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'Ad Astra' review: Brad Pitt sci-fi saga reaches for the stars, but falls back to Earth

Brad Pitt as Roy McBride in "Ad Astra."

Brad Pitt as Roy McBride in "Ad Astra." Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

PLOT An astronaut ventures into deep space to find his father.

CAST Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler

RATED PG-13 (some gore)

LENGTH 2:02

BOTTOM LINE James Gray's highbrow space-adventure trades action for ambience.

Roy McBride, an astronaut living in the near future in James Gray's "Ad Astra," feels like a fictional analogue to Neil Armstrong, the very real space hero played by Ryan Gosling in Damien Chazelle's "First Man." Both men have nearly identical characteristics: grace under pressure, laserlike focus and an arm's-length emotional distance from the people around them.

"I'm calm, steady," McBride tells the computer that serves as his psychotherapist. We learn that McBride's heart rate, monitored by something like a neck-mounted Fitbit, has never risen above 80 beats per minute, even in a crisis.

The same could be said of "Ad Astra," a potentially thrilling space adventure that seems determined not to break a sweat. Tracking Roy's journey to Neptune to find his long-vanished father (a brief but enjoyable Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride), "Ad Astra" is an extremely classy trip through the cosmos, with Kubrickian color schemes, pristine cinematography by Hotye van Hoytema ("Interstellar") and a commendable lead performance from Pitt. What the movie lacks almost completely is action, tension, humor and surprises — all the stuff that even highbrow sci-fi films usually remember to include.

Christopher Nolan's heady "Interstellar" seems to be the model for "Ad Astra" (the title is Latin for "to the stars"). Both movies fret over the end of humanity on Earth. Nolan worried about climate change and crop failure; Gray, who co-wrote this movie with longtime collaborator Ethan Gross, dreams up mysterious energy surges that for unclear reasons (something to do with "antimatter") could obliterate all life.

Nolan relied on tricky space-time conundrums to hold our attention, and although the results were mixed he at least made us feel smart. Gray, a tremendously thoughtful filmmaker ("The Lost City of Z"), instead falls back on some surprisingly corny old ideas: Moon pirates in dune buggies (very "Star Wars"), a spooky ghost ship (very "Event Horizon"), a tyrant who rules his own space fiefdom (very "Black Hole," very "Fantastic Planet"). As for Roy's wife (Liv Tyler), seen only in flashbacks, she's a downright ancient movie trope.

All of which might have passed muster if "Ad Astra" were played for thrills, chills and pulpy entertainment rather than pitching itself as the Cinema of Big Ideas. It's hard not to wonder how much fun a John Carpenter or a Ridley Scott or even a Peter Hyams ("Outland") might have had with this movie. "Ad Astra" may reach for the stars, but its own gravitas pulls it down. 

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