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SYFY WIRE James Gray

Ad Astra reviews laud Brad Pitt sci-fi 'masterpiece' as 'Apocalypse Now in space'

By Jacob Oller
Ad Astra IMAX poster

James Gray has made his mark among cinephiles with a string of old-fashioned, well-polished dramas, but Ad Astra, his Brad Pitt-starring sci-fi epic, might be his masterpiece if early reviews are to be believed. 

The film, which had been delayed and tweaked ad nauseam since its development began, is about astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) who seeks his father (Tommy Lee Jones) and the answers to a mystery that might change how humankind views and operates in the universe. There are definite traces of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar in the vibe, where trippy ideas meet zero-G visuals. Now the film, which also stars Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, and Donald Sutherland, has made its debut at the Venice Film Festival, and the first reactions have started coming in from critics around the world.

Some were swept away by the combination of interplanetary wonder and serious drama, while others balked at the juxtaposition. What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that Gray’s latest effort is certainly worth checking out.

Here’s what the critics are saying:

Sheri Linden of The Hollywood Reporter highlighted Pitt’s performance, writing that though the film has “no shortage of striking imagery,” Pitt steals scenes with nothing more than his eyes — ”working the minor keys to sublime effect.” This subtlety, which has already generated Oscar talk, was countered by action filmmaking that earned comparisons to Mad Max: Fury Road in the review. However, Linden notes that despite the beauty of it all, the plot can sometimes be “stubbornly uninvolving.” But when it clicks, Ad Astra becomes “charged and openhearted and lightning-bolt ragged.”

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman writes that the “bedazzling and terrifying” opening sequence is perhaps a bit of misdirection, since the film — which he (and not just he) calls “Apocalypse Now in space” — is much more focused on emotions and relationships than set pieces. That said, Gleiberman calls the film’s “retro sci-fi” mostly “conventional” outside of a stellar turn by Pitt and some well-crafted images.

Xan Brooks’ five-star review at The Guardian was much more convinced by the film. Calling the film “extraordinary,” Brooks writes that the impossibly understated Pitt leads a movie “so immaculately staged and sustained that it sweeps us up in its orbit.” The daddy issues, so obviously telegraphed? Well, they actually work—especially in a film that goes as serious as its touchstones of 2001 and Interstellar.

Little White Lies’ David Jenkins was similarly swooning when he wrote that Ad Astra is “a sad sci-fi for the ages.” His review, which contextualizes the film with Gray’s recent work, proclaimed that Ad Astra is his best, and the only movie he’s ever made “that comes dangerously close to a masterpiece.” How? A combination of “eccentric detail” and “emotional devastation,” combined with a meticulous hand.

Finally, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich calls the film “one of the most ruminative, withdrawn, and curiously optimistic space epics this side of Solaris” in his rave review. Calling Gray’s work “muscular” and “refined” compared to his past filmography, Ehrlich highlights much of the same: Pitt quietly dominates the screen with a metered yet effective presence while the script and direction take him (and the audience) on an emotional journey to the core of humanity — and it doesn’t hurt that the movie is “as realistic as space futurism gets.”

Ad Astra soars into theaters on Sept. 20.