Written By: Daniel Kinsley
“Sic itur ad astra.”
Thus one journeys to the stars.
—Virgil, (Roman poet)
Fifty years after man first stepped foot on the moon, space travel remains a notion both mythical and majestic in the public consciousness. This continued fascination persists despite (or perhaps in response to) rampant questions about the sustainability of our planet, and the increasing presence of science denial. Given these circumstances, it seems entirely natural that filmmakers would turn their gaze back toward the stars. Indeed, the teens have seen something of a resurgence for intellectual science-fiction, both critically and at the box-office. Ad Astra (2019) the latest film from writer-director James Gray borrows similar elements from successful space operas like Gravity (2013) or Interstellar (2014) though its aims are often even more contemplative than its predecessors.
Set in the near future, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is a classical portrait of heroism; stoic, aloof, and dedicated to a fault, he is praised for the fact that his heart-rate never rises above eighty. When the film opens, Roy is a technician aboard an Earth-based space station. When a massive power surge strikes, it sends Roy plummeting back toward Earth, where the effects of the surge have had devastating consequences, killing thousands. A classified meeting with the higher-ups at U.S. Space-Command (a hawkish NASA outfit) report that the surge has been traced to an outpost near Neptune, the last known location of a landmark mission called the Lima Project, the goal of which was to determine the existence of any intelligent alien life. The mission was captained by H. Clifford McBride, Roy’s father, long missing and presumed dead. Lima was secretly experimenting with antimatter technology, and it is believed to be what caused the surge. Roy is recruited to travel to Mars where he is tasked with establishing communication with his father in hopes of shutting down the mission and preventing potentially catastrophic effects on our solar system.
Despite his ice-cool demeanor, voice-over narration reveals a more complicated truth. Estranged from his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler) and crushed by the weight of his father’s absence, Roy is a man at odds with himself; riddled with rage and emotional turmoil, but so effectively trained to compartmentalize that he no longer understands how to process his humanity. He has learned to equate duty and bravery with isolation, and remains steadfast in his commitment despite the personal cost. Outwardly, he accepts the proffered mission with characteristic detachment, but he is resigned to feeling like he has no choice. Roy was only sixteen when his father left on a pioneering expedition, twenty-nine when he disappeared. Now in his 40s, many of his choices (and his identity even) have been a response to his father’s decision.
Though Roy must first travel to the moon, it is not until he reaches Mars that he begins to grapple with the complicated feelings he has for his father. During a mission-mandated psychological evaluation, he admits “…I’m angry that he took off. He left us. You know, but when I look at that anger, and if I push it aside, and just put it away, all I see is hurt. I just see pain. I think it keeps me walled off, walled off from relationships and opening myself up, and, you know, really caring for someone. And I don’t know how to get past that. I don’t know how to get around that. And it worries me. And I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be my dad.” It is a revealing and devastating admission that speaks to the often self-destructive way in which men process their pain. In many ways, Roy McBride is as much of a caricature of modern virility as Tyler Durden was. While the film is not devoid of heart-racing action, it is ultimately more interested in utilizing its space opera setting to interrogate our ideas of masculinity and heroism. Men are so prone to equating bravery with danger, and Roy dutifully plays the part, but it takes a different kind of strength to accept his vulnerability. Casting a movie star in a role that so consciously upends onscreen machismo is almost an act of rebellion and Pitt understands the demands of the role, intimately. It is subtle, layered work, and frankly, the best performance of his long career.
After the voice transmissions scripted by Space Command go unheard or ignored by Lima, Roy goes off script during the final recording, displaying a genuine vulnerability by appealing to Clifford as a son reaching out for his father. It is the first time he so openly exposes himself, and it opens up the opportunity for Roy to unpack the things he has locked away. This simple act sets in motion a series of events that will put him on a path heading for Neptune, the last known location of the Lima Project.
While the film consciously alludes to a great number of works both literary and cinematic, it is both familiar and entirely its own. Gray is a filmmaker fascinated by the ways in which the pursuit of something mythical might make us whole. In order to reconcile his identity, Roy must travel across the cosmos in order to confront his absent creator. It is easy to read the film as an allegory for man’s search for God; textually, however, its aims are of a far more personal reach. Perhaps more than anything, it is a deconstruction of masculinity, and the ways in which harmful notions of manliness are passed down through generations. The relationship between a child and parent has a built-in, universal shorthand, and one that carries the complexities of legacy. It may be that this writer is an easy target, but as someone who struggled similarly in reconciling the past as it relates to a parent, it is about as potent and personal as a film can get.
When he finally reaches Lima, the inevitable reunion between the two men becomes the emotional linchpin of the entire film. Roy strips away all artifice as he comes face to face with the heartbreaking truth that deep down he already knew: his father left him, left Earth, knowing that he was never going to return. “This is a one-way voyage, my son.” Clifford explains. “You’re talking about Earth? There was never anything for me there. I never cared about you, or your mother, or any of your small ideas.” In all the many years of the mission, no intelligent life was found, yet Clifford remains so consumed by his myopia that he insists Roy help him push forward, unable to see the truth that is so painfully right in front of him. When he insists that his son not allow him to fail, Roy insists, “Dad, you haven’t. Now, we know we’re all we’ve got.” It is this acknowledgement that is at the heart of what ultimately separates the son from the sins of the father. Clifford became so preoccupied by his pursuit for meaning that he quickly lost all sense of it, his tragedy having been written the moment he elected to leave everything behind. Despite Clifford’s failings, Roy still attempts to save him, resulting in a heartbreaking moment after Clifford pulls away, pleading to be let go, either because he cannot face his perceived failure, or because he understands that Roy still has a chance to go forward. This time, he knows, his father will be lost to him for good. It is a choice that comes at a tremendous cost, as Roy is reduced in this moment to a boy who is being denied the love that he craved, the lack of which shaped his entire life. Without the specter of his pain, he is formless, but also… free. The immensity of that freedom is terrifying, filling Roy with an even deeper sense of emptiness. As he watches Clifford float into space, he wonders, “Why go on? Why keep trying?” All at once, he is forced to reckon with a lifetime of choices, and determine if he has built anything on his own worth fighting for.
Stanley Kubrick once said, “For those who manage somehow to cope with our mortality…the very meaningless of life forces a man to create his own meaning.” This is a point that is ultimately lost on Clifford, but which Roy has a chance to understand. Having faced the darkness at the center of his heart, Roy has begun to grasp the magnitude of the life that he cast aside, and in doing so, is given a chance to avoid following the same path as his father. Rather than transcend his humanity, he embraces it, and thus finds the strength to begin healing. Unlike (tonally) similar space epics from Kubrick and Nolan, there is no cosmic savior; Gray seems to posit that if we are to be saved, it must be at our own hands. Ad Astra is not the myth of a god, but of a man.