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With echoes of Apocalypse Now and 2001, James Grays spectacular epic dispatches Pitt on an interplanetary mission to find his missing father

Brad Pitt never looked more beautiful than in this mesmeric, flawed, superbly photographed and designed space adventure from director and co-writer James Gray. Pitt plays an astronaut in what is tantalisingly described as the near future and Grays camera traces the scorched and incised surfaces of distant planets with the same awe that it travels across Brads face, savouring the lattice of tiny wrinkles around the eyes, and the discreet harvest of his one-day stubble.

Grays direction, like Pitts performance, is fiercely intended and intricately controlled and the resulting movie has some of the epic and Conradian qualities of his last film, The Lost City of Z though with a more satisfying structure and story arc, and with more exciting set pieces. It is, perhaps, a little derivative and maybe finally fudges the dark mystery of the quests end point. But this is a film with thrilling ambition and reach.

Lost in space? Tommy Lee Jones. Photograph: Franois Duhamel

Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, an astronaut impeccably cool under pressure, and with a dedication to the job that has perhaps cost him his marriage to Eve (a mute and largely flashback-centred cameo for Liv Tyler). Roy is, moreover, the son of revered astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who taught his boy the values of hard work and emotional self-control, and who became legendary on the news of his death decades ago while heading up a pioneer exploratory project near Neptune. Roy demonstrates his own sang-froid while repairing a rig the height of seven skyscrapers, which begins to shudder under the impact of a terrifying power surge, until McBride free-climbs out to shut off the voltage: a quite stunning opening sequence.

His superiors consider that now is the moment to tell Roy that his father may still be alive, having somehow gone rogue or gone native in deep space, and is causing these terrifyingly dangerous surges. It is now Roys mission to voyage out there and confront his father. His own emotional blankness begins to disappear as the truth of his fathers existence begins to dawn, along with a suspicion that his superiors are not telling him the whole story.

Ad Astra (from the Latin tag per ardua ad astra or through struggle to the stars) is a spectacular, immersive picture, offering an intelligent and deeply considered variation on existing themes. Obviously, there is something of Coppolas Apocalypse Now, with Roy making a terrifying upriver journey to sacrifice or terminate the command of this patriarch-god or is it his own command hes going to terminate? The syntax and grammar of space travel on film owes something to Kubricks 2001, a film importantly conceived when space discovery was a matter of imminent fact, not fantasy, though Gray has his own distinctive vision. Theres a witty and shrewd depiction of the moon as extensively colonised and commercialised, like a banal shopping centre.

Yet perhaps the most interesting comparison is with Terrence Malick, particularly The Tree of Life, where Pitt is playing the father and Sean Penn is the grownup son, and the journey the journey we all make is into the past, into the treacherous territory of our own memories. It is when Ad Astra becomes disorientating and hallucinatory that it is most Malickian.

As to its accuracy, its reassuring that the film is not weighed down with preposterous and pseudo-scientific explanations. The idea of Clifford being able to cause power surges is not plausible on this realist level, but it works as a parable or a dream.

Grays incidental details and characters are very good. Donald Sutherland has an enigmatic cameo as Colonel Pruitt, an old friend of Roys dad, who has been ambiguously called in for guidance or surveillance. Ruth Negga is excellent as the disquietingly intense Helen Lantos, who has personal reasons for hating Clifford, which in a complicated way are the reasons for wanting to help Roy. Quite aside from the gasp-inducing and vertiginous opening sequence, there is a gripping encounter with hostile moon buggies and a nightmarishly choreographed attack in a spacecraft that had been used for animal research. Here is where the movie is not just Freudian, but Darwinian.

I wondered, just a little, if Pitt could have surrendered more to the emotions the film was invoking, or if the ideas underpinning the climax were a bit too familiar. But his performance anchors the whole movie: a still, calm centre with the pure physical ease and charm of an intergalactic Gary Cooper. The film is itself an almighty power surge.

Ad Astra is released in the UK on 18 September, in Australia on 19 September and in the US on 20 September.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/sep/18/ad-astra-review-brad-pitt-tommy-lee-jones-james-gray