'Ad Astra' and Refuting the Rules of Sci-Fi

The great tenets of the genre are turned on their head by James Gray's film.

[This story contains spoilers for Ad Astra.]

"We're world eaters," Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) says early on in Ad Astra, its title perhaps borrowed from the Roman poet, Virgil, who said, "sic itur ad astra," or "thus one journeys to the stars." We are world eaters; thus we journey to the stars. It's a cynical viewpoint born from Earth's colonization of the moon, complete with Subway restaurants, casinos and photo booths — expensive "experiences" all in the service of distracting humanity from the mining of the moon's resources, which has erupted into new wars. In Ad Astra, the very consumer culture that gutted Earth and pushed humanity deeper into space has made its way to new worlds. For us, it's been 60 years since a human-made object first landed an object on the moon, and 50 since Neil Armstrong first set foot on its surface with the words, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." James Gray's opus begs the question of whether we ever should have landed on the moon at all. Perhaps mankind never truly evolved enough, was never equipped with the right tools through which to understand its own limited existence, to make such a giant leap into the unknown. But maybe in doing so, in making that leap, do we discover the emotional tools to recognize the sanctity of time, community and touch right here on Earth.

Almost as soon as we learned the craft of moviemaking, we began utilizing it to broach the unknown regions of space, hypothesize about what else could be out there in the universe and where man's place would be among the stars. One of the earliest examples of the science-fiction film, which set the stage for the kind of spectacle we hope to see at the movies, was Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon (1902). The shot of the Man in the Moon with a rocket ship stuck in his left eye has become an iconic image in film history, but that's only the beginning of the tale. Within its brief 18-minute runtime, the astronauts in the film encounter an alien species called Selenites, kill their monarch and return to Earth victorious, with a captured alien in tow. The film concludes with a statue unveiled in the astronauts' honor, reading "Labor omnia vincit," a Latin phrase meaning "Work conquers all." Though over a century removed from Melies' film, the core of Ad Astra is shaped by it. While the satirical and anti-imperialist nature of the short film has long been up for discussion, there's arguably no better image to describe man's exploration and colonization than a rocket ship stuck right in the eye of the moon. Ad Astra's moon colony, with its mining sectors, hotels and Earthly comforts, is the modern equivalent of a manmade rocket ship stuck right in the eye of the moon.

The phrase "work conquers all" is the central idea that has made Roy McBride the man he is, a man who sacrifices personal relationships, human connection and community all for the sake of the mission. It's a virtue born of the age of baby boomers, one that Roy's father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), subscribed to, which ultimately led him to abandon his family in order to seek out alien life. This kind of work ethic, built on the legacy of careers rather than the legacy of family, is the foundation of so many terse relationships between fathers and sons. It's the work ethic that leaves Roy isolated and coping with a loneliness he can't confront, but tries to piece together through the poetry of his voiceovers, which form a search for truth that carries every bit as much weight as his search for his father. Ad Astra presents space as a lonely, vast void, beautiful yet impenetrable. Thus it only makes sense that the men and women who traverse it would comprise that same loneliness, harnessing a great void within their centers as they search for something in the dark to fill it. But this loneliness is not how our space-faring media always was.

Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek presented the idea that exploring "space — the final frontier" was a communal experience. Starfleet is based on cooperation and the idea that no one man can carry the weight of the universe. This optimistic presentation not only influenced decades of science fiction television that followed, but also films like Ridley Scott's The Martian (2015), in which our success in space is entirely dependent on our ability to work together without borders. As much horror as there is to be found in our space films, with so much of that reliant on Scott’s Alien (1979), most of our interest in this area of science fiction is defined by optimism and wonder, but even those aspects have a dark side, hidden from the light of nearby stars.

Isolation, like pain, is an idea that we've been conditioned to believe is necessary for grand success. Whether we're talking about the real-life heroism of Neil Armstrong and the personal sacrifices he made along the way, as dramatized by Ryan Gosling in Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018), or the science-fiction heroism of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, we've been taught that our future is dependent on those who will diligently step into the sphere of martyrdom. "We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt," Cooper says. And through Nolan's lens, we find value in those words and lament the lack of space exploration that has taken place in the 21st century. His decision to leave his family behind, while painful, is seen as a necessary measure, one with benefits to all of humanity that outweigh his own personal costs.

