Somber, stirring, ridiculous and just shy of sublime, James Gray’s speculative fiction “Ad Astra” opens with a vision of a man falling to Earth. He’s an astronaut named Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), and he’s perched on an International Space Antenna — basically a very, very high-altitude ladder, with the world spreading out like a vast blue-green carpet beneath him. It’s an impossibly serene and beautiful moment that is disrupted by a series of sudden explosions, as shock waves surge through the antenna and send Roy tumbling toward what looks like near-certain doom.
Miraculously, he survives the fall, thanks to a parachute and a gift for staying calm in even the riskiest situations. In this he resembles his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary space explorer who vanished decades ago on Neptune. Now top government officials are whispering that Clifford is alive, if not exactly well: Those electrical storms, which are wreaking havoc worldwide, appear to have originated on Neptune, and it’s likely that Clifford is behind it all, exacting a strange kind of revenge on Earth and potentially the entire solar system.
It’s richly ironic that Roy may have been placed in a life-or-death situation by the same father who gave him the skills necessary to survive it. As Roy tells us, in thick streams of voice-over that suggest a Zen philosopher by way of a film-noir private eye, it is Clifford to whom he owes his strong work ethic and his love for space travel. He’s too much in denial to point out that Clifford is also the reason he’s so emotionally distanced from the rest of humankind, as embodied by a briefly seen and even more briefly heard ex-wife (Liv Tyler, in a thankless role).
The degree to which our parents shape us, for better and inevitably for worse, is at the heart of “Ad Astra.” Written by Gray and Ethan Gross, this is a moody, mournful story of fathers and sons that, like a lot of ambitious Hollywood science fiction, strikes a balance between a harrowing otherworldly trek and a more interior psychological journey.
Roy’s superiors believe that hearing from a long-lost son might be enough to sway Clifford’s conscience. And so, with some early help from Col. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old colleague of his dad’s, Roy sets out to transmit a message to Neptune, a top-secret mission that will take him to the moon, Mars and beyond. As “Ad Astra” follows Roy toward the outer reaches of the solar system, tracing a path that superficially recalls the arc of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it becomes increasingly elastic in its play with genre, shape-shifting into an action movie, a paranoid thriller and, finally, an earnest hybrid of cosmic parable and male weepie.
Gray’s command of these tonal and narrative shifts is evidence of a sensibility steeped in classical cinematic entertainments, and grounded in the belief that even a meditative, quasi-Tarkovskian space opera should deliver a good jolt every now and then. There are a few decent ones here, starting with a lunar action sequence that kicks up a lot of moon dust and suspicion, and one grisly shock that nods ever so quickly in the direction of “Alien” and its creature-feature ilk.
Still, it is hard not to wish that these visceral scares were more sustained and purposeful, and that they were tethered to a more coherent and rigorous vision of the future. This is less a matter of scientific accuracy — though I eagerly await Neil deGrasse Tyson’s debunking of the asteroid-surfing scene — than of imaginative detail.
One of the pleasures of Gray’s more earthbound earlier features is the sense that a highly specific milieu — from the Russian mob enclaves of “Little Odessa” and “We Own the Night” to the South American jungles of “The Lost City of Z” — has taken shape in the background. The fictionalized world of “Ad Astra,” by contrast, emerges in bits and pieces, never feeling fully formed or taking on an imaginative life of its own.
Kevin Thompson’s production design affords us striking glimpses of an alternate future reality, at times tipping the movie in the direction of satire. The moon has become a crudely commercialized dystopia surrounded by a desolate, pirate-ridden wasteland, while what we see of Mars is an underground military base equipped with brightly colored, mood-altering rooms. You wonder how these visions came to be, and Gray’s patient, contemplative approach encourages that wonder. But the conceptual underpinnings are never satisfactorily addressed, reduced instead to bits of shorthand in Roy’s clunky, long-winded voice-over.
But if the world building in “Ad Astra” leaves something to be desired — as does Ruth Negga’s underdeveloped role as a potential ally of Roy’s — it may be because the director’s investment here is more emotional than intellectual. Where the picture really comes together is in the final stretch, in which Gray allows the sad grandiosity of his vision to flourish without apology (a development echoed by Max Richter’s lovely score, which shifts from “Tron”-like electronica to more classically moving strings).
There is something both absurd and heartbreaking about the idea of a man saving the universe by traveling billions of miles to be reunited with the father who abandoned him..
There is something both absurd and heartbreaking about the idea of a man saving the universe by traveling billions of miles to be reunited with the father who abandoned him and his mother three decades ago, and it is more to this movie’s credit than its detriment that it proves willing to risk our ridicule. This is hardly the first time, of course, that Hollywood has used the outer-space thriller as a smokescreen for the exploration of deep-seated daddy issues, most recently Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.”
That picture, like this one, was shot by the brilliant cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and it, too, was predicated on a grave apocalyptic threat. But Nolan’s movie notably flirted with the possible existence of benevolent entities, beaming a message of hope and salvation across time and space to our lowly and inglorious species. No such entities are assumed to exist in “Ad Astra,” which posits, with more pessimism than reassurance, a universe in which no higher consciousness exists and humankind is well and truly alone.
Roy’s father made it his life’s work to find other intelligent life forms, and Jones’ sad, unsettling performance, much of it transmitted through old video footage recorded before Clifford went missing, shows us a man in the grip of a dangerous and ultimately futile obsession. And Pitt’s increasingly moist-eyed turn, stiff and sensitive by turns, is a fascinating study in alienation; he makes clear the degree to which Roy has both idealized and internalized his father’s neglect, turning “Ad Astra” into a psychodrama of impacted masculinity and paternal conflict.
Some may well see echoes of “Apocalypse Now,” with Roy playing the Capt. Willard to Clifford’s Col. Kurtz. Others may be reminded of “The Lost City of Z,” a more richly realized story of a father and son exploring an uncharted frontier, and also a more complex and empathetic portrait of a woman’s emotional abandonment. I couldn’t help but divine (so to speak) a religious dimension to this otherwise secular parable: Starting with that initial tumble from the heavens, Roy might well be a Christ figure interceding on behalf of a fallen species, desperately trying to write a new testament in which the Earth and its citizens survive.
A movie that can support that particular reading is nothing to scoff at. And at a time when blockbusters for thinking adults are themselves on the verge of extinction, it is hard not to appreciate the unusual rhythms and nuances Gray brings to this story, or his consistent skill at finding his own time-honored themes in the material. But it is also hard not to think he found those themes a bit too easily, imposing a tidy dramatic order on a subject that resists easy colonization or classification. You leave “Ad Astra” feeling dazzled and befuddled, moved and frustrated, and perhaps wishing that its maker had cast his own preoccupations aside and taken a deeper, headier plunge into the void.
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Playing: Opens Sept. 20 in general release