Ad Astra means “to the stars,” but the film opens halfway there. In the first scene, we see Brad Pitt, perched high above the clouds, hanging onto something called the International Space Antenna, which stretches to the ground. He’s doing routine maintenance work, but something goes wrong, and he ends up falling to the Earth. He opens a parachute, but it rips, leaving him hurtling to the ground at breakneck speed. Of course, he survives. The film doesn’t.
Eventually, director James Gray’s Ad Astra will take viewers to the moon, Mars, and beyond, but the film itself never reaches such heights. Its biggest problem is right there in the poster: protagonist Roy McBride (Pitt), a depressed astronaut dealing with a bad case of daddy issues and no other recognizable traits. Thirty years earlier, his overbearing astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones) never returned from a mission in which he was seeking proof of intelligent life in the universe. In the present, NASA officials think the unexplained power surges that are causing communication breakdowns and spiraling death counts might be coming from his last known whereabouts, somewhere on Neptune. They send Roy to Mars, with a quick stop at the moon, to send a message to his dad in the hopes of convincing him not to destroy the planet.
The father-son bond can be fertile ground for personal filmmaking, but Ad Astra never feels personal. We learn that Roy’s father was abusive toward him as a child. As a result, Roy now finds himself emotionally detached and unable to connect with others. Aside from a token ex-wife (Liv Tyler), who appears only in the background of several scenes, he seems to have never had a meaningful relationship. He lives only for his work with NASA, where he is admired for his legendary ability to remain calm in stressful situations. Presumably, it’s all because his father didn’t love him. He’s less a character and more a galaxy of clichés. And Pitt, for all his talents, doesn’t show us what’s happening behind those steely blue eyes.
Gray, best known for character-driven dramas such as We Own the Night and Two Lovers, knows this is a problem, so he contrives a device in which Roy submits to periodic psychiatric evaluations, where he describes his state of mind as literally as possible to a recording device. It violates the show, don’t tell rule of filmmaking, but Gray, who created a character with no agency, left himself few options.
This black hole at the film’s center leaves the viewer admiring Ad Astra’s aesthetic accomplishments but unable to really immerse in the characters. There are thrilling set pieces, including a dune buggy chase on the lunar surface and a bloody skirmish with a surprise inhabitant of an abandoned ship. Gray constructs these pop sequences with verve, but without strong character work or a complex story to back them up, they amount to sporadic pleasures with little impact.
That’s clearly not what Gray had in mind. With its stabs at profundity, Ad Astra seeks to merge the visionary grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the domestic drama of The Tree of Life. In the end, it doesn’t get close to either. If you’re seeking intelligent life, best to look elsewhere.
Ad Astra opens Friday in theaters everywhere.