There's a long tradition of filmmakers using space-set dramas to ponder the loneliness of the human condition, from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to Robert Zemeckis' Contact to adaptations of Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris, by both Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh. James Gray's Ad Astra fits firmly within that tradition, but despite a story that spans the cosmos, the movie has trouble transcending its tired solipsism.
It helps that star Brad Pitt is the one doing all the narcissistic ruminating, bringing some charm and wit to mopey astronaut Roy McBride, son of legendary space explorer Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). In a vaguely defined near-future, U.S. Space Command has bases on the moon and Mars, and a space antenna that extends just above the atmosphere, for the purpose of receiving or transmitting messages to or from extraterrestrials. That's where Roy is working as the film opens, in an intense, well-crafted sequence that Ad Astra never quite lives up to.
Gray borrows heavily from other sci-fi movies in Ad Astra's somewhat-episodic story, starting with the Gravity-esque disaster that sends Roy plummeting to Earth from the space antenna. He survives the fall, only to be summoned to a secretive meeting by SpaceCom brass, and told that a deep-space mission led by his father may not actually be lost, as has been presumed for years. Earth is suffering from a series of deadly electrical storms, and SpaceCom believes Clifford's ship, the Lima Project, is hiding near Neptune and somehow causing these storms due to its anti-matter drive.
Like most of the movie's science, it's a half-formed explanation that exists solely to get Roy to the next point in his journey, as he's sent to contact his father in an effort to stop what SpaceCom believes may be deliberate attacks. Before making it to Neptune, however, Roy has to confront pirates on the moon, murderous primates on an abandoned research vessel and hostile superior officers on Mars. That makes Ad Astra sound a lot more exciting than it is, though, because the brief action sequences make up only a small amount of the run time, and have virtually no impact on the overall story. They feel like grudging concessions to the mainstream rather than crucial pieces of the narrative.
At its core, this is a story about a man who both misses and resents his father, as Clifford had no qualms about abandoning Roy and his sick mother to head out on a mission that would, at best, see him gone for many years. But Clifford also inspired Roy to become an astronaut himself, and he shares some of his father's negative tendencies, leaving behind his own wife (an underused Liv Tyler, who barely gets any lines) to focus on his work exploring the cosmos.
Roy lays this all out in painstaking, tedious voiceover that almost never lets up, giving the movie a strong Terrence Malick vibe, as Pitt's character describes his inner thoughts in a hushed tone while Gray slowly pans across shots of the emptiness of space. Pitt played the unreachable father figure in Malick's own movie about daddy issues and the vastness of the universe, The Tree of Life, and here he makes Roy into a bitter but self-aware son seeking the approval of a father who never showed any indication of caring about him.
Clifford is more of a villain than a role model, though, and the story is structured like Apocalypse Now in space, as Roy has to head deeper into unexplored territory to reach a once-respected leader who has clearly gone off the deep end. Jones, seen mostly in flashbacks and video snippets, gives Clifford a haunted quality that's darker and more intriguing than Roy's malaise. The movie is only interested in him as he relates to his son, though, and that goes for the rest of the supporting cast, too. Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga show up as characters who seem like they'll be essential to Roy's mission, only to be left quickly behind.
At least cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and the visual effects team create a stunning universe for Roy to gaze upon. The movie effectively conveys the coldness and hostility of outer space, and you can almost forgive Roy for being consumed by melancholy and introspection when faced with such harsh, endless indifference. But those emotions never quite reach beyond Roy's own head, and like many of Gray's movies, Ad Astra is stately, meticulous and largely dull, with a kind of stale classicism that replicates the rhythms but not the vitality of past visionaries.
It could be a companion piece to Gray's previous film, the 2016 historical drama The Lost City of Z, which also featured characters becoming obsessed with reaching the unknown, only to discover the true untamed wilderness within themselves. In Ad Astra, Roy heads into space to plumb the depths of his own soul, and then he never shuts up about it.
Opening Friday nationwide, Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler.