Beautiful, eerie and always just a bit out of reach, James Gray’s “Ad Astra” is an intriguing if not entirely satisfying space odyssey. Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, a veteran astronaut who is summoned by the U.S. government and asked to go on a mission: to return to outer space and attempt to contact his astronaut father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). Clifford disappeared on a space mission 16 years ago, but now officials have uncovered evidence that he might still be alive — and might be connected to a series of radioactive surges from space that have threatened life on Earth, potentially causing, as one ominously warns, “a crisis of unknown magnitude.”
All this takes place in “the near future,” an early title card tells us; things on Earth, from the glimpses we see of Roy’s quiet life, don’t look too different from now. But other things have changed dramatically: In “Ad Astra” (the title is Latin for “to the stars”), you can fly commercial to the moon — a pillow and blanket on the flight will cost you $125 — and, once arrived in its dark, gray blankness, revive yourself in a “comfort room,” where images of colorful flowers and vivid birds are projected on the bare walls.
The cinematography, by Hoyte Van Hoytema (whose elegant body of work includes “Dunkirk,” “Spectre” and, not surprisingly, “Interstellar,” a tonal sibling to this film), is restrained and often stunning; a blastoff shows the land below looking like rumpled blue-and-green batik silk. Gray keeps the mood somber, serious and hypnotic throughout, with an insistently throbbing soundtrack (by Max Richter) contrasting with that curiously flat blue silence of space.
And at the center is Pitt, brooding and quiet, giving us the sense of a man carefully uncovering a trauma — his father left many years ago, promising to return — that he’d prefer to leave in the dark. (Listen to the eloquent, almost trembling pause Pitt gives, addressing Clifford in a recording, before the word “father.”) It’s a thoughtful, interesting performance, in a movie full of moments that resonate — but by the movie’s end, “Ad Astra” doesn’t add up to quite as much as you’d like it to. An odd combination of space adventure, psychological thriller and moody tone poem, it stops just short of dazzlement; instead “Ad Astra,” like an astronaut lost in space, slowly and majestically floats away.
★★★ “Ad Astra,” with Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland. Directed by James Gray, from a screenplay by Gray and Ethan Gross. 123 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language. Opens Sept. 20 at multiple theaters.