Ad Astra, which shares a number of similarities with Interstellar, including cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, presents an alternate view on Nolan's impetus for space travel. In wondering about our place in the stars rather than the dirt, we lose something that makes us undeniably human. The farther mankind is removed from Earth in James Gray's film, the more alien it becomes. The humans on the moon are tourists, and exactly like humans on Earth. But on Mars, there's an alien quality to them with their oversized clothing, unkept hair, and emotional coolness that suggests the beginning stages of evolution, hidden from the eyes of their Earth-tied counterparts. It's on Mars that we first begin to see Roy truly start to grapple with his own emotions, his sadness and frustrations about his relationship with his father. These feelings forcibly emerge as a way to remind Roy of his own humanity, like a fight or flight reflex. As he sends out messages to his father in an attempt to connect with him, to find answers behind the cosmic power surges that could destroy the solar system, he begins to expose memories about his relationship with his father, memories that are called into question when Roy later comes face to face with the man.

One of the memories that Roy shares on his final message to his father is of them watching black and white musicals together when he was a child. When Roy arrives at the Lima Project base after over two months of isolation, the musical Orchestra Wives (1942) is playing on the screens, seeming to confirm Roy's memory of their shared bond over classic Hollywood musicals. But minutes later, during an emotional reunion that doubles as a confrontation, H. Clifford tells Roy that he never cared about him or his mother. All he cared about was finding confirmation that humans weren't alone in the universe. The musical takes on a new significance, not because of its plot, but because of its very nature. Musicals are, in their essence, an exaggeration of real life, of the emotions and narratives that make up human stories. And these musicals often rely on artifice, grand sets and moving pieces that audiences accept as imitations of life. And when you get down to it, that's what film is — imitation and artifice, with musical films being the most extreme versions of that. H. Clifford is a man who cares nothing for humanity, not even family, yet is drawn to the artifice of humanity, the exaggeration of feelings he doesn't feel. When Roy responds to his father's admission that he never cared about his family, or Earth, he says, "I know, Dad," which not only casts that prior shared memory in doubt but allows for him to come to terms with the truth and creates the path for his eventual transcendence.

Ad Astra sets the audience up to expect a major revelation, the kind of science fiction spectacle that ends with a reveal that H. Clifford has merged with alien life, or that Roy makes an alien connection that takes him to the outer reaches of the universe and transforms him. As much as Ad Astra forms a contemporary link with Interstellar, it forms an even greater one with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), based on the works of Arthur C. Clarke. From monkeys to the moon, Ad Astra is punctuated with allusions to Kubrick's masterpiece, but its influence is most clear when it comes to the idea of transcendence. In 2001, after Bowman (Keir Dullea) rids himself of HAL (Douglas Rain), he is pulled into a Star Gate in a trippy sequence that ends with him meeting an older version of himself and being transformed by the Monolith into the Star Child, a fetus-like being that floats above Earth with a messianic promise. Ad Astra's final act takes a similar structure, with Roy's journey to Neptune being his own Star Gate of sorts, though rather than an immense array of immense colors and images, Roy is bombarded by his own memories, his failed connections and selfishness that cost him his marriage to Eve (Liv Tyler). And when he arrives at the Lima Project Base, his father is the future version of himself should he continue to sacrifice his feelings for the work and allow the sins of the father to become the sins of the son. Within this 2001 allusion, H. Clifford operates as both a future version of the film's protagonist, and the monolith, an unfeeling and stone-faced entity whose very nature allows for Roy's rebirth.

Roy's transformation is not a physical one, a la Bowman's transformation into the Star Child, but an emotional one. He returns to Earth better, more equipped to shrug off the isolationism he's been taught and enjoy the pleasures that Earth has to offer. In the context of the film, Roy McBride isn't a messianic figure, but for the audience he may be. Ad Astra goes from the grand to the personal and in that creates a therapeutic experience that encourages humans to confront their feelings rather than pull away from them. The film dares to ask the point of searching for alien life when we fail to appreciate human life. It suggests that we are alone in the universe, maybe because we're undeserving of finding other life or maybe because it adds greater importance to our human lives and our Earth. The great tenets of science fiction are refuted by James Gray's film. Work doesn't conquer all, and work without human connection is useless. Transcendence is not reliant on an external transformation, but an internal one. Space isn't the final frontier; the resuscitation of Earth is.

Ad Astra deserves a place within our science fiction canon not because it dares us to head into the unknown. Rather, it dares us to look at the truth inside of ourselves, to recognize the destructive nature of our own alienation, and to take the time to heal. These are things we as humans know, but have so often put off in our search for finding what comes next, and what comes after that. As the Roman philosopher wrote, "non est ad astra mollis e terris via," there is no easy way from the Earth to the stars. But perhaps, like the journey of Roy McBride, it's that lack of ease that ultimately connects and grounds us.