Take: two members of the crew from “Space Cowboys.” That would be Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland (in a small role).
Incorporate: Brad Pitt, playing an inexpressive astronaut in the mode of Ryan Gosling’s rigidly unemotional spacefarer in “First Man.”
Surround with: gleaming futuristic hardware ever so reminiscent of the tech on view in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Combine all: in a story line with unmistakable linkages to “Heart of Darkness”/”Apocalypse Now” in which a grizzled Kurtz figure (that would be Jones) goes way far up a metaphorical river — deep space, to Neptune — where, isolated and wrestling with inner demons, he’s gone bonkers.
Can you say: Derivative?
Welcome to filmmaker James Gray’s “Ad Astra.”
In space, no one will see you smile. Ever.
Grim business, space travel. Practically funereal, you might say. And indeed, the picture has more than its share of burials in space, as the corpses of luckless crew members are fired out airlocks into the inky void.
Gray, whose filmography is a litany of somber works — “Little Odessa,” “The Yards” and “The Lost City of Z” among them — has, with his co-screenwriter Ethan Gross, produced a picture very much enamored of its own seriousness.
It’s a moody movie in which a stubble-faced Pitt, usually captured in extreme close-up, inwardly ruminates on his character’s flaws.
In voiceovers he says, “I’ve been harsh when I should have been tender.” “I will not rely on anyone.” “I’ve let people down.” And “I’m angry.” That last is intoned in the most emotionless tone imaginable. You? Angry? Really? Could have fooled us.
Turns out he’s a chip off the old sober-sided block. Jones’ character is his father, a world-renowned hero astronaut who has been incommunicado for 16 years after venturing to Neptune on a mission to find signs of intelligent life in the great beyond.
“I found my destiny, so abandoned my son (his wife, too),” he declares, emotionlessly. However, “I still love you,” he adds. In this case too, there is scant evidence of such a nurturing emotion.
What’s he been doing in all that time? Apparently cooking up a scheme to send electromagnetic pulses to Earth so powerful that they have the potential to blow out every fuse on the planet and plunge humanity into chaos. To which one can only respond with a big fat, “Say what? How is that possible?”
Let’s just say the science in the picture seems extremely dubious. From the Pitt character’s encounter with a ravening ape in a zero-gravity spaceship (Huh?) to his more or less spacesuit-surfing from one spaceship to distant other (?) to using an atomic explosion to fling his rocket across the solar system at incredible speed with astonishing accuracy toward Earth (??!) — none of it computes.
Gray leaves gaping plot holes everywhere. For instance, on the moon jitney-riding pirates are waylaying travelers. The hows and whys of that little anomaly — Hey, car chase! — are never explained.
The Pitt character’s mission, with stops en route on the moon and Mars, is to find Dad at the edge of the cosmos and bring him back, alive, if possible.
And, amid feats of interplanetary derring-do — a zero-gravity fistfight, a gunfight (in the closed environment of a spaceship; really?) — he has plenty of time to ponder cosmic questions, which essentially boil down to one Big Question: What Does It All Mean? You know: the meaning of life and everything.
In the case of “Ad Astra” it means portentous claptrap liberally ladled out from one end of the solar system to the other.
Cast: Featuring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga
Director: James Gray
Running time: 2:03
Rated: PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language.