A review of the new science fiction movie “Ad Astra”

The technology of film-making is now so advanced that a good space movie can really put the viewer into the cosmos – think of “Gravity” for instance – and, if you can, you should should see “Ad Astra” in IMAX, as I did, because the visuals are simple stunning. An opening sequence on board an International Space Antenna is breathtaking and from then on, even in the stiller moments, your attention is never lost.

That is more that we can say for The Lima Project – a mission to near Neptune to look for extra-terrestrial life – which was launced 26 years ago but has been missing for the last 16 years. The vessel was commanded by the revered Dr Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) and now his son, veteran astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), is asked if he will attempt to make contact with his father.

This is James Gray’s film since he co-wrote, produced and directed it. But, more so that usual with an actor, it is also Brad Pitt’s film. He is in almost every scene and gives a compelling, understated performance, plus he had a producer role. 

There are many echoes of “Apocalypse Now”: a hazardous, sometimes surreal, journey to chase down a father figure who has gone rogue and eliminate the problem. But there are even more reminders of “2001: A Space Odyssey”: spectacular visuals, atmospheric music, and a series of space trips to the outer solar system where there is a challenge to humankind of existential proportions. Although what “Ad Astra” and “2001” have to say about extra-terrestrial life are very different.

As so often in sci-fi movies, some of the science is dubious. At its nearest, Neptune is 2.9 billion years from Earth and yet the younger McBride manages the journey in short order and solo at that. Also the huge power surges that puntuate the plot are never explained except by a brief reference to the anti-matter power source utilised by The Lima Project. 

But this is quibbling. It is such a joy to have a space movie that is both intelligent and intelligible – a combination that eluded such otherwise fine work as “Arrival” ansd Interstellar”.


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