Directed by James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
2 hrs., 2 mins.
It’s been more than 50 years since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey thrilled and baffled moviegoers. Despite years of space travel and mountains of film making, nothing has yet to compare with Kubrick’s achievement.
So when Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) comes with heaps of hyperbole, you have to wonder if someone is trying to sell you a plot of swampland in Florida. Well, not quite, but James Gray’s space meditation is only slightly above average. In fact, it’s not even in the Top 10 of great space films. And so, to the salesman who is trying to sell me an ocean view condo on the south side of Orlando, I say, no thank you.
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut for U.S. Space Command, is working on an immense space antenna when the Earth (and the antenna) suffer from a major power surge that nearly kills him.
After recovering, he is informed by his superiors that the source of the power surge has been traced to the so-called Lima Project led by his father, the legendary H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared 16 years previous. The Lima Project was set up by the elder McBride to try and communicate with other intelligent beings. Now it is believed that the project (lingering somewhere near Neptune) is trying to destroy life on Earth. Space Command wants Roy to travel to Mars to send messages to his father, presumably to appeal to his paternal nature.
Roy agrees to the journey but encounters challenges during his flight to the moon and, later, Mars. As the stress mounts, he becomes engrossed in some serious reflections, especially regarding his estranged wife, Eve (Liv Tyler). As the journey progresses, we become aware of his personal tragedies and his long-held regrets. Roy, known for his cool, must fight his inner demons to keep from unraveling under pressure.
Directed by James Gray (The Lost City of Z) and written by Gray and Ethan Gross (Fringe), Ad Astra is meant to be a reflection on the fragility of human life. Up against the infinite reaches of space, the film contrasts the cold vastness of the universe with the light and dark of human nature. It is most effective when it focuses on its visuals, particularly the ending.
What drags this film down is not its ambition but its story. It is overly complicated and sometimes feels as if it’s being burdened by its own cargo. From space pirates to dangerous baboons to nuclear warheads, the side plots chip away at the real story of McBride v. McBride. It’s a relief when son finally finds father, and its best parts come only in the final chapter when the father reveals what’s really behind the power surges.
With a beautiful sonic soundtrack and some great space scenes, you might wonder if this is a case of ambition simply falling short of its mission. Perhaps. I can’t help but wonder if the core and style of the film might have been better served with something simpler that would allow us to meditate with McBride rather than be absorbed in the film’s extraneous action scenes. It’s not often you wish for less in a film, but this might be a case in point.
If you’re hoping for a serious sci-fi space film, one with some thoughtfulness and focus on the meaning of space itself, you’ll catch this in drips and drabs. In the end, however, you’ll wonder if you missed the point. Even with an admirable effort by Pitt and Jones, the rest of the crew simply distracts from the task at hand.
And always, that shadow cast by 2001. If you’re going to challenge it with a realistic space drama, you’d better think long and hard about your project. In this case the journey of the film hardly justifies its launch.