There's been a lot of talk about the importance of Ad Astra. As a 20th Century Fox film, director James Gray’s science fiction epic is, rightly or wrongly, seen as having the potential for an outsized impact on the future of that now Disney-owned studio. Others have also mused on it being the last hope for original, big budget science fiction that is made for adults, in an era when films of that ilk are few and far between, while four-quadrant franchise films dominate.
It’s an unfair burden for any film to bear, so while what Ad Astra does or doesn’t mean for 20th Century Fox and the industry at large remains to be seen, all we need to worry about for now is whether or not it’s any good. To that end, Ad Astra recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival and the first reviews are now in.
So is Ad Astra a reminder of the kinds of great films 20th Century Fox can make? Where does it stack up in the pantheon of great space movies? And how good is Brad Pitt in it? Well, if the early reviews are anything to go by, Ad Astra won’t fail for any lack of quality. In his five-star review for Total Film, James Mottram was effusive with praise, saying:
Sublime and stupendous. Beautiful, bold and remarkably executed, this is Gray’s masterpiece, driven by a career-best turn from Pitt.
That is high praise indeed, especially given James Gray’s filmography, which includes movies like The Lost City of Z, We Own the Night and The Immigrant. Masterpiece isn’t a word to be thrown around lightly, but James found Ad Astra to be splendid, due in no small part to the work of Brad Pitt.
Brad Pitt’s performance is one of the most common threads among the reviews for Ad Astra. Critics really appreciated his understated performance, adding another great chapter in his 2019 following his turn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In her review for The Wrap, Candice Frederick wrote about the leading man’s performance, saying:
[Brad Pitt] blurs the line between fear and precision so easily that it’s a haunting experience.
It’s an extraordinary picture, steely and unbending and assembled with an unmistakable air of wild-eyed zealotry.
While some of the reviews lavished on the praise and found the film lived up to those intriguing and intoxicating trailers, others found the finished product somewhat lacking. CineVue’s John Bleasdale found it all style and very little substance. He said:
Ad Astra looks handsome and there are flashes of brilliance – the lunar chase and the opening set-piece in particular. But scenes come and go with a weightlessness that has nothing to do with zero gravity.
The lunar chase glimpsed in the trailers has been likened to Mad Max on the moon, and many reviewers were taken with that set piece, which by itself sounds like it’s worth the price of admission. Even among the more negative reviews like this one, the craft on display in Ad Astra is never in question.
One of the main criticisms levied against Ad Astra by those who didn’t love it is that it is apparently a bit too clichéd, and rather than being a new pillar of the space film genre alongside the likes of Gravity, Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ad Astra cribs from those films and doesn’t do enough to set itself apart. That was the sentiment expressed by Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, who said:
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.
Despite those critics having problems with the film or had a more muted reaction to it, the general consensus so far is that Ad Astra is visually thrilling, and like all good science fiction, it deals with weighty questions about humanity. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich compared it to Solaris in his review, saying:
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.
Ad Astra currently sits at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, but with only 28 reviews so far, that score will certainly change once more critics see the film. Based on what critics who saw the film have said, it sounds like Ad Astra is worth seeing for both its dazzling action as well as the contemplative questions it asks. That’s in addition to another great performance from Brad Pitt.
If the future of 20th Century Fox at Disney, as well as the hopes of adult science fiction films do somewhat depend on Ad Astra, they could certainly do worse.
Ad Astra opens in theaters on September 20. Check out our 2019 Release Schedule to keep track of all this year’s biggest movies.