This article was originally published during the Venice Film Festival. We are republishing the piece as the film hits theaters this weekend.
Just months after Brad Pitt wooed Festival de Cannes with his turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he’s at the Venice Film Festival promoting a mysterious role in James Gray’s Ad Astra. Gray, using what is undoubtedly his biggest budget to date, fills in a supporting cast of Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, and Liv Tyler in a sci-fi film where an existential threat to humanity is secondary to the turmoil of a single astronaut. The result is a curious mixture; a thoughtful film that manages to execute brilliant, hyper-violent suspense sequences like bursts of ink across clean paper. The film has met a largely warm reception in Venice, where Grey acidly remarked upon Disney’s recent acquisition of Fox, his film’s production company, proclaiming his movie to be “a tiny pimple on the rear end of a $71 billion elephant.” Here are five things you should know about that pimple (no spoilers!):
It imagines a “near future” when things are not too different from our present day.
Set in an unspecified future, Ad Astra depicts a warring Earth fighting over resources and land, including real estate on the moon. There are lunar commercial flights that turn the astronomical body into a tourist destination not unlike Disney World. (You can spot the requisite corporate fast-food chains if you look closely.) If you have any doubts capitalism will follow us into outer space, check out the frankly extortionate pillow-and-blanket set Brad buys on his flight to the moon: $125!
There are moon pirates.
Much like their earthbound counterparts, pirates on the moon are desperate souls who benefit from robbing the well-off. In the ungoverned, lawless lunar zones outside official control, these pirates smash their moon rovers into unsuspecting astronauts and steal whatever they can. It’s like a particularly harsh game of outer-space bumper cars.
It’s actually a pretty serious affair.
Think more 2001: A Space Odyssey or Claire Denis’s High Life than some silly Hollywood blockbuster. Ad Astra is a compelling watch for its action sequences, and there’s never really a dull moment, but it’s also a contemplative film on the subjects of fractured families and the stereotype of the strong silent type. James Gray, whose previous films include The Lost City of Z and The Immigrant, may seem better suited to period pieces than science fiction. But his application of philosophical themes — and his undercutting of the mythic heroism of the space traveler — brings something weighty to the sci-fi genre. There are also some truly beautiful shots of Brad in the anti-gravity chamber, listlessly pirouetting around in his spacesuit and looking very lonely, indeed.
In spite of that seriousness, there are plenty of gnarly space deaths.
Face explosions. Eerily floating corpses. Ripped-off noses. All kinds of stuff here for Event Horizon fans.
There’s a monkey.
That’s all I’m saying on this one, but keep an eye out for this guy.