‘Ad Astra’ lands in familiar territory

The new Brad Pitt movie, “Ad Astra,” does not really bring anything new to the space odyssey table since at best it’s just an average science-fiction tale about one man’s search for himself and others. His screen father, a deep-space explorer portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, has been missing in space for an extensive amount of time.

In “Ad Astra,” Pitt’s astronaut, Roy McBride, is sent on a covert mission to find his father, H. Clifford McBride (Jones), who has fallen off the map and is either dead or somewhere out in the solar system.

The elder McBride has been stranded in space so long he does not even remember life on Planet Earth.  I hate to admit it, but his part will probably be up for a nomination come Oscar time early next year.

Also in an inconsequential supporting role is Donald Sutherland, Jones’s co-star in “Space Cowboys” in 2000. His part involves knowledge of the aforementioned McBride and his dilemma in space. 

Sutherland is only in the movie briefly since his character was just put into the script as a time filler.  Pitt’s character is thrust into a land of confusion. Even the team that put him on the mission tries to disavow his existence.

Brad Pitt as Ray McBride in “Ad Astra.”

Brad Pitt as Ray McBride in “Ad Astra.”

Also woven into the tale is McBride’s failed marriage to Liv Tyler’s character Eve.  The relationship is just kind of brushed over and used as a time filler.

“Ad Astra” is directed by James Gray. He likes working with Joaquin Phoenix, who starred in “We Own the Night,” (2007), Two Lovers,” (2008) and “The Immigrant” (2013).  

What Gray does with the camera in “Ad Astra” is compelling sans any grandiose gestures or finishes.  He sparks some interest in the characters, especially with Pitt’s McBride as well as Ruth Negga’s Helen Lantos whose parents were killed by Jones’ astronaut in deep space. 

I was hoping for something fluid and amazing, but this one just falls short.  I anticipated something akin to Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning “Interstellar” (2014), but was reduced to leftovers from “Critters” (1986) or a “low budget” Roger Corman flick from the 1980s like “Galaxy of Terror” (1981). 

“Ad Astra” looks amazing on the big screen. I saw it in a giant THX house. The sequences in space are compelling and altogether interesting. There is a sequence involving a space tower above the Earth that falters due to some explosions and a changing balance of power.

I would have enjoyed something like Peter Hyams underrated follow-up to “2001: A Space Odyssey” with his “2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1985). That awesome tale had Roy Schneider (“Jaws”) John Lithgow, “The World According to Garp” (1982), Bob Balaban and Helen Mirren. 

“Ad Astra” though, for all intents and purposes, is a slow-burn tale. Some exciting and riveting stuff happens, but it comes way too far down the line to rescue it from mediocrity.