“Retro” may seem like a misplaced descriptor for “Ad Astra” (2019), director James Gray’s effort in Hollywood’s recent surfeit of introspective, big-budget sci-fi. The future of the Brad Pitt-headlined picture takes on a distinctly contemporary grimness.
A man-made catastrophe threatens Earth’s survival. The moon, sporting a commercialized landing terminal complete with a Subway and a Hudson News, is beset with conflict over resources. Yet, for all the praise that has been heaped upon “Ad Astra,” what works and doesn’t work in the film boils down to one simple fact: It is, at its core, an old-fashioned space adventure.
To its credit, “Ad Astra” knows that it cannot pass judgment on the future without engaging with the past, and it gives us a protagonist who knows this better than most. We meet astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) in a mesmerizing opening sequence, during which a power surge of unknown origin destroys an antenna that stretches to the highest echelons of the atmosphere and sends him hurtling down to Earth with a punctured parachute.
A debriefing cuts quickly to the point. The series of cataclysmic surges originates from the vicinity of Neptune, where McBride’s long presumed dead father (Tommy Lee Jones) embarked on a mission in search of extraterrestrial life when Roy was a teenager. Fearing the elder McBride has gone rogue, the military higher-ups’ imperative is simple: find and stop him.
Gray himself has noted the film’s parallels with the novella “Heart of Darkness” (1899). “Ad Astra” knows nothing if not its history, and stylistically, its 1960s Space Age-inspired world is its greatest triumph. Production designer Kevin Thompson crafts a stunning vision of outer space in the sleek, symmetrical tradition of designers like Ken Adam and films like “Gattaca” (1997).
The worldbuilding of “Ad Astra,” with its pedestrian, matter-of-fact commercialism, is similarly inspired. Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross produce a finely-tuned melding of the mid-century optimism of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and the apocalyptic seediness of “Blade Runner” (1982). The future depicted in “Ad Astra” feels logical and foreseeable, with even Las Vegas landmark Vegas Vic making an appearance on the moon. Vegas Vic also hints at the Wild West-like lawlessness that pervades on the moon, including a lunar rover chase that ranks as one of the film’s highlights.
Unfortunately, the writers do not give the characters the same care. Where cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema closely studies Pitt’s face, delicately sifting through his furrows and grimaces, the script reduces his character to a stock singular hero. An increasingly annoying thread of Pitt’s narration (framed, of course, as routine psychological evaluations) lazily paints broad-strokes of his personal conflicts: he’s mad at his dad for leaving, he becomes an expert in bottling up his feelings, his wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him because he is too distant, yadda yadda yadda.
“Ad Astra” does have intriguing ideas. For one, it chooses to make the McBrides explicitly religious, which provokes questions about the parallels between singularly-oriented progress and religious extremism.
Where other films only pay lip service to humanity’s state of sheer loneliness, “Ad Astra” places this terrifying solitude front and center. The sight of McBride wrestling with his father below the rings of Neptune, hypnotically captured against the deep, mystifying blue of the eighth planet, sticks firmly in the mind.
Yet, the film fails to emotionally connect with these ambitions. It squanders complex performances from Pitt and Jones and criminally wastes the rest of its cast, including Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga. Its desire to isolate McBride ultimately turns watching the film into a guessing game of what sort of contrived nonsense the script will produce to get newly introduced characters out of the picture.
Sci-fi often sacrifices richly layered personal storylines in service of its wider-reaching goals, but “Ad Astra” resorts to narrative cliches and clunky, on-the-nose dialogue too often for its philosophical aims to resonate. Without that crucial connection, “Ad Astra” ultimately feels derivative, and it is a gorgeously rendered piece of cinema that, like its protagonist, hides its emotions behind a polished exterior.