Review: Brad Pitt space saga 'Ad Astra' never achieves liftoff
Slow-paced story will leave viewers with more questions than answers
Talk about lost in space.
"Ad Astra" is a contemplative, meditative adventure that falls off-track on its way to infinity and beyond. As Roy McBride, an astronaut traveling through the galaxy in search of his missing father, Brad Pitt does his best to internalize his character's emotional journey. Often, that comes across as blank stares, many of which will be mirrored by the viewing audience.
Put plainly, it's a tough sell.
Don't expect "The Martian" or "Gravity" from co-writer and director James Gray's ("The Lost City of Z," "Two Lovers") space-bound tale. "Ad Astra" is more like Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris," an ambitious, cerebral, inward-looking star trek that looks handsome but never comes together.
It's the near future and space travel has become so ordinary that there's now an Applebee's on the moon. That rock in the sky that once represented mankind's hopes and dreams has become "a re-creation of what w're running from on Earth," which explains why it's now home to 2-for-$10 shrimp poppers happy hour deals.
Pitt's McBride is using the moon as a springboard en route to Neptune, where his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), has been stationed for 30 years. He hasn't been heard from for 16 of them. McBride and his father didn't exactly have the most loving relationship — "I don't want to be my dad," McBride says plainly — but he's determined to track him down and deliver a message from NASA. So he sets off to navigate the great beyond, both in the Milky Way and his own mind.
He's helped along by Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), Cliff's old colleague, which may or may not put "Ad Astra" in the "Space Cowboys" universe. Ruth Negga is also around as the captain of a space base, and Liv Tyler plays McBride's Earthbound wife, who doesn't have much to do except stare outwardly and look concerned.
Gray's film is a mood piece, and it has a gorgeous, serene look, spiffy enough to hang in a museum. He does stage one bravura sequence, a vehicle chase set on the moon between McBride and a band of pirates, rendered silent because, well, in space no one can hear your dune buggy race.
But this is slow, obtuse filmmaking with little emotional connection. "Ad Astra" pays lip service to the big questions of the universe — who are we, what's out there, did Applebee's pay for that product placement? — but most of the time, it's just stargazing.
Rated PG-13: for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
Running time: 123 minutes