Ad Astra (PG13)

Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler 

Directed by James Gray

If the trailer lets you think that Ad Astra is a high-octane popcorn yarn where Brad Pitt battles space pirates on the moon, then prepared to be disappointed. The said chase sequence is merely the dessert, not the main course in a far more complex, esoteric picture. While Ad Astra — Latin for ‘to the stars’ — may have been mis-sold, but it’s no misfire either.

Ad Astra is set in “the near future” where ace astronaut Major Roy McBride (Pitt, in a mesmerisingly understated performance) is chosen for a top-secret mission: travel to the edge of the solar system to stop a rogue scientist from using an anti-matter weapon to destroy the universe. 

Roy is the best person for the job for two reasons. One, he’s super-focused and unnervingly calm under pressure (his resting heart rate is 80 beats per minute, we’re told) that he can execute risky tasks in his sleep. In fact, Roy is so cool that when he sleeps, sheep count him. Probably.  

And No.2? Remember that rogue scientist? Turns out he’s Roy’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), an astronaut who had gone missing in an expedition when Roy was 16, and presumed dead since. The authorities hope Roy can contact Clifford, if that’s indeed his father and not some doppelganger, and talk him out of whatever diabolical plan he’s hatching.  

So far so far Jerry Bruckheimer, right? Not really.

More Apocalypse Now (cineastes will have a field day listing the similarities) than Armageddon — with astoundingly icy 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired aesthetics added in the mix — Ad Astra is a sombre character study of a man who excels at being emotionally insulated but does so at the expense of alienating his family, namely his wife (Liv Tyler, who barely has any dialogue).

Is Roy a sociopath by nature or nurture? Hmm...

Despite hitting some bumps (Donald Sutherland’s role as Clifford's former colleague seems unnecessary in hindsight, and a somewhat rushed ending that could use more ambiguity),  the film, by director and co-writer James Gray (The Lost City of Z), is a slow-burning, intriguing psychodrama. 

Through Roy's journey into the cosmos, the film explores outer space as well as the human psyche, raising questions about loneliness and connectedness. You know, hair-pulling stuff you want to discuss with your shrink/priest/spouse/best friend/random inebriated stranger in a bar.

If you want monster mayhem, there is an unsettling sequence involving Roy and a couple of rabid baboons. The rest of the time the monsters he has to wrestle are his own in what is essentially a two-hour therapy session. Now, how do you sell that in a trailer? (***1/2)

Photos: 20th Century Fox