NME at Venice Film Festival – ‘Ad Astra’ review: a sci-fi masterpiece as thought-provoking as it entertaining

This is that rare thing: a movie that balances cinematic brawn, bluster, heart and brains

Brad Pitt’s Captain Roy McBride climbs the outer rig of a space station, the tranquillity of space offering a calming respite as he undertakes maintenance work. It is a peace wickedly punctured by a series of explosions that send bodies flying rapidly past him.

Bewilderment flickers across his face, panic coats his eyes and desperation compels him to cling precariously on to the metal edifice. The camera swirls around him, staring up towards the source and out at the gleaming blue marble of the Earth below. He doesn’t have long to learn of his own fate. He is torn from the ladder and flung into freefall, hurtling at a rate of knots towards the ground. This is a scintillating opening salvo – breathless, pulsating, immediate and magnetic. And James Gray’s Ad Astra is only getting started.

But this isn’t merely an empty vessel action flick honking and hollering and making a big empty bang. Instead there is a desire to lock into existentialist concerns, as all the best science fiction films do, audaciously tackling the big topics about the meaning of life, the limits of our knowledge, our relationships with both ourselves and with others – and much more besides. 

Back on terra firma, officials inform McBride of a theory pertaining to the cause of the outages (news agencies dub it ‘The Surge’). Classified documentation links it back to the Lima Project: an expedition undertaken by his father, Doctor Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), many years ago. For the last 16 years, he has been presumed dead – all contact lost wheb he headed towards Neptune on a mission to explore the possibilities of intelligent life.

The Surge might be coming from that very spot. McBride may have turned rogue, and may be alive. The institution leans on Clifford’s son to trek to the outer edges of the solar system to attempt contact the one person who might be able to halt the electrical eruptions happening at home.

There are elements of the Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz’s quest in Roy McBride’s journey into the heart of darkness. But so too are nods given to, and riffs burrowed from, a whole host of others – such as Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Blade Runner, Mad Max, Gravity and even Interstellar. In fact, the pallid onscreen pallor is thanks to the latter’s cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose swampy pastels perfectly fit the tone of Ad Astra.

The most satisfying films flood the mind with ideas and questions, pushing the viewer into deep mental waters, forcing a confrontation with their innermost thoughts and fears.  The best films do it subtly, as you are enthralled by heart-pounding, ticker-testing entertainment.

Ad Astra falls into this category of movie. James Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross have created a powerful philosophical inquiry into the human condition, a theoretical and empirical wonderland for the viewer to get lost in. It also houses a performance that will surely go down as one of Pitt’s career-defining turns: understated, nuanced, emotive.

Rare is the breed of movie that manages to balance cinematic brawn, bluster, heart and brains. Yet every single frame of Ad Astra motors along with these things beautifully aligned. The result is something of a masterpiece.

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