James Gray’s Ad Astra is the most recent example of the subgenre that I have called the spacesuit film, dedicated to realistic portrayals of space travel in the near future; and in keeping with tradition, it offers an ample amount of the breathtaking astronomical vistas and meticulously detailed spacecraft that audiences have come to expect in such films since Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) permanently transformed the subgenre. However, and unfortunately, the image that the film most frequently lingers on is a close-up of Brad Pitt’s unshaven face, looking very troubled. And instead of long sequences of stirring music, the dominant features of the film’s soundtrack are Pitt’s voiceover monologues, explaining precisely why he is so troubled at each particular moment.
Make no mistake about it; the film does include language about all the standard goals of space travel – searching for other forms of intelligent life, exploring other planets, seeking new resources – but the true motive that keeps driving Pitt’s character Roy McGuire into space is the hope that it will somehow enable him to deal with the army of personal demons he has been wrestling with his entire life. Indeed, he brings so much baggage along on each mission that one wonders how his spaceships can get off the ground.
And of course, as in almost every contemporary film, family matters are of paramount importance; thus, in Interstellar (2014 – review here), Matthew McConaughey journeys into interstellar space to find a way to get back to his children, and Brad Pitt is traveling to Neptune in order to reconcile with his father. To be sure, the official purpose of both missions is to save the human race; here, the previous expedition to Neptune led by Roy’s father Clifford McGuire (Tommy Lee Jones), which long ago was mysteriously lost, now seems connected to powerful pulses of energy from Neptune causing vast amounts of destruction throughout the solar system. Senior officials suspect that the elder McGuire has somehow jiggered with his ship’s antimatter engine to generate these pulses, inspiring a two-pronged strategy: employ Roy to send messages to his father to persuade him to get in touch with Earth, and prepare a backup mission to go out to Neptune and blow up the geezer and his spaceship. To say the least, these pulses and their apparent origin do not sound scientifically plausible (the film does not credit a Science Advisor, and it shows), but it’s a great way to keep the film exciting, for every time the plot is bogging down, screenwriters Gray and Ethan Gross can toss in another pulse to create a sudden crisis and threaten Roy’s life – so that the pulses are this film’s equivalent to the cries of “Surf’s up!” that kept the Beach Party movies lively. And thankfully, each pulse interrupts Roy’s interior monologues and provides viewers with something more interesting to look at than his motionless face.
The idea of burdening astronauts with personal problems was also central to another recent film, First Man (2018 – review here), but in that case the screenwriters were confined by the historical record in their efforts to transform the stolid Neil Armstrong into an emotional basket case. But in creating the fictional Ad Astra, the screenwriters had no constraints, so it seems that every new voiceover brings to light another issue that is tormenting poor Roy McGuire. So, let me try to sort out all the matters that he is preoccupied with:
First, he feels that he is not an authentic person: his career is nothing but “a performance with my eye on the exit… always on the exit,” and it is later observed that “Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding.” Further, Roy “can’t get close to anyone.” This is confirmed by his former wife Eve (Liv Tyler), who says to him in a flashback, “You’re so distant, even when you’re here, I don’t know where you are.” His relationship with his father is endlessly problematic: Roy says, “I do not want to be my dad,” but later addresses his absent father by saying, “I never really knew you – or am I you?” He “didn’t want” his father to go to Neptune, but he was too “terrified to confront him.” He concludes, “In the end, the son suffers the sins of the father.” It is perfectly understandable, then, that he is told at one point that “Your personal connection has made you unsuitable for this mission.” He discerns in himself a “self-destructive side.” He is regularly overcome with anger: attacked by an agitated animal, Roy says, “I understand that rage; I’ve seen that rage in my father and seen it in me” – though this sort of “anger” always turns into “pain.” He hates his superiors because “They’re using me – God damn them!” He reports that a long space voyage is “wearing on me,” and at a crucial moment, he asks himself, “Why go on? Why keep trying?” The list is surely not complete; there are only so many notes one can take in a darkened theatre.
