Sci-fi movies with numerical titles are fine — more than fine. Think “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Sci-fi movies with Latin ones? Maybe not, if “Ad Astra,” which means “to the stars,” is any indication.
It’s far from a total loss. James Gray, who directed, is a real talent (“The Immigrant,” “The Lost City of Z”). He’s quite happy to upend sci-fi assumptions in this film set “in the near future.” When was the last time you got to see a knife fight in zero gravity, lunar rovers doing their version of a fast-and-furious movie, or a snippet of the Nicholas brothers doing “I’ve Got a Gal From Kalamazoo” — glimpsed on a spacecraft monitor, no less? But those are as atypical as they are unusual in a movie that holds itself at arm’s length — and the arm is encased in a space suit. “Ad Astra” is moody, meditative, and slow (though not the knife fight or rover demolition derby).
The title’s not meant as a play on words. It can’t be, since playfulness is nowhere evident in the film’s melancholic 124 minutes. The script, by Gray and Ethan Gross, alternates astronaut-terse lingo (“Copy that, Major”) with heavens-above profundo (“Sometimes the human mind must overcome the impossible”). Brad Pitt delivers lots, and lots, of voice-over.
The title might as well be a pun, though, what with the starry calibre of the cast. Pitt is in weary, wary post-Gary Cooper mode, playing the astronaut son of long-missing astronaut Tommy Lee Jones. The ever-effortless-seeming Donald Sutherland has too-few minutes as a onetime astronaut pal of Jones. Ruth Negga is the director of a US installation on Mars (which makes the nearness of the “Ad Astra” future a bit relative). In a truly thankless role that’s also mercifully brief, Liv Tyler plays Pitt’s estranged wife, back on Earth.
Negga’s character aids and abets Pitt in a super-secret space mission to find out if dad is not only still alive but might also have something to do with power surges emanating from Neptune. In the film’s bravura opening sequence, the first surge hits as Pitt is perched on the side of the miles-high International Space Antenna. Said surges threaten life on Earth. It’s “a crisis of untold magnitude,” one character announces. “Ad Astra” is an untold-magnitude kind of movie. That’s not a compliment.
No current cinematographer does chilly futuristic gleam as well as Hoyte van Hoytema (“Her,” “Interstellar”). That’s certainly the case here. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in space, on the moon, in a spacecraft, on Mars, or somewhere above Neptune: “Ad Astra” looks great, with impressively subtle variations on the literally unearthly light of each of those settings.
What isn’t great is seeing Pitt wobble between movie-star stolid and bad-actor wooden. Several times it’s noted his character’s pulse rate has never gone over 80. This you do not find hard to believe. It doesn’t help that Pitt has to recite lines like “We go to work. We do our jobs. Then it’s over” and “Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding.” In spacesuits, perhaps? The further “Ad Astra” gets from Earth, the more the distance shrinks between thinking-man’s science fiction and wallowing-man’s.
Or the problem with this impressively crafted yet increasingly listless enterprise might be that it’s actually another movie, only in sci-fi disguise. Extensive voice-over. Hazardous journey to the edge of civilization in search of brilliant man gone rogue. Pitt is Martin Sheen, Jones is Marlon Brando, and one man’s crisis of untold magnitude is another’s . . . apocalypse near future. In space no one can hear you scream. Everyone knows that. But maybe you can smell napalm in the morning?
Directed by James Gray. Written by Gray and Ethan Gross. Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, and Liv Tyler. At Boston theaters and suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 124 minutes. PG-13 (some violence and blood, brief strong language).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.