It’s a curse that any moviemaker venturing within a few light years of a serious space movie — like director James Gray does with “Ad Astra” — will have to face comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Visually, Gray measures up, with images of interplanetary travel that are as arresting as Kubrick’s, and also feel as scientifically accurate. It’s in the storytelling that “Ad Astra” comes up short, focusing on little human problems more than the vast questions “2001” explored so poetically.
The protagonist is Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a devoted and talented veteran of the U.S. Space Command, who we meet as he is barely surviving an accident on a giant space antenna. The accident, Roy learns, was caused by surges in electricity wreaking havoc on Earth. The source of the surges is near Neptune, the last known location of the Lima space probe, commanded by McBride’s father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones).
Roy is assigned to leave Earth for the Moon and onward to Mars, so he can send a message to his father to convince Clifford, if he’s alive, to stop whatever is sending the surges. Accompanying Roy for the ride is one of Clifford’s old colleagues, Col. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), who appears to be working from a different agenda.
Gray (“The Lost City of Z”) and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross try so hard to stay away from “2001” comparisons — they fail, but more about that later — that they back into another cinematic classic: “Apocalypse Now.” McBride’s journey, experiencing violent adventures on his way to an inevitable confrontation with his possibly-mad father, mirrors a bit too closely the “Heart of Darkness” ride Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard took to find Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz. You know what they say: In space, no one can hear you pay homage.
In the episodes on the way to Neptune, Gray and Gross plant so many references, intentional or not, to Kubrick’s 1968 film that it feels like they built a “2001” kit in the wrong order. The moon is a strip mall, with a Subway where the Howard Johnson’s used to be. There are murderous apes (really). There are weird non sequiturs, like Ruth Negga’s odd appearance as the head of the Mars colony. And, like when HAL was working on orders Bowman and Poole didn’t know about, Roy must contend with people with a different assignment than his.
Also, at some point, somebody told Gray that he couldn’t trust the audience to understand that space is a big metaphor for disconnection. Thus we get Pitt’s oppressive narration, which is halfway between descriptive audio and the poetic ruminations of a Terrence Malick movie. Pitt muses on being separated from his father, and how he’s repeating the cycle with his own wife, Eve (Liv Tyler). The voiceover undercuts the minimalism of Pitt’s performance, and turns “Ad Astra” into a wondrously scenic ride with the most boring book-on-tape ever.
Opens Friday, September 20, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language. Running time: 122 minutes.