In the opening sequence of “Ad Astra,” Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a veteran U.S. astronaut, is doing what he does at the top of a space antenna, an elaborate piece of technological scaffolding so tall that it juts right up from the earth into the outer void. (It’s enough to make that famous 1932 photograph of construction workers eating lunch while sitting on a skyscraper girder not look vertigo-inducing.) Suddenly, there’s a mysterious power surge, which sends dozens of astronauts tumbling off the antenna. Roy bounds down a few levels to shut off the power, then makes his own escape, leaping off the structure and plunging to the earth below — an ultimate sky-dive that takes him from the blackness of space to the blueness of the atmosphere, until the earth begins to rear up and, at long last, he pulls his parachute strap.
It’s a bedazzling and terrifying sequence, one that sets the bar literally sky-high for the sort of excitement we want from a lavishly scaled FX-driven space adventure. James Gray, the director and co-writer of “Ad Astra,” is the furthest thing you could imagine from a space dude; he’s a rigorous indie filmmaker known for such fine-grained fare as “The Lost City of Z,” “The Immigrant” and (my favorite Gray film) “Two Lovers.” But in taking on his first blockbustery sci-fi project, he handles the vast logistical challenges of staging an epic space adventure with a surefire hand and a sense of detail, pace, and control that are notably accomplished, if not quite Kubrickian. Gray proves beyond measure that he’s got the chops to make a movie like this. He also has a vision, of sorts — one that’s expressed, nearly inadvertently, in the metaphor of that space antenna. Watching “Ad Astra,” you may think you’ve signed on for a journey that’s out of this world, but it turns out that the film’s concerns are somberly tethered to Earth.
The movie is about how Roy, played by Pitt as a stoic loner of a 21st-century space cowboy, is sent on an enigmatic mission to Neptune to hunt down his father, a famous astronaut named Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who 30 years before led Earth’s first voyage into deep space on a mission known as the Lima Project. Sixteen years into the mission, the ship, along with everyone on it, disappeared; Clifford has never been heard from since. But the power surge that disabled the space antenna was part of a larger destructive surge that’s now threatening the stability of the solar system. And guess what? The surge is emanating from the region around Neptune.
Roy has been chosen for the mission because he’s a fearless trouble-shooter, but mostly because he’s in the unique position of being able to send a message out to his father with the hope that he’ll respond. The added value of Roy’s presence — or maybe it’s a hindrance — is that when Clifford disappeared, he didn’t just abandon his mission, his country, his duty; he abandoned the young Roy. And Roy has been suffering from it ever since. In an early scene, his wife, played by Liv Tyler, walks out on him. The reason? He’s too distant, too numbly preoccupied with his disconsolate demons. “Ad Astra” is a Latin phrase that means “to the stars,” and in case you’re wondering where all this is heading, the answer is Neptune, but the real answer is: toward a standard drama of pain, tears, and reconciliation. In “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” Leonardo DiCaprio cried. In “Ad Astra,” Brad Pitt cries. The movie’s tagline should have been, “In space, no one can hear you cry about your absent-daddy issues.”
Roy’s journey to Neptune involves stopping at a series of manned way stations — first on the moon, then Mars — that echo the expository sections of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Fifty years after the 1969 moon landing, Gray’s vision of human space exploration is defiantly unromantic; the most memorable shot of the moon colony reveals that there’s a Subway there — not an underground travel system, but the sandwich chain. There’s also a mining war being played out among Earth’s powers, and Roy, to reach the launch station that will blast him off to Mars, has to go through a Mad Max-on-the-lunar-surface road battle that suggests the jumping-off point for a hell of an action movie.
This, however, is not that movie. Roy, in “Ad Astra,” endures prickly situations in space (attack by baboon? Go figure), but what the film cues us to see through its overuse of Roy’s solemn voice-over pronouncements (“What happened to my dad? What did he find out there? Did it break him? Or was he always broken?”) is that Gray isn’t just aping “2001.” He thinks he’s making “Apocalypse Now” in space, with Roy as the benumbed Willard figure and Jones’s Clifford — the fallen mystery commander who had his reasons — as a version of Col. Kurtz.
Gray’s films have often looked back to the New Hollywood ’70s, which is not a bad place from which to take inspiration. But I would suggest that there’s a bit of chutzpah to his flagrant evocation of a movie like “Apocalypse Now.” The “Heart of Darkness” template is, of course, anyone’s to draw upon, but what made Francis Ford Coppola’s film great is that he used Joseph Conrad’s classic as a frame on which to hang his psychedelic-slaughter vision of contemporary combat. In “Ad Astra,” “Apocalypse Now” is the frame on which Gray hangs … another frame. We’re still talking about “Apocalypse Now” 40 years later, but I’m not sure we’ll be talking about “Ad Astra” in four weeks.
Yet the movie, for what it is, isn’t a cheat. At heart, it’s a short story set in space, decorated with major FX (the double rings of the evanescent blue Neptune are its most memorable image), held together by Pitt’s stalwart presence. This actor rarely makes a false move, and the fact he’s now having a moment — the well-deserved “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” Oscar buzz — could help “Ad Astra” at the box office. Yet what would help it more is if the movie had a genuine wow factor baked into its retro sci-fi aesthetic. I hope James Gray, as a director, continues to explore uncharted worlds, but even his cult of fans may find it hard to get too excited over a movie that, beneath its eye-candy space trappings, is this conventional.