Ad Astra Crashes High-Concept Space Dramas Back Down to Earth
Who says we need to be afraid of the void? Okay, I easily could have said that myself, especially seeing as we love to indulge in nihilism here at Back Row. But when I'm not dooming and glooming, I can sometimes get behind movies that throw their main characters a lifeline for once. When it comes to non-fantasy space movies, there seems to be two categories that a film can fall into: either it's the type of film that shoots its audience into said void, leaving you to question the nature of reality, or it's the type of film that treats space as a peak to conquer and celebrates the triumph of the return back to earth. James Gray's Ad Astra (2019) is the rare film that attempts to blur the lines between the two. It doubles down on existential dread and profound human sadness, then delivers on a bittersweet triumphant return–though perhaps in a way that leaves audiences frustrated.
Ad Astra is a weird one. It's a rather formulaic film that follows every big-budget action beat of every Heart of Darkness adaptation that’s come before it. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is called upon to travel into deep space in order to find his lost and previously presumed dead father (Tommy Lee Jones), who may or may not be causing massive deadly power surges throughout the galaxy. Like all Marlows and Captain Willards before him, Major Roy is forced to run through an obstacle course of various futuristic horrors; fractured and war-like earthlings battling it out for various disputed intragalactic territories, ominously quiet space stations sending out distress signals, a network of CIA agents using various military personnel to hide their mistakes, and even paying $125 for a frickin’ blanket and pillow package on a commercial flight to the Moon.
James Gray's script has a sort of brazen bluntness, akin to grafting training wheels onto the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. With its voice over narration, expository dialogue and overt symbolism, everything in this movie is spelled out to such a degree that it leaves almost no room for interpretation. In that way, Ad Astra is basically a commercial for the benefits of therapy. Lets strip it down: Man replaces void made by lost-presumed-dead father with work. Man then is directly confronted by the concept of facing his father. Man searches for and meets father. Man realizes and forgives father and sees that all of the problems he has in life stem from his father's own limitations. Man tries to save father but realizes he can only save himself. Man returns a renewed and more emotionally enriched person, learning to value what he has had all along.
Oh and monkey attacks. Do you remember the stage of therapy that includes space-monkeys?
Okay, here's where I understand people's frustrations. If you were in the audience expecting a flashy action flick, you will have quickly lost steam once Roy reaches Neptune–if you weren't already checking your watch by that sweet anechoic chamber on Mars. If you were here for lofty, ambiguous musing on our infinitesimal existence within a vast and unknowable universe, you'll be driven into a McBride Sr.-like madness after the first moon buggy attack. Typically I’d be in the second camp, but there's just something about the straight-forwardness of Ad Astra that managed to win me over. A movie about searching for space aliens and finding self-love instead? It's almost downright Hallmark™-ian. But there’s something profound about opening up that conversation beyond the confines of our tangled and angsty earth-bound experiences.
Journeying into deep space is indeed a perfect representation of grappling with crippling depression. When we first meet Roy, he has lost his love and has nothing left in life but his work. He spends a lot of time ruminating but he doesn’t seem too sure about how he has ended up where he is. Once presented with this new mission, suddenly a light turns on in his head as he connects the dots between the broken pieces of his life and this unhealed wound of his father’s legacy. Roy’s expectations about finding his father feel so imperative to him that he pushes himself to every emotional and physical limit. He makes irreversible decisions, such as breaking his blind dedication to his country and even killing several people along the way, in search of what he believes will be the answer to everything. But in the end he’s just made a bigger mess of his life, still without a father who loves him. He has even less understanding of who he is than when he first felt compelled to take this journey.
All of the angst and anger that initially drove Roy to create this new mission in his life simply evaporates into nothingnesses–it was never a proper structure for him to build meaning onto to begin with. It’s a direct parallel to his father’s own journey through space, searching for and certain of alien life that he has had no proof exists. Similarly, Roy sacrifices everything, even the people around him, only to meet a father who claims he never thought about or cared about him to begin with. His father’s blind drive to press forward towards selfish oblivion directly perpetuates damaging ripples throughout the entire universe. While he’s not the direct cause of the power surges, his selfish decision to fight his own crew is what lead to the ship being damaged in the first place. It’s only when Roy realizes his journey was nothing more than a perpetuation of his father’s own unhinged desperation–itself an echo of the selfish warlike Earth he’s left behind–that he is able to stop the cycle and build up a foundation from what was previously a bottomless void in his life.
Where a film like High Life forces us to rethink our importance, Ad Astra reinforces just how special we really are. It’s a message I can see being misinterpreted as hubris, but I believe James Gray is more focused on the topic on a smaller, individual scale. Clearly in the way he portrays society at large throughout the film he’s not trying to chest-thump our planet’s right to conquer; the future Gray’s laid out for us is largely one of meaningless war and consumerism. But paradoxically, he’s used the grandness of space in order to show that we don’t need to be defined by the absences around us. Whether it’s a father who was never there or the search for alien life, what we do not have is not indicative of what we do have–nor is it indicative of our individual importance. We do, however, need to press through that metaphorical darkness, meet and acknowledge that nothingness, in order to come back and appreciate the miracle of ourselves. The touch of a hand, the warmth of sunlight; when you’ve experienced the pain of desiring your own death, appreciating seemingly insignificant actions can be just as powerful as longing for what isn’t. It’s an experience some might call God; Ad Astra calls it self-acceptance. You can dismiss it as a cop-out saccharine conclusion, or you can accept that in the grand scheme of things we are all truly miracles. A momentary miracle, barely a blip on the radar of grand cosmic phenomenon, but a miracle nonetheless.