It's been a good decade for contemplative sci-fi movies using terrific visual effects to create visually rich, touchably real depictions of space. My sense is that the earliest of these was 2009's Moon, though of course the cycle was kicked into overdrive four years later with Gravity, and we've since had a nice range of examples from the philosophical epic Interstellar in 2014 to the nerdy Robinson Crusoe adventure The Martian in 2015, on up to the 2018 biopic First Man. The latest and certainly the least film in this cozy family is upon us now: Ad Astra, directed by James Gray and written by Gray & Ethan Gross, who've combined to come up with a movie that's somehow cornier in its paint-by-numbers sentiment than Gravity and messier in its structure Interstellar, while possessing nearly as off-putting a final act. But it is, all credit where it's due, a superbly beautiful film to look at, evoking a near future that's as densely-packed with hard sci-fi conceits as any genre film in a generation, and there is a sense in which that's the only thing that the film actually needs to do. It's definitely the only thing that the film needs to do to justify watching it in the most opulent possible settings - indeed, it might well be the most luscious big-screen spectacle of 2019.

Impressively, it manages to reach this height without necessarily being, sensu stricto, a "good" movie. The film takes place a bit in the future; enough of a bit that the first deep-space manned mission was launched some 30 years ago, commercial flights to the moon are common enough that the satellite has chain restaurants and a thriving extra-governmental mining industry, and there's a massive antenna rig mounted on the surface of the Earth that reaches all the way into the upper atmosphere. This is where we meet Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a technician on the antenna whose greatest dream is to travel to outer space, as he tells us in voiceover in the world-weary tones of a man who's never had any dreams at all, let alone a great one. He's about to get his chance, since the planet is unexpectedly bombarded by an electromagnetic event quickly named "The Surge". McBride's practically inhuman ability to remain calm in moments of crisis allows him to survive the destruction of the upper levels of the antenna, the only worker who does so, and partially for this reason, he's brought in to speak with the upper command of U.S. Space Command. The other reason is that they have strong reason to believe that the Surge was caused by a blast of antimatter sent from the "Lima Project", a manned mission to Neptune commanded by McBride's decades-absent father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who has apparently gone axe-crazy in the deep recesses of space. The solution, which holds up to very little scrutiny, is to send McBride to Mars via the moon, where he'll be able to use the only laser communication system that survived the Surge to send a polite request to his dad to maybe stop trying to destroy all of humanity. McBride agrees, mostly because, as he sullenly, resentfully informs us in voice-over, he hopes it will be a chance to get over his daddy issues.

Ad Astra cleaves into two pieces - I am not confident they are precisely halves - and neither one is particularly successful, though the first one is at least a great deal of fun to watch. This is the part that gets McBride to Mars, in which Gray & Gross have constructed a fairly clumsy chain of largely isolated incidents that don't necessarily serve any strong story purpose in getting us to the arbitrarily-chosen goal (if there's a reason why McBride couldn't just record his message on Earth and send it to Mars - or why SpaceCom couldn't simply send a message to Clifford claiming to be from the son he last saw three decades ago as a teenager - the film elects not to specify what it might be); but they do serve the purpose of showcasing the vision of the future that the writers have devised for us. Going into all of it would spoil the fun, but I'll say that the film has a squarely realistic idea of how space travel might evolve that feels like something out of the most earnestly non-pulpy pulp sci-fi of the '50s and '60s; think Isaac Asimov at his least fantastic, and you're a pretty long way towards the film's portrayal of the anarchic lunar culture, the evolution of the space administration, and its inexhaustible fascination with the details of how space travel works.

It's interesting enough if you have an affection for the less-fanciful end of science fiction, and if you want to read that as "boring", I won't dissuade you. But the ideas are fun to play with, and the filmmakers have done excellent work in visualising them. Ad Astra is, for essentially every minute of its running time, a thoroughly gorgeous movie: it has some outstanding high-contrast lighting courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (who also shot Interstellar), giving us a strong, inescapable awareness of the unfiltered brightness of the sun and the plunging void of all the places the sun isn't; but he also does fine work covering certain locations (the surface of Mars, especially) in a dim, foggy murk that feels legitimately alien. Production designer Kevin Thompson and costume designer Albert Wolsky have crafted an enjoyably plausible world of severe, institutional-looking colors and surfaces, with just enough grace notes to let us know how the people in this universe might go about adding live and vitality to its cold settings. And the visual effects are the best I've seen in any 2019 by a huge margin: they hold up to an immense amount of scrutiny and crucial need for photorealism, serving to build out the world and story in addition to being pretty great as a huge sprawling image on the biggest screen you can find.

So even if the first hour tells of a wandering, pasted-together story, it does so with real visual aplomb, right from the moment that McBride starts tumbling off the antenna, a moment as subjectively horrifying as anything in Gravity or First Man. And anyway, once Ad Astra starts to focus in on its story, it all goes to hell. It is the most boring possible basket of "daddy issues" clichΓ©s, and not even Pitt's wonderful facial acting can do much besides make this most tired of all possible psychological arcs feel tolerable - certainly never insightful or engaging. The second act also includes a couple moments of true stupidity; I will not spoil them, because I was raised properly, but I will say that the one really horrible moment of CGI is married to the one ludicrously dumb plot development in a scene randomly imported from a sci-fi horror movie. Also that the last 10 or 15 minutes contain not one moment I enjoyed other than a really great shot of Neptune looming in its oppressive blueness.

Meanwhile, the whole entire movie is just soggy with voiceover - at the insistence of the studio, supposedly, and there's nothing Gray could do about that, I suppose. But it is wildly inappropriate, film-killing voiceover. The story goes that Harrison Ford hated the voiceover written for the original version of Blade Runner so much that he deliberately tried to deliver it badly, so it couldn't be used; I wonder if Pitt was playing the same game here. His recitations of the voiceover are so heavy, so devoid of any nuance or modulation even when it feels like he's supposed to be telling a joke. He typically isn't; most of the voiceover is of very tedious exposition, blandly laying out what's going on in the most pedantic, lifeless way. And there are fucking mountains of it. In the first half especially, it's just a nonstop barrage of words clomping their way across the soundtrack. I get that this nobody's fault, but it doesn't make a difference to the finished product; even I loved the hackneyed character work and rambling, episodic story, I'm pretty sure that I'd think the voiceover would come close to ruining the film. As it is, given that I was already mostly ignoring everything that wasn't the lovely, lavish visuals, it was more like just one more annoyance piled on top; but Christ, what an annoyance!