'Ad Astra' Reviews: It's More Than Another "Space Dude" Movie

Brad Pitt takes flight for a moody, realistic space adventure.

One dude flies into the far-out reaches of our solar system, hunting down another dude that just so happens to be his father, a renegade astronaut whose research could either save or destroy everything from here to Pluto.

James Gray’s Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt, won’t be released in theaters until September 20, but early reviews following its debut at the Venice Film Festival have already begun trickling out. It’s hard not to compare Ad Astra to other realistic sci-fi spacefaring adventures like Interstellar or 2001: Space Odyssey, but most reviewers claim that it’s anything but. This isn’t a “space dude” movie, in the words of one review.

For Variety, Owen Gleiberman writes, “James Gray, the director and co-writer of Ad Astra, is the furthest thing you could imagine from a space dude; he’s a rigorous indie filmmaker known for such fine-grained fare as The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant and (my favorite Gray film) Two Lovers. But in taking on his first blockbustery sci-fi project, he handles the vast logistical challenges of staging an epic space adventure with a surefire hand and a sense of detail, pace, and control that are notably accomplished, if not quite Kubrickian.”

For IndieWire, David Ehrlich observes, “Ad Astra is one of the most ruminative, withdrawn, and curiously optimistic space epics this side of Solaris. It’s also one of the best.” Solaris was released way back in 1976. Can Ad Astra really outdo every space movie that’s been released since in terms of its dynamism? Ehrlich refers to Ad Astra as an “interplanetary voyage into the heart of darkness.”

In my own conversation with the film’s editors, John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, Axelrad draws a comparison to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the original story of one man hunting for another from a perspective of intellectual curiosity rather than sport. Other stories like The Great Gatsby and Apocalypse Now follow suit, but in the case of Ad Astra, we have an astronaut tasked with tracking down his own father, struggling to understand why he became a renegade and forsook the structure environment of his career to exile himself into deep space.

Ad Astra explores various shades of toxic masculinity, of a man being simultaneously enthralled with and disappointed by a father that he inevitably fulfills his greatest fear by becoming exactly like him.

ad astra brad pitt
Brad Pitt in 'Ad Astra'.

Stephanie Zacharek, writing for Time, puts it this way: “Roy’s voiceover proclamations — all those riffs on how he doesn’t need no feelings, no way, no how — sometimes sound like the scribblings you might find in a shrink’s notes.”

Anyone who has seen the Ad Astra trailers knows that Pitt’s character, Roy McBride, has to undergo some kind of emotional conditioning as part of his near-future astronaut training. Can he handle the pressure of hunting his own father?

Seemingly as a result, he’s cool as a cucumber under insane pressure — like the opening sequence when he falls off a giant space needle and plummets toward the Earth. (Several reviews note how McBride is famous for a dramatically low heart rate that never spikes too high.) He’s also out of touch with his feelings, which leads him to remain distant from his wife. The millions of miles he flies away from her is a dull yet noticeable reflection of this.

In the universe of Ad Astra, resource scarcity has only gotten worse on Earth, so humans have colonized the moon and even Mars, but McBride’s journey takes him all the way to Neptune. This isn’t enough for reviewer Richard Lawson who, writing for Vanity Fair, claims it’s too similar to recent films like Gravity and Interstellar to really make a strong impression. “There’s much beauty to be admired in Gray’s meticulously crafted film, but its thematic argument feels like a rehash.”

Is Ad Astra different enough from this recent spate of realistic sci-fi movies set in space? Viewers may have to decide for themselves when it hits theaters.


Ad Astra will be released in theaters September 20, 2019.

Media via Disney