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Brad Pitt Aims For The Stars And Falls Short In ‘Ad Astra’

Interstellar film is beautiful to look at but hollow at its core

Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox

Brad Pitt stars as astronaut Roy McBride in "Ad Astra."

Companion viewing

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)

"Apocalypse Now" (1979)

"Tree of Life" (2011)

Brad Pitt's new film "Ad Astra" has him on a mission to the outer rim of the galaxy.

"Ad Astra" imagines a near future where corporations and the military have merely extended their reach into the galaxy. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut who has been called in on a secret mission to address a series of strange power surges from outer space that have prompted a broad range of catastrophes on Earth. U.S. intelligence believes that these bursts are coming from somewhere near Neptune where the The Lima Project's ship had disappeared.

McBride has been called in because the commander of that mission was Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy has idolized his father even though Clifford was gone from Roy's life while he was still a teenager. Since Clifford had been missing for 16 years, Roy had assumed his father was dead but now the government informs him that they think is alive at the edge of the solar system and might be involved in the power surges that have been wreaking havoc on Earth. Now they want Roy to go on a mission to Neptune to try and contact his father.

The film opens with the quote: "Per aspera ad astra," Latin for “Through hardship to the stars.” And director/co-writer James Gray certainly makes it hard for his film to get where it's going.

"Ad Astra" wants to be a paranoid, existential thriller for our times. But it feels more like a pretentious reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" as an emo father-son drama. Pitt starred in another father-son drama (in which he was the father), Terence Malick's "Tree of Life," and that film successfully created the kind of wordless cinematic poem that "Ad Astra" seems to be striving for.

It also aspires to the cerebral tones of "2001: A Space Odyssey" but Gray has none of Stanley Kubrick's crystalline intelligence to drive it. Gray is a poser who thinks beautiful, languorous shots with no dialogue and Pitt staring thoughtfully into space are all that's needed to convey deep themes and create rich emotional drama. But it's not nearly enough.

Pitt's Roy is an emotionally closed off character who lets his wife (the lovely Liv Tyler) just walk out of his life because he can't admit he needs her or loves her. But this allows him to excel at his job in a manner similar to his father. He brags that his heart rate remains low and steady no matter what the stress of any situation. And the film feels that way as well, slow, steady and emotionless.

Gray never makes his characters or their struggles engaging and he fails to convey the passion these men have for exploring space and trying to find intelligent life. I saw this film right before attending the Starship Congress where scientists, entrepreneurs and artists came together to share ideas about interstellar space travel. A couple of those presentations revealed more passion and innovative ideas in 30 minutes than "Ad Astra" manages in two hours.

"Ad Astra" is gorgeous to look at with Pitt’s gracefully aging face and a magnificently rendered galaxy to swoon over but it’s emotionally hollow and ultimately disappointing.

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