A well-hydrated Brad Pitt stares into the abyss in “Ad Astra.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

A well-hydrated Brad Pitt stares into the abyss in “Ad Astra.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

‘Ad Astra’: Willy-nilly sci-fi detracts from stunning visuals

This otherwise thoughtful film doesn’t care about being grounded in plausibility, and that’s a problem.

Where does the water come from?

A simple question, especially compared to the other heavy thinking going on in the Brad Pitt space epic “Ad Astra.” The movie is more interested in questions of existential purpose, absent fathers and the deepest kind of human regret.

But I’d still like to know where the water comes from. There’s a vast high-tech manmade complex on the moon, and on Mars there’s apparently an enormous stash of water, enough to build a large underground sewer. For that matter, space missions lasting months and years apparently have no problem hydrating their astronauts.

Where’d all that aqua come from? I know, I know, “Ad Astra” is science fiction, so it’s fair to make the audience accept certain new realities. But what bugs me about this movie is that it doesn’t seem interested in asking the practical questions. It has so many other important things on its mind.

Pitt plays Roy McBride, a famously cool-headed astronaut chosen for a vital mission. He’s sent to Neptune to see whether his father, a space pioneer (Tommy Lee Jones), disappeared while searching for signs of extraterrestrial life. Is Dad still alive after years of being incommunicado?

This is urgent now, because somebody up around Neptune is causing electrical surges that could make our planet go on the fritz. (OK.) So Roy will take a few weeks and pop out to Neptune. (Uh-huh.) Then he’ll fire off some nukes and stop the surges. (Yeah, right.)

Let’s agree to suspend disbelief. Still, it stretches one’s patience when arbitrary events have a huge impact on what’s supposed to be a top-priority mission to save the planet. Space pirates attack Roy’s convoy on the moon surface, for instance. Where do they hang out? Did they find a separate water supply?

While traveling through the vast emptiness of the solar system, Roy’s transport ship happens to cross paths with a research vessel, where something terrible is going on. Like so much of “Ad Astra,” this is wonderfully staged and quite compelling, despite its utter randomness.

These implausible episodes wouldn’t bother me so much if they didn’t come in a film that is otherwise so serious about itself. That’s a hallmark of the work of director James Gray, whose previous film was “The Lost City of Z.”

Gray fills “Ad Astra” — that’s Latin for “to the stars” — with absolutely gorgeous images (cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema also shot “Dunkirk”). This is a film interested in poetry and psychology, the latter coming in Roy’s tortured feelings of abandonment.

The poetry is limited to the visual imagery. Whenever Roy speaks — and in a movie full of voiceover, he does this quite a lot — the words tend to fall flat, no matter how interesting the psychology.

Pitt very ably fulfills his movie-star duties, but the film robs him of the humor he conveys so well in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Smaller roles go to good people with little to do, including Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland and Liv Tyler.

I enjoyed looking at and listening to “Ad Astra,” but the way the film plugs in its science-fiction elements willy nilly, without particularly caring about them, is an issue. Reaching for the stars is fine, but there’s a lot to be said for having your feet grounded, too.

“Ad Astra” (2 stars)

Brad Pitt journeys to Neptune to connect with his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) in James Gray’s very serious (yet faintly ludicrous) space epic. The random thrills in this spectacular-looking movie tend to detract from the otherwise thoughtful philosophical musings going on.

Rating: PG-13, for violence

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