DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The science fiction drama "Ad Astra" stars Brad Pitt as an astronaut who sets out on a dangerous voyage to the outer reaches of the solar system. It's the latest picture from writer-director James Gray, whose earlier movies include "We Own The Night," "Two Lovers" and "The Lost City Of Z." Our film critic Justin Chang says "Ad Astra" is a space odyssey that sometimes stumbles but ultimately soars.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The title of "Ad Astra," James Gray's gorgeous, muddled and weirdly entrancing space epic is a Latin phrase that means to the stars. It's a fitting name for a movie set in a not-so-distant future where space travel has become evermore advanced, even as planet Earth is in peril. Electrical storms are wreaking havoc throughout the solar system, and the fate of humanity rests on the shoulders of a skilled astronaut named Major Roy McBride, played by a quietly soulful Brad Pitt. Roy is a man of swift action, few words and great inner calm. In one harrowing early action scene, a high-altitude explosion sends him falling to Earth, and his pulse barely accelerates as he deploys his parachute.
Roy is more comfortable floating in the vast, sterile emptiness of outer space than he is on solid ground, where he has to deal with the messiness of feelings and relationships. He recently split from his wife, who was fed up with his workaholism and emotional detachment. Roy inherited both those qualities from his father, Clifford McBride, a legendary astronaut who vanished 29 years ago on a deep space mission in search of intelligent life. But one day, Roy is called in by two top generals who have some startling news for him about the source of the electrical storms, known as The Surge.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AD ASTRA")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Major, what can you tell us about the Lima project?
BRAD PITT: (As Roy McBride) First manned expedition to the outer solar system, sir, some 29 years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And the commander was?
PITT: (As Roy McBride) It was my father, sir. The ship disappeared approximately 16 years into the mission. No data was ever recovered. Deep-space missions were halted after that.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Roy, we have something that might come as quite a shock to you. We believe your father is still alive near Neptune.
PITT: (As Roy McBride) My father's alive, sir?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We believe so.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Roy, The Surge seems to be the result of some kind of antimatter reaction. Now, the Lima project was powered by that material, and your father was in charge it. We're talking about a potentially unstoppable chain reaction here. The uncontrolled release of antimatter could ultimately threaten the stability of our entire solar system. All life could be destroyed.
CHANG: Roy's mission is to travel to a military base on Mars to transmit a secure message to Clifford and persuade him to stop The Surge. But first, he'll have to head to the moon, which has morphed into a grungy, capitalist dystopia - a giant shopping mall surrounded by a wasteland crawling with pirates. There's a gripping chase sequence in which some of those mercenaries pursue Roy in rickety vehicles across the lunar surface. Later, there's a frightening scene aboard a spaceship to Mars, where Roy makes a shocking discovery - a reminder that humanity's desire to conquer new frontiers can have disastrous consequences.
These little jolts help break up a long, episodic narrative that shuffles genres at will, starting out as a futuristic noir before shifting into an action movie, a paranoid thriller and, finally, a cosmic male weepy. "Ad Astra" can feel both overwritten and underimagined. I wish there were less of Roy's incessant voiceover monologue and more of a sense of how this mind-bending, often downright kooky vision of the future came to be. The story becomes even more disjointed once Roy arrives on Mars, shot in a bold, red palette by the cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, although I did love Natasha Lyonne's hilarious, one-scene performance as a disgruntled Martian office worker.
James Gray is often regarded as one of the film industry's last remaining class classicists, a director of smart, stirring, grown-up entertainments built on Hollywood's most enduring myths and genres. He's working on his biggest, most expensive canvas to date with "Ad Astra." And while the strange shows at times, he also displays an ambition that feels increasingly rare in big studio movies, as well as a desire to stir the audience's emotions honestly and respectfully.
At its best, "Ad Astra" marries the meditative space odyssey of "Solaris" to the downriver madness of "Apocalypse Now," with Tommy Lee Jones playing the movie's Colonel Kurtz figure as Roy's elusive father. There may be something unabashedly ridiculous about the idea of a man saving the world by travelling millions of miles to be reunited with his long-absent dad. But it's in that mix of absurdity and sincerity that "Ad Astra" finally transcends its lapses and approaches the sublime. Like Gray's previous adventure epic, "The Lost City Of Z," this is a surprisingly critical portrait of masculinity in crisis. It's about neglectful fathers and needy sons and the often unbridgeable distances between them.
The most striking of the movie's many effects may be Pitt's performance, which couldn't be more different from his recent work in "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood." In that movie, Pitt was all swaggering physicality. In "Ad Astra," he's almost otherworldly in his stillness, holding the camera's gaze with eyes that seem to contain multitudes. He shows us a man getting back in touch with his deepest emotions and makes that experience deeply emotional for us in turn. If that's not a sign of intelligent life at the movies, I don't know what is.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. On Monday's show, Terry talks with Tegan and Sara, twins, singer-songwriters and LGBTQ icons. They have a new memoir about their tumultuous high-school years in the mid-'90s. And they have a new CD. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS A FOOL")
TEGAN AND SARA: (Singing) Do you remember I searched you out, how I climbed your city's walls? Do you remember me as devout, how I prayed for your calls? I stood still. It's what I did. Love like ours is never fixed. I stuck around. I did behave. I saved you every time. I was a fool for love. I was a fool for love. I was a fool. I was a fool.
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS A FOOL")
TEGAN AND SARA: (Singing) Stand still is all I did. Love like ours is never fixed. Still, I stuck around. I did behave. I saved you every time. I was a fool for love. I was a fool for love. I was a fool. I was a fool. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.