“Ad Astra” is the seventh feature, and first genre film, by New York filmmaker James Gray, whose previous movies often were set in big cities. This is set in the cold loneliness of space.
A die-hard fan of “‘Easy Riders’, ‘Raging Bull’”-era cinema, Gray, whose 2016 “The Lost City of Z” was set in the buggy Amazon jungle, does more than refer to classic films of the 1960s-70s. He tries to get inside what them tick.
In all of his movies, the characters seem to naturally follow their emotional responses, rather than serve a plot.
Gray is known for astonishing flourishes and shots that get discussed in film school — from a rainy chase scene shot entirely through a car’s windshield wipers in “We Own the Night” to the stunning closing image in “The Immigrant.”
At the same time, there’s an emotional remove that makes it hard to get very excited about his movies; they’re easier to admire than adore.
“Ad Astra” stars Brad Pitt, whose Cary Grant-like charisma and humor almost always warm up movies. Weirdly, here they do not. While he gives an unquestionably superb performance as astronaut Roy McBride, it’s just as removed as Gray’s other characters.
It’s the future, and Roy is summoned to a secret meeting. Cosmic pulses have been hitting the Earth, knocking out power, laying waste to the land, and killing thousands.
Scientists think the pulses are coming from Neptune, where Roy’s father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) traveled on the first manned mission to the solar system’s outer regions years earlier.
Roy’s secret mission is to go to Mars and send a message to his father. But, of course, Roy realizes he must continue to Neptune and see what’s what.
His travels — rendered with cutting-edge visual effects and sound design — include exciting floating-in-space set-pieces that compare with similar moments in “Gravity” and “The Martian.”
A scene with an investigation of a mayday signal is perhaps the most shockingly terrifying sequence in any Gray film. Yet another — which weirdly shows self-destructive, violent reactions of the crew when Roy stows away on a rocket ship — may be the dumbest in any Gray film.
Many “Ad Astra” scenes exemplify alienation or isolation, though they’re arguably less effective than Claire Denis’ 2019 “High Life,” which addressed some of the same themes.
Roy doesn’t like to be around other people on Earth; the movie seems to feel the same about its other characters. Liv Tyler appears briefly as Roy’s long-suffering wife, with little to do other than mope around in the margins.
Ruth Negga is slightly more interesting as a woman who has lived her entire life on a Martian outpost, and Donald Sutherland glides through a few scenes as an old colleague of Clifford’s, inadvertently (or deliberately?) recalling their space mission together in Clint Eastwood’s 2000 “Space Cowboys.”
The movie ultimately tells the story of Roy and his father, both attempting to reconcile aloneness and togetherness, identity and family, and whether there’s intelligent life in the universe.
They are big themes, and a long way from Gray’s best film “Two Lovers,” which has no quests, missions or crimes — just three characters trying to get their heads around their feelings.
Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” proved that a great film about existence can be set in space, but perhaps Gray’s greatest strengths require him to keep his feet on the ground.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Directed by: James Gray
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes