“Serious” science fiction cinema often chooses to walk the line between the real and the ethereal, especially as it concerns films about space travel.
But from “2001” onwards, it’s proven a delicate balance, hyperrealism that puts us in space with an exploration of what experiencing the infinite cosmos does to the human mind — our inner space.
James Gray (“The Immigrant,” “Two Lovers”) takes his swing at this genre within the genre with “Ad Astra,” a son-seeks-lost-father odyssey with hints of “Interstellar,” “2010” and “Gravity” about it.
He sets up an intriguing, if derivative mystery and makes something of a hash of resolving it.
And he reminds us that of the many things filmmakers have asked of Brad Pitt over the decades, pathos, sentiment and heartache were never on the menu.
In Gray’s “not too distant” future, travel to the moon has become so routine (oddly, via Virgin Atlantic, not Virgin Galactic) that tourism is a big part of the economy. Another logo we recognize on landing is Vegas Vic, the neon cowboy identified with America’s gambling capital.
Travel to Mars is less routine, and the inner solar system is littered with spacecraft from many countries pursuing research, mineral exploitation and the like.
There are legions of lunar astronauts from all over Earth, with competing mining and lunar exploitation claims, creating a “no man’s land” of Old West style claim jumpers, violence and “pirates.” They still travel in newer, faster but open-topped lunar rovers, and a show-stopping piece in the movie is a chase and ambush straight out of a dozen Middle East thrillers — a convoy intercepted by armed rogues.
Space Command is here to guard America’s interests, with hands tied with regards to possible international incidents, just like America’s military on present day Earth.
Brad Pitt plays veteran astronaut Roy McBride, a major who handles the frequent “psyche profile” debriefings required of his profession with ease.
“I am focused only on the essential,” he tells the computer program evaluating his mental state. “I will not allow myself to be distracted.”
The computer program doesn’t hear McBride’s endless interior monologues, where he muses over his “self destructive side.” The first sign of trouble in the picture is Gray’s over-reliance on this anti-dramatic screenwriting crutch.
Roy is separated (Liv Tyler plays his wife) and devoted to his work. But it’s his surname that his bosses (John Ortiz among them) are interested in.
There are these power surges that caused electrical death and destruction all over the Earth, including on the upper-atmosphere space antenna Roy was working on in the film’s spectacular opening. Space Command has traced them to Neptune. That’s where Roy’s father, “the best among us” every astronaut who meets him tells Roy, disappeared several years before.
Space Command thinks Doctor Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) and his “Lima Project” are behind these anti-matter surges, that all human life in the solar system — on Earth and every base off Earth — could be destroyed.
They need Roy to go to Mars “and make a personal appeal to your father” by laser-com link.
We get little sense of what Roy’s emotional connection to his father might be. The news that Dad might still be alive doesn’t move him in the least. Video slips of Clifford suggest an all-business/utterly-consumed space professional who had no time for family or sentiment. He went to Neptune to get far enough away from Earth to hunt for signs of life in the rest of the cosmos, and that’s still said to be Mission One for Space Command.
This emotional disconnect is what Gray’s movie is about. All the drama about ambushes on the moon, a distress call on the way to Mars, intrigues in the underground Martian base and Space Command’s real reasons for reaching out to McBride is served up as a long demonstration of Pitt’s ability to play chilly reserve, coolness under pressure and a dispassionate regard for his “legendary astronaut” father.
I kept hearing echoes of real space mission radio communications in Pitt and his fellow space travelers’ speech patterns, that “A-OK” or “Houson, we’ve got a problem” unflappability that embodies “The Right Stuff.”
It’s spot on. But it keeps this film, with lovely images, brilliantly recreated spacewalks, low gravity car (Rover) wrecks and the like, at a remove. There is no connection to Roy, his father or any character in the film.
The odd instance of a space traveler not showing “The Right Stuff” is, at least, human. Gray’s point seems to be about the humanity we have to surrender to work in an environment this alien and unforgiving, humanity we have to hide in our “psyche profiles.”
Gray casts some good actors with big names — Donald Sutherland plays a higher-up sharing the mission with Roy, Ruth Negga of “Loving” is in command of Mars Base ERSA, Natasha Lyonne is an admissions officer (clerk) at that base. None of them, including Ortiz and Tyler, have much of anything to do.
It’s a joyless enterprise, with a few flashes of excitement recycled from other spaceflight films (and Westerns and Middle East terrorism thrillers) interrupting the meditative voice-over narration and reams of exposition introduced, all the way into the finale.
Roy’s professionalism doesn’t allow for any emotion to be expressed — be it anger about a slur against his father’s reputation, or the deaths his mission leads to.
“Ad Astra” (Latin for “To the Stars”) has dazzling eye candy and reasonable extrapolations of what near future space colonization might look like.
But like too many imitation “Space Odysseys,” it flunks that most basic test applied to science fiction of this nature. It doesn’t make us care what happens, and I, for one, don’t care to see it again.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, John Ortiz, Natasha Lyonne and Kimerbly Elise.
Running time: 2:02