And while Roy McGuire is the center of attention, the travails of other space travelers are occasionally mentioned. The mental stability of his father is repeatedly questioned: Roy asks of one character, “Why can’t he just let go? My father couldn’t.” Speculating about his father’s fate, another character asks, “Did [his flight] break him – or was he already broken?” And we are later informed that Clifford McGuire’s crewmates “couldn’t handle the psychological stress of being so far from Earth.”
But as the film’s hero, McGuire at least must be provided with a happy ending, and without revealing anything about what he actually does in the latter part of the film, I can report that his actions (to me inexplicably) finally bring him a sense of inner peace, as conveyed by the film’s final voiceover (as best I could transcribe it):
“I am steady, calm. I slept well. No bad dreams. I am active, engaged, aware of my surroundings. I am focused on the essential to the exclusion of all else. I am 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. So be it.”
And while he made some similar comments during previous psychological evaluations, audiences realize that he is now sincere in his contentment, since this scene is also the only moment I can recall in the film when Brad Pitt smiles.
Placing this film in the broader context of the history of the spacesuit film, one can regard Ad Astra as signaling either the trivialization, or the maturation, of the subgenre. The astronauts in earlier films, like America’s real-life astronauts, conveyed a concern for issues larger than themselves; they appeared to have no serious personal problems; and they confronted the challenges of space in a stoic and confident manner. There were occasional worries that space travel might drive some people insane: the increasingly unstable commander in Conquest of Space (1955) ultimately tries to sabotage his own mission to Mars, convinced that it will violate the will of God; 2001 introduced the notion that astronauts should be subjected to periodic psychological evaluations (a recurring feature of this film); and the crew member in 2001 that evaluates Dave Bowman – the computer HAL 900 – actually does go insane. But there was the overriding sense that most people, most of the time, could handle outer space, and eventually conquer it.
Now, this film suggests, the people who choose to become astronauts either are already crazy, or will be driven crazy by their experiences. They are so self-absorbed, so haunted by their own traumas, that they never even seem to notice outer space unless it is trying to kill them. In fact, the film suggests that Roy devotes a lengthy voyage through space entirely to looking at old videos of people he knew and recalling moments from his past. And once they are in space, their one overriding desire is simply to get back home to the familiar environments and people of Earth, as evidenced here and in other recent spacesuit films I have reviewed like Gravity (2013 – review here), Interstellar, and The Martian (2015 – review here). It is little wonder, then, that the Mars colony is equipped with several “Comfort Rooms” with walls providing an array of soothing images to ease the minds of its perpetually troubled astronauts.
Yet all of this may simply be a response to the actual history of the space program. After all, in the 1950s and 1960s, both scientists and science fiction writers were sure that, after reaching the Moon, humans would quickly go on to travel to other planets and establish colonies throughout the solar system. Half a century later, none of that has happened; and while more people than ever are talking about doing all of these things really soon, their accomplishments to date offer only limited grounds for optimism. As I have observed before, space travel has proven to be far more expensive, far more difficult, and far more dangerous than anyone imagined. And this might lead to these natural conclusions: perhaps, people who want to go into outer space really are crazy (since, as Norman Mailer long ago pointed out, life in space most closely resembles life in a minimum-security prison); perhaps, the confinement, isolation, and constant threat of instantaneous death in space would really drive people insane; and perhaps, the only rational reaction to being in space is really to work overtime to get back to Earth as soon as possible.
Recognizing the realities of space does have one distinct advantage for spacesuit films: the primary antagonist that their protagonists must overcome is outer space itself, the overpowering and omnipresent foe that constantly threatens the frail humans who venture into that realm. Thus, filmmakers feel no need to blight their films with an unbelievable, mustache-twirling villain, intent upon doing evil for the sheer hell of it, who has become a ubiquitous figure in modern films (even some that aspire to be serious dramas, like Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water [2017 – review here]). So it is that yes, Ad Astra does provide Roy with some human adversaries – the bandits that briefly attack him on the Moon, and the unseen bureaucrats making decisions that seem contrary to both Roy’s and humanity’s interests – but these never become objects for the intense public hating that all too frequently dominates the experience of watching recent films.
