Ad Astra: An Ambitious, Flawed Epic

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Ad Astra dir. James Gray (2019)

“To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold – brothers who know now they truly are brothers.”

Things haven’t exactly panned out the way MacLeish predicted. There’s no doubt that the Apollo voyages to the Moon still inspire awe and wonder in people around the world. These expeditions allowed humanity to reflect on its place in the cosmos in ways it could only imagine before. But even if his hopeful prophecy of universal planetary brotherhood failed to materialize in Apollo’s wake, MacLeish at least deserves credit for surfacing the profound existential questions that space exploration provokes and engaging in the sort of serious intellectual reflection these questions demand.

So it is with Ad Astra, an impressive yet flawed epic that wrestles with these big ideas and themes but can’t quite do them full justice in the end. The filmfollows astronaut Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt) on his journey across the Solar System to retrieve his father from an ill-fated mission to Neptune that’s believed responsible for a series of energy surges that could end all life as we know it. A cold and austere aesthetic undergirds and reinforces the film’s central motifs, as does the Heart of Darkness-style narrative that structures it. But if Ad Astra  ultimately falls just short of what it hopes to achieve, it should not be criticized harshly. Instead, the film should be praised for its ambition and willingness to grapple with enduring and consequential questions.

That ambition starts with the film’s Heart of Darkness narrative structure, laid out early on in the briefing McBride receives from his military superiors at U.S. Space Command. Soon enough, he’s on board a commercial rocket to the Moon to begin his highly-classified mission. Like the Joseph Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness and Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, McBride must undertake a grueling and increasingly dark physical and moral journey to the end of civilization and beyond. But where Marlow and Willard went upriver in colonial Africa and Vietnam, respectively, McBride travels beyond human settlements on the Moon and Mars to the outer reaches of the Solar System. In all three odysseys, moreover, the main characters seek out a revered and respected figure gone mad: the deranged colonial official Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, the decorated Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz famously incarnated by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, and the legendary astronaut Clifford McBride – Roy’s father, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones – in Ad Astra.

Beyond the shift in setting to outer space, this father-son dynamic represents Ad Astra’s largest and possibly most intriguing deviation from the Heart of Darkness narrative. After an initial viewing, however, it’s unclear what this particular wrinkle adds thematically, and at times it feels somewhat superfluous given other themes the film works to develop. On a surface level, the film appears to slot this relationship into a well-worn stock narrative of paternal abandonment. Indeed, McBride’s father left his son behind and departed on his ill-fated deep space mission to search for extraterrestrial life some 29 years prior to the start of the film. He later admits, “I don’t want to be my dad.”

It’d be a mistake to view the film’s treatment of this father-son relationship through this rather superficial lens, however. On the contrary, the relationship between McBride and his father drives the action in Ad Astra in ways that prove crucial to the movie’s narrative and wider themes while only landing glancing blows at traditional themes of fatherly neglect. These family ties set the final act of the film into motion, in which McBride defies orders to stay on Mars, hijacks the ship sent to kill his wayward father, and heads out to Neptune for the film’s emotional and thematic climax.

But the father-son relationship also grounds and propels McBride’s own substantial character evolution over the course of the film. When we first meet McBride, he’s remarkably alienated from himself and the rest of humanity. Via voice-over – one of the film’s central narrative conceits and a nod to Apocalypse Now – he tells the us that he’s “been trained to compartmentalize” and it “seems to me that’s how I approach my life.” McBride has clear difficulties relating to other people; he reviews a video message from his estranged wife Eve (played by Liv Tyler), who informs him that “I feel like I’m looking for you all the time trying to connect to you, be close to you and it fucking sucks.”

That’s where McBride stands at the start of the film, and he maintains this isolation from humanity as he travels to the Moon for the first stage of his journey. “All the hopes we ever had for space travel, covered up by drink stands and t-shirt vendors,” he states as he arrives at a lunar colony bedecked with neon advertisements, “Just a re-creation of what we’re running from on Earth.” “Here we go again. Fighting over resources,” he remarks as a running firefight with lunar pirates in the no-man’s-land between the colony and a Space Command base on the far side of the Moon begins.

