Roy McBride has major dad issues in James Gray’s Ad Astra, a space epic that’s more consumed with the personal. As played by Brad Pitt, McBride is a supremely subdued astronaut with a legendary father. He disappeared years ago and is assumed deceased after his mission to Neptune to find extraterrestrial life. This is all a giant metaphor for a father and son relationship that’s literally and figuratively separated by billions of miles. Tommy Lee Jones plays distant papa Clifford and Roy accepts a classified mission to retrieve him after it turns out he may be alive. Only the Earth’s fate hangs in the balance as all of human life is threatened and perhaps by dad’s activities far far away.
We are told that Ad Astra takes place in the near future, but there’s been time for moon bases, plenty of Mars exploration, and the capacity to get to Neptune in a relatively short period of time. Roy is not just estranged from Clifford, but so focused on work that his emotions leave him ambivalent about his wife (Liv Tyler) leaving him. For both him and the father who abandoned him, the mission of work trumps anything familial.
Much credit should be given to the design of Ad Astra. This is a beautiful looking picture as Roy’s travelogue takes him to stunningly desolate set pieces. Director Gray and his team pay attention to how this future world functions in a way that Minority Report did. Those details are worth exploring. It’s the rather tired dynamic between Roy and Clifford that gets in the way. The screenplay seems to think their relationship and what it represents is more profound than it is.
Astra is certainly a visual feast and a bit of a non-starter on a poignancy level. Midway through, I thought of the Dave Matthews Band track “The Space Between”. That could have been the title of this picture, which is more admirable than engrossing. There’s been efforts in this genre with parental themes (Gravity and Interstellar to name two) that landed the emotional stuff with more accurate precision. They didn’t leave me with Dave Matthews warbling gooey lyrics in my head either.
**/2 (out of four)