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Brad Pitt’s space epic ‘Ad Astra’ feels familiar. But it’s unique in one major way

The film “Ad Astra” follows Brad Pitt on journey into deep space that will remind you of the best — and most challenging — aspects of another space film.

Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra.”
Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra.”
20th Century Fox

“AD ASTRA” — 3 stars — Brad Pitt, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland; PG-13 (some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language); running time: 122 minutes; in general release

SALT LAKE CITY — Set in the near future, “Ad Astra” follows Brad Pitt on journey into deep space that will remind you of the best — and most challenging— aspects of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

James Gray’s film is the latest entry in the now-traditional, annual big budget fall season sci-fi movie, joining the likes of “The Martian,” “Gravity,” and “Interstellar.” But for all it has in common with those films (“Interstellar” in particular), audiences may find themselves making more comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” than anything else.

The story follows an astronaut as he journeys to the planet Neptune in the hopes of saving the planet Earth.

It opens with a dramatic scene just outside the Earth’s atmosphere that evokes 2013’s “Gravity.” Here we meet Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut stationed on the International Space Antenna, a structure so vast it practically reaches from the ground into outer space on its own. A mysterious power surge nearly kills him, and only nods at the threat to come.

Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra.”
Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra.”
20th Century Fox

As the dust clears, Roy is told that he experienced a part of what is being called “The Surge,” a life-threatening wave of energy emitting from the planet Neptune. If it continues unchecked, higher-ups believe The Surge could wind up destroying all life on Earth.

Those same higher-ups believe Roy’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) could be responsible for The Surge. Clifford was sent to the outer reaches of the solar system almost 30 years prior as part of something called Project Lima, but has been missing in action for several years. So Roy is sent to Mars with orders to contact his father and try to stop the carnage.

This simple plot line guides “Ad Astra,” and we follow Roy as he travels to the Moon and then to Mars (and, as you might have guessed, on to Neptune), observing the fruits of this “near future.” Roy’s convoy is attacked by pirates outside a Moon base. His and his crew of “long haulers” make a pit stop at an abandoned station on the way to Mars that leads to fatal consequences. And, of course, once Roy sends the message from the Red Planet, things are far from over.

The methodical, step-by-step movement of the plot will remind seasoned audiences of “2001,” which at times felt more like a documentary about space travel than a fictional story about it. The visuals, as you might expect, are also impressive, though less emphasis is put on razor-sharp vistas than in recent sci-fi offerings like “Blade Runner: 2049.”

Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra.”
Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra.”
20th Century Fox

There are also a number of parallels to “Interstellar,” what with all the parent-child, set-against-a-dying-Earth theme.

While there are plenty of brief action sequences along the way — the encounter on the Moon probably being the best — “Ad Astra” is ultimately less about dramatic interstellar action than it is about interpersonal relationships. And if the opening sequence reminds you at all of the Tower of Babel, you might be surprised at the religious theme that permeates the film.

In that sense, “Ad Astra” might offer more in terms of meaning, while disappointing audiences who were expecting a little more in terms of action. Things aren’t anywhere as oblique or ambiguous as in “2001,” but it would be easy to see people walking out of the IMAX theater trying to reconcile mixed feelings over an ending that whispers instead of bangs.

At first impression, “Ad Astra” may not be up to the same level as some other recent fall sci-fi offerings, but if you know what you’re getting into, you might bring back something more worthwhile than a few stunning vistas.

Rating explained: “Ad Astra” is rated PG-13 for scenes of action violence and terror.