Most of us spend our entire life in hiding.
In our quests for more, many of us forget that which we already have. This is true on a micro (sacrificing family for career) and macro (domination no matter the collateral damage) level. Space exploration can often become a rather direct example of this as a common reason for advancement in interstellar travel stems from our desire to find a new home to replace the one we’ve destroyed. We latch onto those things that we can only hope to achieve while simultaneously ignoring the problems we possess concrete solutions for curbing. We seek the title of “first” when it comes to discovering extraterrestrial life and yet we can’t even play nice with humans of different cultures and languages living next door. We take pride in manufacturing heroic excuses.
Director James Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross don’t mince words when describing this very phenomenon in Ad Astra. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) says early on that many of these “near future” astronauts take the job to escape. They don’t want to be tethered to the drama back home—or even remember they have a home away from the stars. So they go on long hauls to Mars outposts, embrace their freedom to go wherever and do whatever they want, and remove Earth from their minds altogether. These are people striving to forget the pain of troubled childhoods, the inability to share a loved one’s burden, and the responsibilities that come with putting down physical or emotional roots. They tell themselves the job is essential. It’s more important than you.
That’s what Roy was taught from a very young age after his father (Tommy Lee Jones‘ H. Clifford McBride) accepted command on a veritable suicide mission to travel to the outer reaches of our solar system and encounter intelligent life. He became a hero when the Lima Project lost contact because he saw planets nobody had ever seen with the naked eye. He was a pioneer who gave his life to a cause greater than himself and in turn greater than his son. So it’s no surprise that Roy would follow in those footsteps and train hard to become a flawless specimen of human bravery and pragmatism. Shutting off his emotions ensures he can survive peril and also stops himself from having his own child to inevitably hurt.
Did his father ever think about him and his mother? Maybe. All we know for certain is that Roy thinks about his ex-wife Eve (Liv Tyler) constantly. There’s regret and guilt in those memories—pain at what could have been and probably some misguided self-pity for letting her go as though it was a selfless act and not rooted in his fear of keeping two feet on the ground. They’re just glimpses, however. Remnants of emotions he’s compartmentalized to ensure his psych evaluations are passed with flying colors. And they’d all probably come flooding back if he were to see her again, the shock pushing him off-balance. It’s what happens when his superiors tell him his dad might still be alive. The dam bends and threatens to break.
More than alive, Roy is told the elder McBride’s Lima Project is the cause of a catastrophic series of electrical pulses sparking terrestrial energy surges that have left thousands of bodies in their wake. Because there’s no way of communicating, the assumption is that Clifford is still going through the motions of his assignment without knowing the anti-matter he wields is igniting a ripple effect back towards the sun. Their hope is that Roy can covertly and confidentially travel to an underground Mars substation and beam a message to Neptune’s orbit with the request for his father to stop. The government entity that demands its astronauts check emotional baggage at the door wants that very same “liability” to save the world. That’s the first sign something’s not right.
I’ll leave the others to the film as Gray has meticulously composed Ad Astra to let its revelations gradually uncover themselves. And with each new bombshell we can see Roy’s pristine blood pressure rise as his carefully manicured façade is exposed as having been built on lies. The emotions he’s suppressed are shaken loose and the rage he remembers bursting forth from his father that he was desperate to contain within himself widens the cracks. It’s a primal rage housed in our DNA from the beginning of time (see the living metaphor that will soon arrive as overtly as it is effective) and it will risk Roy’s sustained involvement. Space Command is looking for any reason to label him compromised regardless of how that compromise benefits their goals.
Pitt has never been better as the seething anger we assume is coming from the role actually manifests as tear-filled eyes and a quavering lip. When the time to finally let his feelings out arrives, it’s not the explosive bloodlust we imagine rules Jones’ Clifford. While Roy does retain the capacity to utilize his pragmatism as a means of survival, violence isn’t the default above self-defense. Neither is pettiness, though. He sees that some members of the crew helping him get to his destination aren’t quite ready for the dangers that come with the escapism of space exploration. Instead of blowing up their spot, however, he gives them the benefit of the doubt. Roy recognizes that his dedication to the work doesn’t demand his father’s unyielding callousness.
As such, he must implicitly carry the burden of Clifford’s actions. Roy has to live with those who die on the way to Mars regardless of Space Command putting them in harm’s way. He has to live with those who were directly affected by his dad’s mission too whether it’s in the abstract (Earth’s under siege population) or concrete (Ruth Negga‘s base leader Helen Lantos). Then there’s the spillover from blocking out his sorrow that pushed Eve away as well as the countless people he smiles and waves at to trick his body into believing its okay. Roy is a man barely hanging on by a thread despite appearances. And the looming decision to save or destroy his father in the face of extinction is tugging down hard.
The result is a thoughtful familial drama punctuated by a couple scenes of action that say more about the psychology of their participants than the battles themselves. Everything happens to elicit a response. Will Roy cry? Fight? Take control? Acquiesce? Or speak from the heart? This is an inward journey illustrated by an outward push to our solar system’s edge. It’s a war fought in Roy’s mind as the robotic utilitarianism he’s been conditioned to consider paramount is chipped away at by his desire to love and not have to be alone. He’s therefore not escaping his life as much as a past to which he simply hasn’t been able to say goodbye. He must confront where he came from to accept who it is that he’s become.
 Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra”. Credit: Francois Duhamel. Copyright Twentieth Century Fox
 Ruth Negga and Brad Pitt star in “Ad Astra”. Copyright Twentieth Century Fox
 Tommy Lee Jones stars in “Ad Astra”. Credit: Francois Duhamel. Copyright Twentieth Century Fox