Brad Pitt the astronaut shines bright in ponderous sci-fi thriller
Film review: Ad Astra (12A), 7.5/10
Brad Pitt blasts into space and delivers an out-of-this-world lead performance as an astronaut with deep-rooted daddy issues in director James Gray's sci-fi thriller.
Ad Astra hard-wires the visceral thrills of Gravity and the existential angst of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a near-future setting that slingshots from Earth to Neptune via the dark side of the Moon.
It's a curious juxtaposition and the script, co-written by Gray and Ethan Gross, struggles to find a smooth trajectory between edge-of-seat excitement and soul-searching, which is writ large in a superfluous voiceover that often verbalises what is achingly evident on Pitt's face.
Those classical handsome features ripple with emotion in close-up and Pitt excels at conveying turmoil beneath his gung-ho trailblazer's placid surface with an expertly timed twitch or downwards glance.
It's a meaty, complex role and the Oklahoma-born actor is mesmerising in every scene before his internal monologue interrupts the chilling silence in space, where no one is supposed to be able to hear you primal scream.
Female characters are perfunctory. Liv Tyler barely registers as Pitt's estranged earthbound wife and Ruth Negga has limited screen time as a director of operations on a Martian outpost, who flouts authority to propel the film towards its next set piece.
Celebrated astronaut Major Roy McBride (Pitt) hopes to further mankind's knowledge of the universe as part of the team on the International Space Antenna.He prides himself on remaining cool and detached under pressure - famously, Roy's closely monitored pulse never exceeds 80 bpm.
A series of devastating electrical storms, christened the Surge, results in more than 43,000 deaths.General Rivas (John Ortiz) summons Roy to an urgent confidential meeting.
Scientists at SpaceCom have traced the source of the Surge to Neptune, close to the last known location of Roy's father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared almost 30 years ago.
Roy is instructed to travel undercover to Neptune via Mars to learn if Clifford is alive and releasing anti-matter aboard his missing ship to create the electrical storms.
One of Clifford's old comrades, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), accompanies Roy on the perilous top-secret mission. 'We have to hold out the possibility that your father may be hiding from us,' Pruitt confides to Roy as they venture into the inky void.
Ad Astra, which translates as 'to the stars', quickens pulses with bravura action sequences including a lunar buggy chase and a memorable encounter with carnivorous gravity-defying baboons.
Pitt shines brighter than the slick special effects and his dazzling turn holds our interest when the script threatens to slip into a black hole of ponderous navel-gazing in the final third.
The clarity that Roy (and director Gray) seek remain tantalising out of everyone's grasp.