In this respect, spacesuit films can be seen as a continuation of a long tradition of films that generate drama solely by placing protagonists in harsh natural environments, one recent example being The Mountain Between Us (2017). Yet people appear to be losing interest in stories about efforts to survive in remote places on Earth – certainly, The Mountain Between Us was not a huge success – while films about people struggling in space are more popular than ever. This may be because, as filmmakers and filmgoers increasingly prefer more and more powerful heroes and villains, they also would naturally gravitate toward more and more hostile environments as adversaries, and no place on Earth is as potentially lethal to humans as outer space.
Ad Astra is also in conspicuous dialogue with another spacesuit film that largely dispensed with villains – Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys (1999). Two of the three actors who played Eastwood’s aging crewmates – Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland – are given prominent roles in this film, with Sutherland cast as Thomas Pruitt, a former colleague of Roy’s father assigned to serve as Roy’s mentor. And one of the actors who portrayed a young astronaut in Space Cowboys, Loren Dean, is also observed as an astronaut in this film, suggesting a conscious intent to connect the two films. As it happens, both films involve astronauts who are sent to seek out and destroy a spacecraft that threatens the Earth, and one message in both films is that even elderly astronauts can be effective in handling assignments in space. After all, at the age of fifty-six, Brad Pitt himself is no longer a young man, and footage of Clifford McGuire shows that even at the start of his mission to Neptune, he was already an old man – yet he was still deemed capable of commanding an important mission.
It has frequently been pointed out that, because dexterity is more vital in space than physical strength, women might prove to be superior astronauts. A similar argument might be made that due to their decades of experience, older astronauts might also prove to be superior to younger astronauts, despite their physical deterioration. And in real life, John Glenn demonstrated in 1998 that a seventy-seven-year old man could perform tasks in outer space, as he was instructed to take all the photographs and films during his space shuttle flight while also being subjected to medical experiments. Perhaps NASA should stop encouraging its veteran astronauts to retire.
The film references other precursors as well. Liv Tyler was probably asked to play Roy’s wife because she had appeared in another spacesuit film about a desperate mission to save Earth, Armageddon (1998), though I fail to discern any other similarities between the films. There are echoes of 2001, in that a character first visits the Moon and tours a lunar colony before another flight is undertaken to a distant part of the solar system, though the film wisely declines to attempt a similarly mind-blowing conclusion. Ad Astra also includes two scenes that have appeared in numerous spacesuit films: a burial in outer space, as the body is launched into space, and the doomed astronaut who drifts further and further into the blackness of space until he is only a tiny spot in the distance. And the film recalls action films of all sorts by staging a ludicrous car chase on the Moon, though Roy saves himself by demonstrating remarkable skill in driving a lunar buggy.
I find it hard to reach an overall conclusion about this film. Certainly, it has several virtues: the special effects are excellent; Pitt’s performance is capable, and while the other actors are given little to do, they do it well; and the film never becomes predictable. Yet the way Pitt’s character is presented remains, I think, a fatal flaw. Other screen astronauts like Sandra Bullock in Gravity and Matt Damon in The Martian may have their own issues, as the films are careful to convey, but they are always properly focused on the tasks at hand and never convey any sense of self-pity. In contrast, Roy McGuire seems obsessed with his own problems, so much so as to make him more irritating than likable; this further suggests that he could never actually function as a competent astronaut in an environment that demands constant vigilance. So, while I realize that we were never supposed to sympathize with the officials overseeing his activities, I believe that they were absolutely correct in concluding that Roy McBride was not suitable for this film’s mission.
Directed by James Gray
Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross
Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, Kimberley Elise, Loren Dean, Donnie Keshawarz, Sean Blackmore, Bobby Nisch, LisaGary Hamilton, John Finn, John Ortiz, Freda Foh Shen, Daniel Sauli, Kimmy Shields, Greg Bryk & Alyson Reed
Gary Westfahl, Professor Emeritus at the University of La Verne, has published 27 books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo Award-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), and A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His next two books, to be published in 2019, are the co-edited Science Fiction and the Dismal Science: Essays on Economics in and of the Genre and the critical study The Rise and Fall of American Science Fiction, 1920s to 1960s.