In Ad Astra's near future, going to the Moon is so pedestrian—you can fly there commercial—that once you arrive at the spaceport, you're greeted by a Hudson News and an Applebee's. It's when you venture further out—into the sprawling no-man's land of disputed lunar territory—that the moon buggies full of space pirates show up, and things get weirder (and bloodier) on the tense journey from the cold, austere Moon to dark, dusky Mars, then on the long, airless traverse to Neptune. "Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence," a wise man once said, and such is the case in Ad Astra, where there are a few other things, too: Loneliness, failure, and enough daddy issues to fill a couple rocket boosters.
Writer/director James Grey's follow-up to 2016's excellent, underrated The Lost City of Z is a clunkier affair, with sad-sack Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) embarking on an almost-certainly doomed voyage through the solar system to track down his MIA astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones). Along the way, he fights battles both external (space pirates!) and internal (daddy issues!), and he also spends a whole lot of time monologuing, thanks to an unnecessary, on-the-nose voiceover that rivals Harrison Ford's awkward ramble in Blade Runner. But it's when the movie shuts up—when Gray's camera skims the plains of the Moon, when an antenna towering into Earth's atmosphere begins to shudder, when the screen is filled by the shadow-blue rings of Neptune or the churning storms of Jupiter—that Ad Astra hits the profundity and scope that all McBride's monologuing fails to get at.
Ad Astra is about the unfathomable distance between two men, and one man's attempt to fathom it all the same—and, as was the case with the similarly themed Lost City of Z, Gray has zero interest in letting viewers off the hook with easy answers or clean discoveries. Gray is interested in delivering a phenomenal big-screen experience: Desite Ad Astra's measured pacing, neither the visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema) nor the score (from Max Richter and Lorne Balfe) ever disappoint.
At its most basic, Ad Astra can feel like just another entry in the weirdly specific film genre of Mopey Dudes in Space—Solaris, Moon, Interstellar, First Man. But at its best, the film offers some remarkable, stunning visions—and an admirable, engaging attempt to venture into the black unknown, regardless of what it might hold. If Ad Astra doesn't quite get there, it's not for lack of ambition, but rather the limits of even a movie screen to contain both the mind-breaking vastness of space and the quiet, internal emptiness that can feel just as big, and just as terrifying.