In recent years, the American space program has been limited to pitching the stars of the Ocean's 11 franchise a little further into the stratosphere, with Brad Pitt, in this week's Ad Astra, following in the trajectory of George Clooney in Gravity and The Martian's Matt Damon. (All three were beaten in this thespian space race by Don Cheadle, the Neil Armstrong of the Ocean's franchise, who embarked upon his Mission to Mars back in 2000; at the current launchrate, we may yet wind up with Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner playing grumpy old spacemen.) Pitt's mission, however, is artsier and more personal: he's been invited to bounce around the vastness of the solar system to explore the kind of abandonment issues that could just as easily be worked through in a small therapist's office back on planet Earth. His Roy McBride is a lineman on the International Space Antenna, found recovering both from the failure of his marriage (to a largely lineless Liv Tyler) and an accident caused by a mysterious solar power surge; upon investigation, his bosses conclude said surge is somehow connected to McBride's father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a fellow astronaut who's reportedly exiled himself on Mars in protest at the commercialisation of the lunar program. The quest that follows - to reconnect with this literally distant dad - enters into dialogue with such films as Apocalypse Now and Contact (where Jodie Foster's astronomer went looking for her father), but chiefly struck me as an attempt to rewrite the rulebook of space cinema: to show that the right stuff - that tersely unemotional, fiercely independent machismo lionised in Phil Kaufman's canonical space movie of 1983 - can, in fact, be completely the wrong stuff in certain circumstances.
The man overseeing this rethink of space-movie protocol is James Gray, the skilled American craftsman whose connoisseurial breakthrough features (Little Odessa, Two Lovers, We Own the Night) were revered in four square blocks of Paris and New York and reviewed and received with (variably unfair) indifference almost everywhere else. The sense one took away from 2016's The Lost City of Z, and takes away from Ad Astra, is that he's training himself to make the kind of movie the moneymen would rather he make: expansive, with a healthier ratio of action to talk, and recognisable, bankable faces in the lead roles. The hope of cinephiles the world over would be that Gray's time in the trenches has readied him to imbue such projects with greater characterisation and thematic heft than one might find in, say, Fast & Furious presents Hobbs & Shaw. The Lost City of Z - which had the look of a masterpiece at the time, and has since assumed the status of semi-buried treasure - was a film made to delight fans of adventure movies, but it also found time and space to unpack its explorer protagonist's baggage, and to show how the single-minded pursuit of his goal impacted upon his nearest and dearest; it grounded its widescreen spectacle with the coherent interiority that has been the mark of this filmmaker's very best work.
By all accounts, Ad Astra was a far more troubled production, and it shows, not least in the voiceover applied like electrical tape in a bid to keep everything on screen together. Watching these often bumpy two hours, you form the mental image of Gray as Jim Lovell (with Pitt and Jones as his co-pilots), desperately trying to steer the film where it's meant to be going amid considerable turbulence. It's still a broken-backed film, with sudden lurches into action (space pirates! Space chimps! Zero-gravity knife fights!) which feel like a concession - that an expensive-looking space movie starring Brad Pitt and bound for the multiplex needs the occasional dollop of spectacle lest the popcorn-munchers grow tired of all the interstellar introspection. Gray doesn't appear especially interested in these sequences: there's not much indication of where these pirates or chimps come from for starters, and the action they provoke is shruggingly handled, certainly in comparison with the pulse-racing hunt with which Z opened, or the nocturnal car chase that so electrified We Own the Night. (The lack of involving atmosphere on and around the Moon - the sense Gray has reverted to models of spacecraft and doubles of actors - really doesn't help any.)
What he is fascinated by, however - and here we keep getting glimpses of what Ad Astra was always shooting for - is the Pitt character's solitude, the distance he puts between himself and those he loves and who love him, perhaps as a way of dealing with his father's rage. The women of Ad Astra are cursory figures, and for once it seems like a plot point: aside from Tyler, we get a cameo from Natasha Lyonne as a space secretary of some form, and Ruth Negga as a black-clad therapist halted at the end of her first scene because - tellingly - she doesn't have the authorisation to go any further. Everything that subsequently plays out as Roy hops from planet to planet like a snooker player making brisk work of the colours - the endless dialogue along the lines of "why, you're Clifford McBride's boy!", the clever tilt of the camera so that a holographic image of Jones's face aligns with Pitt's - is engineered towards this astroboy making his peace with the fact he is his father's son.
With a less watchable performer in place, Ad Astra might have resembled any other self-produced vanity project or Hollywood therapy session - these are the asteroids Gray and Pitt are steering around - and there remains a feeling that Pitt got lucky with the delayed release date: this altogether cool venture can now emerge with the actor basking in the warm glow of those Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood reviews. I found myself watching his progress in rapt admiration even as I mentally filed Ad Astra as an interesting failure, one that threatens to obscure even its shining and stirring ideas (the boy looking up at his father through a telescope; the man going to the ends of the universe to win back the hand of Liv Tyler) with caveats. It almost certainly won't do much for those audiences left in floods by the cornily effective baseball-tossing at the end of Field of Dreams (though it's not such a great leap from the astronaut's glove to the catcher's mitt); and it seems destined to elicit sneery-reactionary responses from those cranks who insist we can't have films about men anymore. I found it awkward, hesitant when it wasn't outright haphazard, and a little too determined to keep its guard up - yet the truth that keeps Ad Astra on its chosen course, what makes it a quietly, weirdly moving artefact to have landed at the heart of the modern multiplex, is that this is how a lot of men are when dealing with their emotions.
Ad Astra is now showing in cinemas nationwide.