There's a subgenre of science fiction that I call "transcendentalism," in which the human race, or some select member(s) thereof, exceed the boundaries of our mundane existence. These films concern an evolutionary step, frequently involving contact with a non-human intelligence, which gives us a fresh perspective, resulting in a paradigm shift. Such films include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Contact, Interstellar, and the godfather of the genre, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Writer/director James Gray's Ad Astra appears to fall into the transcendental category. But it doesn't. It's the direct antithesis of all those films, and explaining why might get spoilery. Suffice it to say this: You have been warned.
Brad Pitt stars as astronaut Roy McBride, a mechanic recalled for active duty to venture to the outer planets to investigate a series of energy surges disrupting electronics system-wide. The surge may be tied to the long-lost Lima Project, an initiative to detect extraterrestrial life, which was commanded by Roy's father, Dr. Clifford McBride. Roy hasn't seen his dad in 30 years, and that paternal absence has left Roy an unfeeling shell of a human being. Roy accepts the mission, hoping that he can save Earth, but also re-establish contact with his father and salvage his own humanity.
Gray opens with Roy going extravehicular for some repair work on the space elevator — I think the first time I've ever seen it onscreen — when the surge disrupts electronic activity throughout the system. It's a spectacular set piece, suggesting good things to follow. Don't hold your breath.
My first hurdle was Roy's briefing, during which his commanders explain to him what the Lima Project was and how the elusive substance known as antimatter was involved in getting Lima out beyond the heliopause, the boundary where observational instruments are free of interference from our own sun. You know, I read a lot of science and a lot of science fiction, even taught astronomy labs for a couple of years, and I couldn't understand what was going on. What's the antimatter for, and how does it cause system-wide disruption? Why is Lima parked in orbit around Neptune instead of another 9 billion miles away at the heliopause? How do they expect Roy to get an instantaneous reply to his interplanetary phone call to his dad when Neptune is light minutes away? Even though Thanos' Infinity Stones in the Marvel Universe are magical nonsense, they're better explained.
I was happy to see Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga, yet neither contributes very much before they're written out. Gray includes a random car chase across the Moon. (You think I'm kidding, don't you?) And an encounter with some rabid space baboons. (Not kidding about that either.) Not that rabid space baboons aren't fun, but they have nothing to do with anything.
But the worst thing — aside from my kids' observation that the effects in 2001, a film from more than 50 years ago, were better — is the film's relentless fatalism, punctuated by Roy's incessant narration, which boils down to, "Boy, my life is miserable because I have daddy issues."
I understand Gray's message, that answers aren't found outside of us, but inside, and that obsession with the pretty effects of the universe can blind us to what's really important. But I believe obsessive introspection is narcissism.
Transcendental films have revelations that may be beyond our comprehension, but they make us think. People are still debating the meaning of 2001. 50 years from now, no one will be debating Ad Astra. I suspect no one will remember it at all, except maybe how depressing it was.