Disaster in Outer Space

Is Ad Astra an outer space action adventure or an emotional family drama? How about neither?

It’s the near future as Ad Astra begins. Earth is wracked by fierce electrical storms caused by cosmic rays. SpaceCom (the new NASA) believes the rays are coming from the planet Neptune, and are related to a mysterious mutiny aboard the starship Lima there. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is called in, under secret high-security wraps, to travel to Neptune, board the Lima, and neutralize this threat to the solar system.

Roy is an officer with a checkered military career and a dissolving home life — his faraway wife is played by Liv Tyler — but those disqualifications don’t matter because the erstwhile commander of the rebellious Lima is his estranged father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), history’s most revered astronaut. Roy’s superiors assign him the mission for that reason, and now he’s faced with the possibility he may have to kill his dad in order to save the Earth.

Let’s put aside for a moment this story’s broad similarity to Apocalypse Now; its progenitor, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; or even I Never Sang for My Father (1970), with Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman as father-son combatants. This is about Brad Pitt going to outer space to have it out with Tommy Lee Jones. We’re better off looking it that way, in the screenplay by James Gray and Ethan Gross, directed by Gray along with Dan Bradley.

The production elements are marvelous — notably Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography, Kevin Thompson’s production design, and Max Richter’s other-worldly music score — but we’ve come to expect that. There are one or two writing and directing glitches. This particular outer space is a cooled-out void populated by dry, defeated humans running on empty while somehow simultaneously battling pirates on the dark side of the moon and killer baboons (huh?) aboard ship. The redeeming facet failure reaches serious levels.

The rumors are true — outer space makes people crazy. Pitt operates in full Terrence-Malick-style voiceover-philosophical mode, Jones mumbles his Marlon Brando routine, and Donald Sutherland contributes a gratuitous cameo. They all look tired. In 2008 Gray made one of that year’s finest dramas, the underrated Two Lovers. In the despairing Ad Astra the characters imitate machines with their batteries running down, and their adventures leave us cold. Was this trip really necessary?

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