'Ad Astra' may be Brad Pitt's second Oscar attempt of 2019. But it's the same old story.

Pitt's newest movie goes a long, long way around the universe to find a predictably boring, cold-hearted action hero.
Brad Pitt shoots for the stars in "Ad Astra."
Brad Pitt shoots for the stars in "Ad Astra."Francois Duhamel / Twentieth Century Fox
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By Noah Berlatsky

“Ad Astra” is an action movie about the value of human connection. As such, it unwittingly and helplessly underlines how bad action movies can be at depicting human connection.

The film is set in the near future and centers around the interplanetary and emotional journey of astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a typically taciturn, cowboy hero type. Roy is the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the most famous astronaut who ever lived. Clifford led the first trip to Saturn in search of extraterrestrial life. The expedition was lost when Roy was young, and his father and all his crew were presumed dead. But strange bursts from Neptune are causing dangerous power outages on earth, and the authorities believe that Clifford may be alive, and somehow responsible. They ask Roy to travel to Mars to send a communication to his father to stop the flares before the earth is destroyed.

“Ad Astra” is an action movie about the value of human connection. As such, it unwittingly and helplessly underlines how bad action movies can be at depicting human connection.

Roy is possessed of preternatural calm and competence; his heart rate doesn't accelerate even when he's falling to earth from the stratosphere. His steady pulse is supposed to be a sign of his emotional disconnection, both from his father and from his wife Eve (Liv Tyler). Many tight shots of impassive features and beard stubble showcase Roy's repressed emotions, and Pitt's Oscar aspirations.

Those aspirations may well bear fruit; critics have been enthusiastic. But to me, at least, the climactic scenes of Roy and Cliff together feel almost like self-parody, with two sets of jaws tightening and four eyebrows imperceptibly twitching across two craggy, manly visages. And just in case you miss the turmoil under the placid surface, director James Gray helpfully provides Roy with the klutziest internal monologue since “Blade Runner.” "What broke him, or was he always broken?" Roy muses. He is referring to his father, not, more appropriately, to whoever wrote that dialogue.

All the heavy-handed intensity is meant to show that Roy's rough-hewn self-sufficiency, like his father's, is harmful and maladaptive. But the movie's plot delivers the opposite message, in part because Roy is so capable in action. Falls from low earth orbit, land rover chase scenes, and bloody fights in abandoned spaceships are all shot with a slowed-down, dream-like care. We watch contemplative ballets of derring-do which highlight Roy's calm as everyone around him succumbs to fear and other human failings.

The sweeping, empty vistas of the solar system are supposed to be a metaphor for the sweeping emptiness of a life in isolation. But if this is an emotional vacuum, then emotional vacuums are pretty cool. By the same token, Roy's self-contained masculinity is what makes him the hero. He's Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Daniel Craig, or any other adventurer with a steely stare and a dangerous right hook. Not coincidentally, he's also the same archetype from Pitt’s other big film of the summer, “Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood.” The plot and themes of “Ad Astra” tell us Roy's impervious remoteness is bad. But the action movie tropes insist much more loudly (even in space) that Roy's impervious remoteness is badass.

“Ad Astra” wants you to believe that Roy's happiness and fulfillment involve recognizing that his wife is more important than his career. But if Eve is so central to Roy's emotional and moral arc, why is she in the film so little? Pitt has a more meaningful relationship with casual acquaintance Helen Lantos (a criminally underutilized Ruth Negga), who at least gets to advance the plot. He has more intimate conversations with his computer psych evaluation program.

In contrast, Roy and his wife barely exchange a line of dialogue. Eve exists almost entirely in flashbacks, where she looks at him accusingly while picking up her keys, or mutters vague clichés about work-life balance. Like many a female action lead, her job is to play hard to get and then show up at the end as a reward. (Though poor Eve doesn't even get to shoot a bad guy from behind like Linda Fiorentino in "Men in Black.")

The slow pacing, dramatic soundtrack and realistic depictions of moonscapes, are supposed to elevate “Ad Astra” above genre forbears and peers. So are the plot nods to “Apocalypse Now.” The film is not just about lasers and muscles and explosions; It's about the human heart. In theory.

In practice, though, there are still a lot of lasers and explosions in “Ad Astra,” and the human heart on display looks more like a synthetic valve pump.

The effort to surpass its pulpy parentage freezes “Ad Astra” into an ever rigid paralysis of masculine posturing. It's so determined to be serious it suppresses any emotional display, even though its theme is supposed to be that suppressing emotional displays is toxic and ugly. If “Ad Astra” really believed what it was saying, it would be a rom-com. As it is, though, the movie goes a long, long way around the universe to find the same boring, cold-hearted action hero as ever.

CORRECTION (Sept. 30, 2019, 10:00 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the planet described in the movie "Ad Astra" from which energy flares are creating power outages on Earth. It is Neptune, not Saturn.