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Ad Astra review: Brad Pitt adds rocket fuel to stunning sci-fi epic

Sad astronaut searches for dad astronaut in this aching cosmic space race.

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Brad Pitt in Ad Astra.

Fox

Ad Astra is Latin for "to the stars," but there's only one star who matters in this powerful, emotional sci-fi spectacular. Brad Pitt follows the hit Once Upon A Time in Hollywood with a supernova turn as a spaceman on a mission to connect with his father -- and maybe save the universe along the way.

Pitt plays a reluctant astronaut who's sealed himself off from human relationships, as alone and drifting in his marital home as if his tether's been cut during a spacewalk. He's a focused and cool-headed member of a military space force and a veteran of combat over the Arctic, but one thing that shakes his cool exterior is the news his dad might still be alive. The downside is that his missing father, also an astronaut, may have doomed the human race.

So Pitt's steely spaceman is dispatched back to the blackness to seek the absent astronaut. What follows is a space odyssey that draws as much on the actual mythical Odyssey as it does on sci-fi classic 2001. It's like Heart of Darkness on the dark side of the moon. Apocalypse Now, years from now.

Space is the place for Pitt.

Fox

Ad Astra, in theaters now, wears its influences on the sleeve of its pressure suit. It has something of Arrival's dreamlike abstractness or Interstellar's grandiose sweep. Yet it's also teasingly timeless, evoking 1970s speculative fictions like Silent Running or Capricorn One with its brown sofas, chunky analogue machinery and concrete moon bases clearly filmed in beat-up power stations.

Despite this, Ad Astra looks like its own thing. There are no talking computers or squawking robots, no fancy holograms or laser guns, but writer and director James Gray delivers subtle yet effective twists on familiar sci-fi tropes. The opening scene with a Gravity-style mishap is set not against the blackness of space but the bejeweled green and blue cradle of Earth. And where we're used to seeing astronauts and lunar rovers slowly bouncing across the moon's surface, we're treated here to a breathless Mad Max: Fury Road-style chase among the craters.

On paper, Ad Astra is a fairly pulpy story. One familiar sci-fi trope is opened not once but twice, and leads to a shock reveal that's as likely to elicit snorts of laughter as it is to make you jump.

Donald Sutherland suits up.

Fox

Events may have overtaken Gray's more scathing visions of the future, meanwhile. As Donald Trump prepares to launch the Space Force and declares the majestic cosmos to be merely another tawdry "warfighting domain," Ad Astra's undercurrent of satire begins to look uncomfortably prescient. Gray imagines a future in which humanity completely fails to leave its problems on the ground, thoughtlessly filling commercial spaceflights with the same old baggage. The vision of the moon as a lunar Las Vegas would be funny if it didn't feel bitterly inevitable.

But the imagined sci-fi future serves to counterbalance the real emotional journey. It's beguilingly evoked through hallucinatory imagery, dreamlike editing and Max Richter and Lorne Balfe's increasingly abstract music. By the time we get to a hazy golden-brown Mars, the film feels like a fever dream of paranoia and anxiety.

Pitt needs some space.

Fox

Pitt stunningly embodies the astronaut stepping into the crushing vacuum of space and the even more desolate vacuum left by a missing father. Pitt is masterful in conveying both supreme, unshakeable capability and aching, spiraling vulnerability. It's not as charming as his laid-back stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but it may be the better performance.

That said, Pitt's unfortunate son is the story's favorite and it can be frustrating how everyone else exists solely to help him on his way to defeating daddy issues. Ruth Negga brings a touch of class to a character who counterpoints Pitt's anguish, but fades ignominiously away. Meanwhile Liv Tyler and Natasha Lyonne are spectacularly short-changed with lines you can count on one hand.

The missing father is played with ambiguous menace by Tommy Lee Jones, lost in space 3 billion miles from the sun and his son. If you think space is cold and distant, wait till you meet Brad's dad. He's the Colonel Kurtz of the movie, and there's a real power to seeing this remote figure revealed for who he really is: not a legend, not a patriarch -- just a man.

This emotional reunion journey is the rocket fuel that powers Ad Astra. This is a flick about a guy who flies to Neptune to save the world from antimatter armageddon, but when I came out of it all I could think about was my dad. This film will strike a nerve with anyone who's ever felt someone they love is on another planet. In Ad Astra, exploring the universe is just the vessel for exploring the universal. Space is infinite, but it's nothing compared with the vastness of human emotion.

Originally published Sept. 4.