Can a movie be considered great if the sum of its cool parts is nothing extraordinary? That’s the question coming out of director James Gray’s new outer space epic, Ad Astra. While the Brad Pitt vehicle nails the look and feel of a sci-fi classic, the picture as a whole falls short of its lofty ambitions.
Pitt plays Roy McBride, a cucumber-cool space cowboy. After a catastrophic electrical phenomenon dubbed The Surge wreaks havoc on near-future Earth, Space Command taps Roy for a top-secret mission to Neptune. They believe his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a decorated astronaut who traveled to the edge of the solar system nearly 20 years ago, might be responsible.
As Roy travels to infinity and beyond, his journey takes on a few different shapes. The overall expedition gives off heavy Kubrick vibes. A quick trip to the moon results in a Fast and the Furious chase. A distress call response flirts with the horror genre. And the looming conflict with Roy’s father echoes classical drama. Weirdly enough, the scenes work in and of themselves—maybe it’s that there are too many references and not enough new ideas. Ad Astra plays out like 2001 meets Apocalypse Now, and while that looks good on paper, it doesn’t seem to stand on its own two space boots.
Or maybe it’s the ending-slash-final thesis that does it. There’s a Coelho-esque realization about humanity and our relationships to one another that college freshman might find pithy, but the rest of us will consider old hat. It doesn’t necessarily spoil the good parts, but it does leave you underwhelmed in total.
That said, the movie does a lot right. I’m a sucker for space odysseys, and Ad Astra plays the hits and plays ’em well. Guy falling through the bleak expanse of nothingness? Check. Labored breathing through helmet comms during a space fight? Check. Not-so-subtle condemnations of corporate overreach? Oh baby, that’s a check.
Cinematography plays a huge part in the genre’s success, and Gray’s crew kills it here. Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Her, Interstellar) is the man behind the cam, and his work in Ad Astra furthers his reputation as one of the best cinematographers working today. It takes a lot of skill to manipulate darkness—computer-generated or otherwise—so effectively, and van Hoytema makes it look easy.
In front of the camera, Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances to date. Pitt’s one of those actors who often looks like himself no matter the role, but here he really sinks into the character. A scene where Roy tries to contact his father via laser transmission on Mars shows the actor at his peak, devolving from buttoned-up military man to longing son with a subtlety that’s as impressive as it its emotive. With Ad Astra’s release hard on the heels of Once Upon a Time Hollywood..., you have to wonder if the 55-year-old Pitt is only now hitting his stride.
So Ad Astra’s a bit of a mixed bag. Sci-fi fans will enjoy the ride, but it’s hard to imagine a lasting legacy.
Director: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga
Theater: Area theaters, now playing