Review: 'Ad Astra'

Brad Pitt searches for his long-lost father and battles space madness in new sci-fi drama
DAD ASTRA: Nerveless astronaut (Brad Pitt) confronts a distant father in 'Ad Astra.'

Director James Gray tries his hand at the introspective Terence Malick style to crack the enigmatic calm of a Neil Armstrong type in Ad Astra. Brad Pitt, cool and handsome in a space suit, plays Maj. Roy McBryde—a famous man and a stranger to himself. In voiceover, Roy muses upon the lack of emotion that's caused his wife (Liv Tyler) to leave him. He's celebrated at Space Command for a resting pulse that never breaks 80. He is in control even while he plummeting from a stratosphere-piercing antenna, nearly blacking out before his parachute opensÉand then the chute is pierced by falling debris.

He has one nerve. The story twists it. Roy's father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), was a renowned astronaut who abandoned his family for a one-way ticket into Neptune's orbit. Now, inexplicable pulses from that sector of the solar system are zapping Earth, killing tens of thousands. Perhaps it's from the anti-matter generator Clifford took with him. Has the old man succumbed to space madness? In one last gamble, the command sends Roy to Mars to broadcast a secret personal message to Clifford. They've prewritten it for him.

Heart of Darkness parallels increase as Roy travels. Via endless first-person narration, we learn that the moon has been turned into a tourist destination, complete with an Applebee's. Scolding stuff, compared to the fun Paul Verhoeven in Total Recall. A lunar dune buggy chase through the moon's unpacified zones is a novelty, but Gray is no action director. You know how Roy feels; it doesn't raise the pulse. Interesting characters turn up and get dropped: first Donald Sutherland as lunar officer; later, Ruth Negga, handsome in black pajamas, as a born-and-bred Martian.

The most exciting moments are the most traditional: Roy clinging to a rocket as the countdown has begun, or his scene of prowling a haunted space station.

Gray seeks the sweep and detail of TV's The Expanse. But over-explaining dessicates Ad Astra, despite both its two billion mile scope and Hoyte van Hoytema's glowing photography. The lost-father drama can be tedious, even in the deftest hands. Yet the celestial backdrop adds some allegorical freshness to the subject of fathers who are so remote that they might as well be in frigid orbit around one of the ice giants. Jones is terrific at demonstrating the inner deadness of a technical genius, as well as the flashes of the weakness and willfulness in a stubborn old man. In the end, just like High Life, all Ad Astra can do is helplessly endorse the beauty and preciousness of Earth.

Ad Astra
PG-13, 123 Mins.

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