Note: This article contains spoilers for “Ad Astra”
My favorite space movies are those that push the norms of the genre. James Gray’s Ad Astra is the newest addition to this extremely short, two film list that I hope will expand over time. The other is Danny Boyle’s visceral and aggressively-underrated Sunshine (2007), and both films capture two aspects of cinema as a medium that I find most compelling: the sensory and the emotional. While Sunshine almost never ceases to provide an overwhelming, burn-your-eyeballs-out (literally) sensory experience, Ad Astra is concerned with how one should appropriately, and emotionally, find themselves affected by their circumstances.
Ad Astra captures the dark side of our wonderment of outer space. It differs from a cut and dried space story where a doomed crew is slowly picked off one by one by a malicious force, like in Sunshine. In fact, it’s not so much a story about survival in the harshest possible conditions for life, but the journey that one must go through in order to find emotional closure. In this sense, Ad Astra is perhaps our first emo space movie, as it curiously blends old literary techniques with the aesthetics of its near-future premise.
Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is the son of famed astronaut, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), and is ordered to travel to a military base on Mars. The elder McBride went missing somewhere around Neptune when Roy was a boy, and his departure left a void in his son’s life that made it difficult for him to maintain long term emotional bonds with other people. It is believed that Clifford’s ship, in its search for extraterrestrial life, is responsible for a series of devastating power storms on Earth.
Space doesn’t become a place to marvel at so much as it becomes the physical impediment to Roy overcoming his emotional dissociation.
The story is narrated by Roy himself, and his musings are told in a bass-heavy, almost grating voiceover that removes any romanticism of his journey. The character of his voiceover is one that is sharply defined by a sense of order and logic, represented by the metallic timbre of the recording. Roy is required to do psychological evaluations for the command center back on Earth, where he must describe his emotional state in order to continue on his journey. There’s a lyrical quality to his thoughts that suggests Ad Astra could have been a compelling novel on its own. Ad Astra most directly reminded me of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (later adapted by Alex Garland in his 2018 film), with its no-nonsense, emotionally distant protagonist on the search for a family member in a mysterious, hostile environment. It is this aspect about the film that places Ad Astra at the unique intersections of the epistolary novel and the space epic.
In Western literature, an epistolary story is composed of documents such as letters, journals, or diary entries, and has been seen most notably in “Robinson Crusoe,” “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” and more recently in “Annihilation.”
It is not a surprise that the aforementioned works all involve travel or exploration, as the epistolary form lends itself a sense of credibility and realism to the reader within the context of fantastical exploration. And for Anglophone literature during the “Age of Discovery,” the epistolary-as-travel log form was popular because it directly gave readers supposed insight into their nation’s colonial projects overseas.
But what does this have to do with “Ad Astra?”
Ad Astra’s engagement with the epistolary, by way of Roy’s narration, marks a break from the dimensions that travel and discovery are documented in. That is, in something like Star Trek, which utilizes a “Captain’s Log” voiceover to establish the premise of each episode, it is only informational. [Kelvin-verse] Captain Kirk never wonders aloud through voiceover what his life might have been like if his father hadn’t sacrificed himself to save the crew of the Kelvin from the Romulans. That’s not the objective of the story (even if I would be 1000% down to see that). For Ad Astra, Roy’s logs serve to highlight the discrepancy between our expectations and reality. We expect the sublime from Ad Astra as a space movie, but our experience of Roy’s journey is filtered through his own emotional void, thereby removing the epistolary from a romanticized context.
In effect, “Ad Astra” reimagines the romantic story of exploration as a painful journey marked by emotional compartmentalization and restraint, as it selectively engages and disengages with hallmarks of a travel narrative.
Isolation in the name of “Discovery”
Ad Astra interrogates the impulse to self-isolate in the name of “discovery.” I’ve written previously about how space’s exploratory potential is often analogous to Earth’s oceans in films, and this parallel carries over directly to Ad Astra. In other words, Ad Astra could have easily been a story steeped in the romanticism of going where few have gone before, in search of a loved one who must be brought home. Such a story would champion the technological advancements of humankind, and our resilient spirit that refuses to turn back in times of trouble. Instead, Ad Astra seeks to do the opposite, and that’s what makes it initially perplexing for the viewer.
Rather, Ad Astra is concerned with demonstrating how romantic narratives of [white, cisgender] men experiencing the sublime in their own course of discovery can leave them emotionally hollow and distant. Within this aspect of the film, there inherently lies a tension between the romanticism (the excitement of discovery mixed in with the dangers of the sublime) with its traditional focus on the subject’s emotional experience, and the stunted emotional and expressive lives of Roy and his father, Clifford. Space doesn’t become a place to marvel at so much as it becomes the physical impediment to Roy overcoming his emotional dissociation.
Clifford McBride’s raison d’être in space acts as a foil to Roy’s, and in effect, comes to symbolize exploration narratives of the past. When Roy finally reaches Clifford’s ship by Neptune, Clifford expresses a reluctance to return to Earth, citing his determination in finding extraterrestrial life. For Clifford, “achieving” his mission and everything that comes with being “the first” is paramount to any of his human relationships. He wants to be like Robinson Crusoe, to have survived for decades on his own and lived to tell his tale of triumph. The only thing missing from his story is his very own alien version of Friday, as proof of his contact with extraterrestrials. But of course, Clifford fails to achieve his mission, and from Roy’s narration we understand that Clifford also failed as a father.
Ad Astra ultimately shows the reality behind the quest for “discovery” embodied in so many epistolary travel stories. The chance that one might achieve fame for stumbling upon something new outshines the devastation left in one’s absence. For those like Roy who are forced to reckon with the emotional consequences of such thinking, the void of space appears exactly as it is: a swathe of emptiness refusing to service human ego.
Perhaps one of my favorite things about the film is that it does exactly the opposite of what Sunshine does. Instead of delineating how the needs of many outweigh the needs of a few, Ad Astra depicts how the dreams of humankind marginalize the emotional needs of a few. By exposing the expectations inherent to the travel epistolary, the viewer must reflect on how human impulses warp when earthly human contact is lost. In our quest for discovery, we uncover the cost of our absences.