Ad Astra, An Exploration of Loneliness

Promotional poster of Ad Astra. Features an astronaut in dark spce, but the astronaut is not in focus.
Promotional Poster for Ad Astra, 2019. Directed by James Gray. New Regency Pictures.

SPOILERS AHEAD

There’s a lot to dislike in Ad Astra. There’s the emotionless, yet overly heroic protagonist Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt in perhaps his stiffest performance). His distant and egotistical father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). There is the largely forgettable cast of other supporting characters, many of whom are not really named or if they are, are rendered expendable. There are cloyingly, nauseating shots of space that only punctuate how cliche’d the voice-over script work is.

But how good or bad the movie is, isn’t necessarily relevant to what it’s about. Ad Astra at least it succeeds at providing an intriguing storyline as support for it’s thesis. In Ad Astra, humans have advanced in their space conquest and now begin a search for other intelligent life in earnest. Prior to the film’s events, H. McBride has lead an expedition called Project Lima to the edge of the solar system with the goal of scanning and communicating with intelligent life. The Lima loses contact and the senior McBride is lauded as a hero.

McBride’s son, Roy, follows in his father’s footsteps to become an astronaut. At the beginning of the film, he is seen to be working on a sort of “space ladder” or standing satellite, when the earth becomes hit with an electrical flair, which he survives. As the flair’s wreak havoc, he is brought in by the military, told that his father is still alive and that these flares may be due to the Lima. They need him to send a message to the senior McBride, and they send him to Mars to do it. He later goes off on his own to meet his father at the end of the solar system, confronts him, saves the world.

Throughout all of Roy’s journey’s, we are meant to get a sense of disconnect. From his escape from the satellite, his trip to the moon, Mars, and finally, his 76-day trip to Neptune, we are meant to wallow in alienation. There is even a completely undeveloped subplot with Roy’s ex-wife Eve (the tragically underutilized Liv Tyler), to underscore this point. Roy is distant with others, and when he shows emotion its subtle, stoic.

While it may be that this stoicism could be characteristic of more traditional, hyper-masculine heroic roles, Roy’s stoicism is contrasted with the other traditionally heroic men in the film. It seems that the alienation may be something unique to Roy’s character. He sets himself apart from other people, and we do see people that have connections to one another. This includes the moon Lieutenant Willie Levant (Sean Blackmore) who carries a photo of his wife and daughter, and the crew of the Cepheus, who seemed to joke around with one another. It’s worth noting, that Roy’s stiff heroism is contrasted most with two men on color. Willie Levant is teasing for the brief period we meet him. The original captain of the Cepheus (quickly offed by a baboon), is warm and kind for the few moments we meet him. Though brief, our short encounters with these other men feel fleshed out, whole.

Still image from Ad Astra. Features three men in a moon rover, waiting to depart.
Still image of Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), and (Willie Levant) Sean Blakemore in Ad Astra (2019).

In other words, the film was capable of making more layered and complex characters when needed. This makes it that Roy’s flatness is a purposeful, and a holdover from other movies or literature that are meant to focus on the grand themes explored by having the point-of-view character be as malleable or as allegorical as possible. Roy’s alienation isn’t a mistake, it is his defining feature. It is also a choice that becomes interrogated and changed by the film’s progression.

Roy discovers true loneliness when he steals the Cepheus and must make the final leg of the journey alone to Neptune. Man grappling with solitude isn’t a particularly new theme. It’s been explored in literature and media in too many different forms. There’s the traditional, like Robinson Crusoe, the movie Castaway as another modern counterpart. There are stories about existential estrangement, like Camus’ The Stranger. We even choose to run these torturous scenarios for our enjoyment with shows like Naked And Afraid and the aptly titled Alone. Then there are books with the allegorical journeys into the self, like Heart of Darkness, which Ad Astra is heavily based on.

That may be where the discomfort lies. The movie isn’t much of a film as much as it is trying to be a piece of literature exploring loneliness, and ultimately refuting the absolutism of it.

What Ad Astra does do well, is that the ever present loneliness isn’t presented as a forever condition. Other texts may find that isolation and estrangement are endemic to the human condition, Ad Astra is more hopeful than that. We see that it is Roy’s choice to remain so isolated, so apart from others. It is only when he experiences actually being alone for a truly unbearable amount of time, and he sees how that self-inflicted isolation has affected his father, that he realizes his desire was never to be apart from others.

At the end of the film, Roy finds his father at the Lima station. His father had murdered the crew for wanting to go home, and so before he can even engage in the man he had been chasing, he must first wade through the bodies of his father’s relentless conquest. His father wants to stay, to find other intelligent life, to prove something. Roy responds with something like “you did prove something, you proved we’re all we got.” Ironically enough, it’s only when Roy has to help his father come to terms with our status as alone in the universe, that it begins to dawn on Roy that he need not follow his footsteps.

H. Clifford McBride’s hubris is his intention on holding himself apart from other people. He retreats into his mission, sacrificing literal lives in his single-minded conquest for other intelligent life, becoming the monster who Roy could have easily become if he had not engaged in loneliness on the edge of maddening. It helps that H. Clifford McBride aids this self-discovery outright, telling his son pointedly that he does not love him. Roy could easily, further embrace this rejection, (both literally and figuratively in the film) but he lets his father die in space, and also his feelings of estrangement die with him. He returns to earth, happy to be rescued, happy to see other people.

This all seems rather silly, I’m sure. Leaving the theater, I made the joke that the subtitle could have been “man cures depression with billions in technology and a long vacation.” But when we look at these billionaires starting their own space expeditions, it begs the question what are we running from. Perhaps it’s preventable environmental disaster? Perhaps it’s the continuous threat of conflict? Yet, it may just be that we are running away from each other, diving into a loneliness that will lead us to the edges of space. We might very well be all we have in the universe, but that doesn’t mean we’re alone.

Want more film theory discussion? Check out this piece on The Lighthouse.

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