“Ad Astra” means “to the stars” in Latin. It’s a fitting name for the production, as it depends on two very different types of stars to tell the tale of a father and son set against the entire solar system. The galactic stars serve as the background so supernova Brad Pitt can go on his emotional, spiritual and scientific journey.
Pitt plays Roy McBride, a second-generation astronaut who goes on a secret mission to Mars in an attempt to make contact with Clifford McBride, the father (Tommy Lee Jones) he thought died in deep space 30 years ago. He needs to find a way to connect because the government is certain the long-lost astronaut is behind a series of energy pulses that could eventually wipe out the solar system. He must be found to stop the attacks.
The first part of the mission goes smoothly, but events on Mars create a different path for McBride to follow. He’s driven to accomplish his mission both out of a loyalty to the military and to face his father.
The film shines because director James Gray (“The Lost City of Z”) creates a universe for his actors that orbits so close to reality it draws in the viewer to take the journey. Countless films have been set in space, but just like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the stunning imagery has been matched so perfectly by the right tone to give in to the visual pull and let the movie wash over you.
Gray accomplishes this with what real commitment to space travel should look like, from the lonely outpost on Mars to a moon base that looks like it was made from the plans for a mall, complete with a Subway restaurant. Each stich of the uniforms and every human action is done with meticulous concern for detail (it will cost you $125 to get a pillow and blanket for a ride to the moon).
This is a production that could be watched without any sound and it would remain an intergalactic feast for the eyes. Watching it without sound would also help get past how the human element, chiefly supplied by Pitt, ends up a choppy mix of story ideas presented by a guy whose chief attribute is his heart rate never rises.
That’s good for an astronaut, as he needs to stay distant because of the dangerous nature of the job, but bad for an actor. Pitt spends the entire movie in a state of emotional funk, and that comes across not as a man to be admired for his cardiac accomplishments, but as a rather dull person to be around.
A lot of the problems come from the screenplay by Gray and Ethan Gross (“Fringe”). They do a superb job setting up the environment only to let the movie fall apart because of the one-note delivery and a few plot points that don’t hold together under scrutiny. For example, there’s an answer to a distress call that ends up being triggered by a danger that is too farfetched for a movie that in general prides itself on staying true to the mission.
Such moments can be excused, but the decision to have Pitt play the character with so little range keeps knocking the film off course. And there’s no place more glaring than in the moments between father and son that sound more like a reading at a Hallmark store than two people talking.
What saves it is the look. It is so dazzling that just when the story seems to be headed for a crash landing, Gray takes his cameras through the rings around Neptune or shows how the dark side of the moon could become like the Old West.
The visual elements are the shining stars of the movie. That becomes very clear with the opening scene, which takes place on a massive antenna that reaches from Earth into the upper atmosphere. It’s a breathtaking start that never loses energy when it comes to the cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema and art direction behind the lead of Christa Munro.
It’s the story and the direction taken with Pitt’s character that never finds its twinkle.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, John Ortiz.
Director: James Gray.
Rated: PG-13 for violence, bloody images, language.
Running time: 123 minutes.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.