The further McBride voyages out from Earth, though, the more he sheds this cynicism and grows closer to humanity as a whole. A classified video asserting his father intentionally disabled his ship’s communications leaves him wondering whether what his father discovered broke him or whether he was always broken. After a botched rescue mission that leaves the commander of the spacecraft taking him to Mars dead, McBride sees the same anger and pain he saw in his father in himself and observes that “it keeps me walled off… walled off from relationships and opening myself up and, you know, really caring for someone.” But he admits that doesn’t yet know how to surmount this obstacle.

This moral and philosophical journey accelerates when McBride finds himself traveling alone to Neptune after inadvertently killing the crew of the spacecraft he surreptitiously attempts to board on Mars. In a log entry made en route, McBride admits the “zero-g and the extended duration of the journey is affecting me both physically and mentally. I am alone. Something I always believed I preferred… But I confess it’s wearing on me.” 

Then McBride reaches Neptune and his father’s derelict spacecraft. He boards it, making his way through corridors haunted by flickering lights and floating corpses before confronting his disturbed father. Totally detached from humanity and consumed with his quest to find intelligent life among the stars, McBride’s father flatly states that he never truly cared about McBride, his mother, or anything else back on Earth – or humanity’s “small ideas.” Obsessed with proving that humanity isn’t alone in the universe and unwilling to accept that the data his mission collected proves otherwise, McBride’s father cannot see the reality that what he has been looking for was staring him in the face his whole life.

It’s in this final act that Ad Astra’s weightiest theme fully surfaces: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and humanity’s place in the universe. This momentous theme comes into focus only erratically and infrequently before it emerges in full force at the film’s climax. Through briefings and video messages, for instance, we’re occasionally told that McBride’s father led an ill-fated mission to scan nearby star systems for signs of intelligent life. Still, it’s admirable that Ad Astra raises these far-reaching ideas as strongly as it does in the end.

Indeed, the realization that humanity must rely on itself in a cold and indifferent universe consummates McBride’s own character evolution. Where his father seeks an escape from humanity in his monomaniacal search for intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy and mourns his inability to find it, McBride himself grasps the harsh reality of humanity’s ultimate cosmic loneliness. In response to his father’s insistence his son can’t let him fail, McBride tells him he didn’t fail: “Now we know. We’re all we’ve got.”

McBride’s moral and philosophical progress over the course of his journey deeper into space and further away from humanity subtly subverts the traditional Heart of Darkness narrative. Where he starts supremely cynical about humanity and its ability to change its ways for the better, McBride slowly develops a faith in humanity despite the darkness that washes over his voyage. Paradoxically, this budding belief grows in no small part because of the solitude he endures, conveying to him in no uncertain terms the necessity of basic human connection that he previously felt he didn’t need. His encounter and confrontation with his father, isolated and disconnected from humanity, only confirms McBride in his new perspective. As he puts it, his father “could only see what was not there – and missed what was right in front of him.” 

In the end, McBride’s ordeal forces him to rediscover humanity. He quite literally lets his father go after doing his best to bring him back to Earth, leaving him spinning off alone into the vastness of space before riding a nuclear shockwave home. In the film’s final scene, McBride reconnects with his estranged wife and delivers a voiceover monologue (framed as an input to the automated psychological tests that recur throughout) that summarizes his new frame of mind:

I’m steady, calm. I slept well, no bad dreams. I am active and engaged. I am aware of my surroundings and those in my immediate sphere. I’m attentive. I am focused on the essential, to the exclusion of all else. I’m unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens – as they share mine. I will live, and love.

In its own flawed and frustrating but compelling way, Ad Astra tells us that we’re all we’ve got – and that that’s more than enough.