Is it time for Brad Pitt to start clearing space for his first Best Actor Oscar? You'd better believe it on the basis of the reviews for Ad Astra.
This sweeping sci-fi drama played at the 2019 Venice Film Festival to rapturous reviews, with critics lauding Pitt's performance as a career best and – yes – throwing Oscar talk into the mix.
The movie is directed by The Lost City of Z director James Gray, who says his mission was to make "the most realistic depiction of space ever". Pitt stars as astronaut Roy McBride, who sets off on an interstellar voyage to discover his long-lost father Roy (Tommy Lee Jones).
It turns out Roy's dad disappeared beyond Neptune 16 years earlier when embarking on a secretive mission known as the 'Lima Project', the consequences of which now appear to be threatening the future of mankind.
Critics say what begins as a quest soon turns into a meditative and engrossing character study, as the introspective Roy is forced to re-evaluate his relationship with his father and also his wife (Liv Tyler seen briefly in flashbacks).
Little White Lies critic David Jenkins says the Oscar-buzzed Pitt is currently having a moment with this and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. "The question of whether Pitt will be pitted against Pitt at the 2020 Oscars is not at all a stupid one.
"Come on down for all the eccentric detail [Gray] and co-writer Ethan Gross vacuum pack into this intergalactic escapade set in a near future where deep space endeavour is on the cusp of unearthing something profound about our status in the galaxy. Stay for the realisation that this is an extraordinary and elaborate film about the emotional devastation of losing a parent."
"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," writes John Nugent for Empire. "Despite a dip in pace towards the end, it’s also a fantastically well-staged adventure. There’s a (literally) head-spinning opening sequence at the ‘International Space Antenna’, an encounter with an unexpected space-primate, and a moon-buggy chase which offers a thrilling preview of what ‘Fast & Furious In Space’ might look like.
"It has fun, even if its leading man doesn’t. Through all this, it manages to ponder the existential questions facing humanity, and brings it back to the humanity we need to face. That, above the realistic depictions of space, is probably its real achievement."
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Games Radar's James Mottram gives the movie a glowing five-star appraisal, with particular praise for Pitt. "Sublime and stupendous. Beautiful, bold and remarkably executed, this is Gray's masterpiece, driven by a career-best turn from Pitt.
"The emotional chords are struck deeply in the final act, where Gray lays bare the old adage about the son suffering the sins of the father. Best of all, following his fine work in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, Pitt is on sensational form with the most mature, resonant performance of his career. Could it be time for his first acting Oscar?"
Writing for The Guardian, Xan Brooks gives another laudatory reaction, saying it bears comparison with Francis Ford Coppola's war masterpiece Apocalypse Now. "Brad Pitt is an intergalactic Captain Willard, taking a fraught mission up-river in James Gray’s Ad Astra, an outer-space Apocalypse Now which played to rapt crowds at the Venice film festival.
"In place of steaming jungles, this gives us existential chills. Instead of Viet Cong soldiers, it provides man-eating baboons and pirates riding dune-buggies. It’s an extraordinary picture, steely and unbending and assembled with an unmistakable air of wild-eyed zealotry. Ad Astra, be warned, is going all the way – and it double-dares us to buckle up for the trip.
"[Gray has] never made anything as ambitious as this soaring psychological space-opera, with its cool surfaces, dark pockets and sudden flashes of violence. Ad Astra is so deadly serious that it verges on the silly; so immaculately staged and sustained that it sweeps us up in its orbit."
"Director James Gray’s spectacular science-fiction drama concerns a journey that’s as much metaphorical as it is literal," raves Tim Grierson in Screen Daily, "confidently anchored by Brad Pitt playing an enigma who carries his missing father around with him like a phantom limb; one that weighs him down and invisibly influences the adult he has become.
"Though principally a meditative experience, Ad Astra also makes room for some superb suspense sequences, resulting in a thought-provoking film with life-or-death stakes."
That's just a smattering of the critical responses from Venice, and you can cast your own verdict on Ad Astra when it lands in Cineworld on 18th September.