By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“Ad Astra” – Latin for “To the Stars” – is powered by one very bright shining star, Brad Pitt. And this performance, coupled with his superb work in the summer’s “Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood,” could propel him to a much-deserved Oscar. (Fingers crossed the two don’t cancel each other out).
Pitt plays Roy McBride, space royalty of a sort. Not only is he known as a cool head in chaotic circumstances – the film opens with a heart-stopping fall through space that barely bumps Roy’s pulse – but his father, Clifford, (Tommy Lee Jones), is a space legend – an intrepid explorer who, in his search for intelligent life in the universe, was first to reach Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune.
But that was 30 years ago and no one’s heard from him since.
“Ad Astra” is set in the near future, and the Earth is being plagued by mysterious power surges that could destroy the usual “life as we know it.” One such surge sent Roy into his spectacular opening-sequence tumble.
Someone comes up with an idea: send Roy to find his father who, after all, may still be alive and, more crucially, be responsible for the deadly surges.
So Roy hops a space shuttle to the Moon – that’s about where we are in space travel. Commercialism, however, already has its greedy little claws into things. A blanket and pillow for the trip cost $125. On arrival, Roy is greeted by T-shirt shops and a Subway (sandwich, not transportation).
For a while, an oddly jaunty Donald Sutherland is along for the ride. Ruth Negga, so marvelous in “Loving,” helps Roy negotiate Mars.
And then it’s off the map to find the possibly off-the-wall Tommy Lee.
A number of writers are comparing “Ad Astra” to “Apocalypse Now” (younger man in search of older nutcase) but the films have very different hearts of darkness, and Coppola’s masterpiece is pitch black.
James Gray. “Ad Astra’s” director gets by with an off-kilter inkiness, at best. There’s something about Gray’s work that somehow feels incomplete. His best film is last year’s excellent, “The Lost City of Z.” The rest, ranging from “The Yards” (pretentious) to “Two Lovers” (insulting), always seem like they should mean more than they do. The word superficial comes to mind.
“Ad Astra” isn’t superficial. Pitt won’t allow it to be. And it’s not a yawn. Sutherland, Jones and Negga won’t allow it to be. But once you take a step back, you realize that, despite its impressive trappings, it just doesn’t add up to very much.