However expansive its interplanetary horizons, “Ad Astra” sets its course for one star above all.
The film is Brad Pitt in close-up, a lot. Now: Can audiences who like the sound of that, hot off Pitt’s pleasurable glide through “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” adjust their trailer-fed expectations for one kind of movie — the science-fiction action spectacular promised by 20th Century Fox’s ad campaign — to accommodate the brooding, sincerely wrought drama they’re getting?
“Ad Astra,” which is Latin for “to the stars,” comes from director and co-screenwriter James Gray, who partnered with writer Ethan Gross on the script. Gray’s most recent films, “The Immigrant” (2013) and “The Lost City of Z” (2016), conjured radically different but equally alluring illusions of the early 20th century, one set in an antiquated, consciously theatrical New York City, the other a location-shot, fact-based exploration of the land once known as Amazonia. They shimmered like mirages, and sold not a lot of tickets, though I keep hearing from people who caught up with them, late. And they were glad they did.
“Ad Astra” pulls Gray in the other direction, into the near future, with a production budget nearing $100 million, his largest by far to date. The picture, often pretty stunning in its evocation of the loneliness of space, has its plainly commercial bits: an encounter with hopped-up killer simians, for example, and moon-buggy “space pirates” who wage a high-speed attack our hero’s crater-dodging four-wheeler.
At heart, though, odd as it sounds, Gray has created a pocket-sized version of “Apocalypse Now.” “Ad Astra” bends the Francis Ford Coppola Vietnam-era extravagance, about the rogue commander, Kurtz, and the errand boy, Willard, into its own thing. Like Coppola’s film, and the Joseph Conrad novel “Heart of Darkness," the new film examines the limits of colonialist hubris. It’s also, and primarily, a father/son parable of betrayal, confrontation and forgiveness.
We open with a “Gravity”-minded overture of catastrophe. Pitt’s character, Major Roy McBride, works high, high atop the International Space Antenna, in Earth’s upper atmosphere. He’s a loner whose busted marriage (Liv Tyler, having survived “Armageddon” all those years ago, appears virtually wordless in occasional flashback) has stranded McBride in a fog of regret and an honest day’s wages. He’s a futuristic take on the Jimmy Webb classic “Wichita Lineman”; McBride is, in fact, a lineman for the entire planet.
But suddenly he’s thrown off his antenna, in free fall. Sonic rays, emanating from Neptune, are threatening Earth’s entire power grid, and causing lethal power surges. McBride survives and is soon pressed into service. He’s tasked with an exploratory and highly personal mission to Neptune, the last known location of McBride’s famous astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones), who commanded the first-ever manned expedition out that way, in search of new life forms.
“Ad Astra” proceeds from the moon (Donald Sutherland plays an old friend and colleague of the elder, AWOL McBride) to Mars (Ruth Negga is wasted as a base commander, though any excuse to have her in your movie is enough for me) to the rings of Neptune. Stripped of its hardware and various detours, Gray’s film concerns a son whose father left without warning, and if he’s alive, he never calls, and doesn’t write. To fill that emotional void Pitt’s character cannot quit with the voice-over interior monologues and whispered rhetorical questioning. “What the hell am I doing here?” “What did he find out there? Did it break him? Or was he always broken?”
It’s a serious dilemma, this film, because “Ad Astra” is dealing with serious emotional terrain and Roy’s internal voyage to a fuller sense of self is running this show. I struggled with, and against, the way the story plays out, and I’m still working out why, frankly. The voice-overs are no small hurdle; too many of them ask the obvious, or exist solely for McBride to reiterate his defensive crouch as an isolated soul. Once he gets up river, in “Apocalypse Now” terms, McBride must come to terms with what he finds there. What he finds there, alas, isn’t much in dramatic terms.
So much science fiction in recent years, from “Contact” to “Interstellar” to “Arrival,” has argued, movingly, for the centrality of family ties, no matter how vast the cosmos or dire the planetary threat. The stakes in “Ad Astra” feel more theoretical than urgent. Pitt, however, manages some genuinely moving revelations of character under duress. It’s a good, clean, unmannered performance, relying on the kind of understatement Pitt wouldn’t have trusted a few years ago. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Her,” “Dunkirk," “Interstellar”) is one of the giants of contemporary screen light, a wizard at creating worlds and keeping the human element front and center.