In its best moments, “Ad Astra”—Latin for “to the stars”—is one of the most stately and somber science fiction films since “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Like that Kubrick classic, it also has impressive space-travel special effects, striking cinematography, an excellent score, and a detached protagonist in haunted hero Major Roy McBride (a fittingly restrained Brad Pitt).
Yet while “2001” astronaut David Bowman lost touch with what was left of his humanity during his journey “to Jupiter and beyond the infinite,” Roy’s trip to Neptune in “Ad Astra” has the opposite effect, making him come to terms with how meaningless his solitary and loveless life has become.
Pitt’s movingly downbeat portrayal of resignation and regret, along with the film’s elegant look and sound, are award-worthy. Unfortunately, those positive elements are at odds with a sometimes illogical plot and scenes that seem hammered in solely to keep easily distracted and action-craving audiences awake. It’s a shame that everyone in front of and behind the cameras couldn’t have been working from a less commercially compromised script.
In what is described as “the near future,” Roy suffers a terrifying accidental freefall from a massive international space antenna high above Earth. This thrilling “Gravity”-reminiscent scene, unlike other action beats to come, actually serves the story. Seeing Roy’s during-and-after response sets up the fact that he either is so unflappably cool, or so couldn’t-care-less self-destructive, that his pulse rate never goes above 80.
Roy’s father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) has been off Earth for three decades, since he left on a mission to Neptune to determine if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. Acclaimed as a worldwide hero for previous successful missions to other planets, the elder McBride has been completely incommunicado and presumed dead for 16 years.
After anti-matter pulses emanating from Neptune disrupt power throughout the solar system and cause more than 40,000 deaths, officials inform Roy that his father may be alive and somehow responsible, because his ship had an anti-matter drive. Roy is dispatched from Earth to Mars, by way of the moon, to try beaming dad a secure message asking what’s up. Depending on Clifford’s reply, he may have to be killed, and the Neptune station destroyed. “Apocalypse Now” similarities are obvious, but not obnoxious.
One problem with the plot is that Roy’s superiors waste the time it takes him to reach Mars, send his message, and wait around for an answer, instead of instantly shooting off a different rocket loaded with nukes Neptune-ward. The higher-ups believe that all life throughout the solar system is at risk, which should make expedience a no-delays priority.
Because any ship heading to Neptune would take much longer to get there than it would take Roy and company to wait around for a potential reply, at least getting a jump on things would give humanity a head start. If Roy received no answer, or one indicating his father was causing the problem, humanity would be able to end the surges sooner. On the other hand, if word came back that Clifford was alive and could get things in hand, the Neptune-nukes rocket could be contacted and told to abort its mission.
Bigger screenplay fails are a guns-a-blazing “Mad Max”-style chase scene involving moon-buggy pirates that seems eye-rollingly unlikely, a shootout inside an in-flight rocket, and a mayday-rescue side trip that sets up a cheap-scare jolt. Regarding the latter: With the fate of all mankind at stake, wouldn’t Roy or someone else in authority step up to issue a definitive “no time-wasting side trips means no time-wasting side trips” directive?
Finally, the way Roy manages to get aboard an about-to-lift-off rocket (in the last-second nick of time, of course) is so silly-sci-fi preposterous it looks like something out of an embarrassing B-movie.
With ill-fitting action and gratuitous horror accounted for, all that’s missing is some corny comedy to pull off the Hollywood hokum hat trick. Fortunately, the filmmakers resisted the urge to insert an interplanetary pie fight.
The way those pandering missteps undercut the movie’s straightforwardly serious character work is criminal. Roy’s mission ultimately becomes one of sad self-assessment and personal guilt that his repeated voiceover affirmations can’t assuage. Pitt perfectly portrays Roy’s weary but relentless resolve to find some kind of redemption for himself and, if possible, the father who abandoned him in the pursuit of science.
Everyone else in the cast (which includes Donald Sutherland as a retired astronaut whose purpose seems completely superfluous, and Ruth Negga as a Mars-based official who knows way more secret info than seems possible about Roy’s father) may as well be considered extras, because this essentially is Pitt’s one-man show. And he shines.
Director James Gray (“The Lost City of Z,” “Two Lovers”) co-wrote the self-sabotaging screenplay with Ethan Gross (TV’s “Fringe”). When “Ad Astra” is released on home video, a better director’s cut of the film would be one that eliminates its popcorn-crowd kiddie concessions, and concentrates entirely on the anhedonic adult in the room.