doesn’t bother asking questions, as this would destroy the movie’s vagueness vibe. We also get little sense of Roy’s actual attachment to his dad. Then again, seeing that parental abandonment is the underlying theme of most recent space movies, safe to say he’s not thrilled about the absentia. Nonetheless, he willingly goes into space to track down the old man. “I am focused only on the essential,” he tells his computer program for psych evaluations. “I will not allow myself to be distracted.”
At the start of his odyssey, Roy is involved with a shoot-out and a zero-gravity brawl. A vicious predator hiding on a seemingly empty space craft lunges at him. He even partakes in a car chase on a colonized version of the Moon — which is now the galactic version of NYC’s Times Square, complete with escalators and Applebee’s and tourists. The imagery is clever, and it gives us the sense that we’re not really watching science fiction.
These genuine moments of excitement are tonal red-herrings, though. Action is at a premium, as the stoic Roy continues his mission to the outer reaches of space. Director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) emphasizes that the ominous lesson that the farther you move away from life, the more desolate you become. The people in Roy’s life quickly go out of his orbit, including his wife (Liv Tyler, in the clichéd and nearly dialogue-free role of an ethereal missus waiting patiently at home). By the time he reaches Neptune, he’s on a full-on existential soul-searching mission along with the Find Dad one. With all this emotional disconnect, it’s hardly a surprise that the payoff is the cinematic equivalent of a black hole.
But that third-act disappointment doesn’t deter from Pitt’s fascinating performance. At age 55, he now has lines and crevices on his face that only enhance his character. And you can’t help but assume that there’s off-screen truth to his inner-dialogue about loneliness and curiosity. “What is else there?” he says in a voiceover, after the drama has subsided. Can’t wait to find out.
Ad Astra opens in theaters on Friday, September 20