In “Ad Astra,” an adventure tale weighed down by the burdens of masculinity, Brad Pitt plays an astronaut in flight. The film is a lovely, sincere and sometimes dopey confessional about fathers and sons, love and loss that takes the shape of a far out if deeply inward trip. As in many expeditions, the journey doesn’t simply progress; it stutters and freezes and periodically backslides. Yet each step — the story begins on Earth and soon rockets to the dark side of the moon — is a reminder that in order to get found, you need to get lost.
For the most part, the film’s heaviness is a virtue, even when its director, James Gray, slips into grandiosity. It’s also welcome, given how many American movies embrace the trivial as a commercial imperative. Somewhat of a throwback, especially in his commitment to thoughtful adult stories, Gray makes films like “The Immigrant” that are insistently dark — both thematically and visually — about complicated people navigating complex realities. His under-loved last film, “The Lost City of Z,” tracks an early-20th-century explorer who travels far into the Amazon carrying the sins of Western civilization with him. It ends badly.
As an exploration of masculinity and its discontents, “Ad Astra,” set in a credible near future, plays very much like a thematic, somewhat obsessive bookend to “The Lost City of Z.” Each film focuses on skilled men who have embraced (with various degrees of knowing) ways of being in the world that have brought them public rewards at personal cost. Much like his Amazon-bound counterpart, Pitt’s astronaut, Maj. Roy McBride, has earned praise and renown, not always comfortably. McBride is also instructively isolated and earthbound when the film opens, a moment which finds him murmuring in voice-over before he scrambles onto, and soon falls from, a dizzyingly high antenna meant to locate extraterrestrial life.
The figure of the falling man isn’t new — Adam, Icarus and Don Draper all tumble — though it gained new meaning on Sept. 11 with Richard Drew’s harrowing photograph of an unidentified man plummeting from one of the twin towers. McBride’s plunge visually echoes that heartbreaking picture, although, after spinning around and deploying his parachute, he manages to land. The entire episode foreshadows a longer, more tortuous fall that begins when McBride is sent on a fairly dubious operation in deep space to contact his father (Tommy Lee Jones, in a forceful, Ahab-esque turn). A much-admired astronaut, the father presumably died leading another mission, effectively abandoning his son.
Things go badly, of course; they must. Before long McBride has set off — much like his “Lost City of Z” counterpart and Martin Sheen before him in “Apocalypse Now” — on what seems to be another iteration of “Heart of Darkness.” That’s particularly the case when McBride watches transmissions of his father talking about his mission that suggest the older man has gone mad, having succumbed (as Conrad puts it) to “the powers of darkness.” And while McBride has followed in his father’s footsteps, including in a disastrous personal life, the closer he comes to communicating with his dad the more that path looks like a dead end.
Visually austere and narratively clotted, “Ad Astra” tends to work best in isolated scenes rather than in the aggregate. It’s a striking film that Gray has washed in soft, vibrant color and filled with geometric patterns that pick up on the beauty (and natural orderliness) of the astronomical wonders that McBride passes and visits during his travels through space. Working with the cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and the production designer Kevin Thompson — and building on work by NASA — Gray creates a persuasive-looking cosmic realm that is familiar enough to latch onto yet also exotic enough to feed the film’s mystery.
Pitt’s soulful, nuanced performance — which becomes incrementally more externalized and visible, as if McBride were shedding a false face — holds the film together even when it starts to fray. McBride spends a lot of time alone, as when he’s wearing a spacesuit, his face wholly or partly obscured by his helmet with its golden, mirrored visor. As with McBride’s voice-over, which Pitt delivers in intimate tones — like a lover or penitent whispering confidences in your ear — the helmet alternately reveals and obscures the character, putting the narrative dynamic into visual terms. (Gray shares script credit with Ethan Gross.)
There are good moments, strong scenes and brief turns from familiar faces, including Donald Sutherland, a human jolt, sinister and avuncular; and Ruth Negga, as a longtime, unsettled Mars dweller. A tense detour on a space vessel in distress and a chase sequence on the moon are especially effective, just because they pop, creating visceral excitement as well as a necessary contrast to McBride’s hushed, repetitive ruminations. These scenes remind you that Gray can make the screen snap alive, whether he’s unleashing blunt terrors or flipping a racing dune buggy, making you jump in your seat. But Gray also has things to say and, like too many filmmakers, he worries that we’re not listening. So he keeps saying them.
The closer that McBride gets to his goal, the more abstract the story becomes and the more uninteresting. In “Ad Astra” — Latin for “to the stars” — Gray takes up a thread that has wound through American cinema for decades: How to be a man in the wake of feminism. McBride’s father represents a stereotypical male ideal, the strong, aloof hero; McBride’s unfortunately named ex, Eve (Liv Tyler), who flickers in and out like a broken promise, is his father’s antithesis. Yet while McBride has emulated his father, the cracks show, as when — after another routine psych exam — he unconvincingly insists that he’s fine, just fine. He is steady and calm, ready to do the job. His heart rate is so low he might as well be in a coma.
He is not, although by the time McBride is swimming through a watery tunnel toward a rebirth — complete with a portentous, symbolic umbilical cord — the film is en route to a metaphysical collapse. It’s disappointing, even if an early generic description of the story’s time frame as one of “hope and conflict” has already signaled its shortcomings. That description may be an attempt to establish its universality (or commercial accessibility). Yet what is unmistakable — it’s etched in Pitt’s wounded, crumpled humanity and in Gray’s plaintive earnestness — is that “Ad Astra” is unambiguously a film of its moment, one about a man’s struggle for personal meaning and a place in the world in a time of fallen fathers.
Rated PG-13 for mild space violence. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes.
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Manohla Dargis has been the co-chief film critic since 2004. She started writing about movies professionally in 1987 while earning her M.A. in cinema studies at New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books. @ManohlaDargis • Facebook
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