American auteur James Gray has combined the calm, grand spectacle of 2001, the essential plot structure of Apocalypse Now, and, possibly, the best bits of his therapy sessions to create Ad Astra, a slow-burn “hard” sci-fi thriller that is by turns captivating, mesmerizing and infuriating. The journey is rather awesome but the destination is unworthy.
Brad Pitt plays the coolest astronaut ever – literally; his BPM have never risen above 80, even during emergencies. That’s partly his legacy: his dad is the boldest astronaut ever, having travelled further from earth than any other. Now dad may be gone a little wonky out there in deep deep deep space, and his son needs to travel the solar river into his own heart of darkness, and convince Dad not to destroy humankind.
The effects, slow and quiet, are a wonder, and Pitt, quiet and introspective, holds the screen. Three truly unexpected action sequences provide intriguingly strange jolts to the action. The production design is inspired (Mars particularly). But the denouement is self-parodically on the nose. Go for the rockets, which are great, rather than the existentialism, which is contrived.