There’s certainly no shortage of movies about space exploration in Hollywood, with First Man, The Martian, Interstellar, and Gravity all debuting in the last six years. So when it was announced that writer-director James Gray (Two Lovers, The Immigrant)was teaming up with Brad Pitt to do Ad Astra, a film about an astronaut going to space, many people may have wondered, “Really, another one?”
But then Ad Astra dropped a steady stream of visually stunning trailers that teased its potential to be a thrilling action tale, with doses of intimate and philosophical musings. The film follows Pitt’s Roy McBride, an astronaut searching for his dad (Tommy Lee Jones), who went missing 20 years ago while on an interplanetary excursion searching for alien life on Neptune. Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland also star.
Now, having premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, Ad Astra seems to have impressed critics, with many applauding the movie’s gorgeous and controlled aesthetics, as well as Pitt’s singular performance. The consensus says the film shines in meditative moments that mine Roy’s inner demons to convey deeper ideas related to father-son relationships, masculinity, and even the motivation to journey into space. Some reviews, however, have noted that Ad Astra’s echoing of Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness often reads as mimicry more than inspiration.
Read excerpts from the reviews of Ad Astra below.
“This is spare and mythic storytelling; the more expansive its vision gets, the more inward-looking its focus becomes. Even with a linear narrative that never slows down, a chase sequence that feels like Fury Road on the moon, and a suspenseful vision of the galaxy that makes room for any number of unexpected surprises (beware the claw marks inside a seemingly abandoned spaceship), Ad Astra is still one of the most ruminative, withdrawn, and curiously optimistic space odysseys this side of Solaris. It’s also one of the best.”
“As potent as that premise is, with its Marlow-Kurtz dynamic between the narrator son and the off-the-grid father he’d long presumed dead, it plays out in a way that makes it easier to admire than to be swept up by. Perhaps because Ad Astra’s genre tropes, however striking, are also familiar — a distracting bit of Gravity here, the inevitable nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey there — this episodic saga feels gussied up by them, as opposed to fully inhabiting the terrain. Lurching from one Homeric ordeal to the next, the film can be stubbornly uninvolving.”
“In Ad Astra, Apocalypse Now is the frame on which Gray hangs… another frame. We’re still talking about Apocalypse Now 40 years later, but I’m not sure we’ll be talking about Ad Astra in four weeks.… what would help it more is if the movie had a genuine wow factor baked into its retro sci-fi aesthetic. I hope James Gray, as a director, continues to explore uncharted worlds, but even his cult of fans may find it hard to get too excited over a movie that, beneath its eye-candy space trappings, is this conventional.”
“Much like Gray’s last film, The Lost City Of Z, Ad Astra might sound like a traditional adventure tale, but in reality it’s an intellectually sophisticated, meticulously crafted interior journey in which a solitary man wrestles with his demons. To be sure, there’s a familiarity to that Heart Of Darkness setup — and Roy’s whispered, on-the-nose voiceover often adds another level of conventionality. But despite those limitations — and the fact that [Liv] Tyler is relegated to a skeletal Disappointed Lover role — this arresting film digs deep into its father-son themes.”
“Emotionally, the film operates in a classic Gray area, with barely perceptible eddies that build to a mighty existential wrench. All of which, it should be said, rests on Pitt’s shoulders — which feel like very different shoulders, somehow, to the ones that slouched so appealingly through Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. His performance here is as grippingly inward and tamped down as his work for Tarantino was witty and expansive — it’s true movie stardom, and it fills a star-system-sized canvas.”
“Gray’s last feature, the dazzling and doleful exploration drama The Lost City of Z, sported similarly boggling artistry. But in Ad Astra, Gray is able to work on a much larger scale. Sure, a lot of the movie’s aesthetics call to mind other somber space-bound adventures—but Gray asserts his own voice, his own perspective, throughout. Gray is prodding at something just as Roy McBride is, scratching at the howl of the universe to see what’s making the noise.”
“Existential but also intimate, Ad Astra is a stunning, sensitive exploration of the space left by an absent parent — and the infinite void of actual space.”
“This film is brilliantly cast by Douglas Aibel (“After the Wedding”), with Jones delivering one of his best performances in years as a man so utterly dislodged from reality that he regards an unearthly abyss as his true home. He’s unforgiving, morose and terrifying at the same time.”
Ad Astra premieres wide on Sept. 20.