James Gray’s 2019 film “Ad Astra” is science fiction at its best: a window not into technology and life in the future, but a reflection on what is enduring in human life. And it is the brokenness of humans, particularly of men whose fathers are absent, that is the true story here.
Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. —G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Ross Douthat’s latest book (reviewed by Fr. Dwight Longenecker in The Imaginative Conservative) identifies the signs of decadence in Western and American culture less in orgies than it is in an utter lack of creativity. Endless remakes, reboots, and the dreary pestilence of fan-fiction in various forms show a culture that is spiraling down, only able to repeat itself in utterly predictable ways. We only hand down the tradition that goes back to the deep recesses of the 1960s, and our individual talents are consumed in repeating the accomplishments in ways that do not extend them or even make them more beautiful.
That is why a recent viewing of the 2019 film Ad Astra, directed by James Gray and written by Mr. Gray and Ethan Gross, was such a delight. It is clear that the movie is influenced by famous space films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it also has deeper roots. Mr. Gray himself has admitted in reviews that the story is inspired by his desire to imagine the Odyssey as told from the perspective of Telemachus, Odysseus’s infant son who was left behind when his father went off to war and then returned home in his own good time.
The movie, set in a hazy and unspecific near future in which the American space program had advanced and put colonies on the moon and other planets, stars Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride, an astronaut famed for his cool under pressure—his heart rate has never gone over 80—but whom we see struggling to keep alive his relationship with his wife (Liv Tyler) because of his inability to truly speak to her. He is most open and vulnerable with a computer program that assesses psychological fitness. The son of famed astronaut H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones, Roy barely knows his father as a father. Clifford joined the Lima Project, a deep-space mission to find intelligent life, when Roy was in his teens, and disappeared thirteen years later.
After surviving a fall from miles above the earth (his heart-rate still not passing 80) caused by an electrical surge, Roy is informed by a room full of high-ranking space officers that the electrical surges that have been causing destruction throughout the solar system seem to be connected to the release of anti-matter, the same substance by which the Lima Project crafts were powered. The officers believe that Roy’s father is alive, and he is dispatched to Mars in attempt to communicate with him. Though Roy is at first incredulous—with a clear implication that he may not even want his father to be alive—he accepts the mission, first flying to the moon commercially (an amusing depiction of how flying and airports would remain the same commercial, irritating, and gaudy experience they are now—even if they are going to space), and from there to Mars. The launch site is on a different part of the moon, requiring travel by land rovers through an area in which there are pirates. As the ship, called the Cepheus, is approaching Mars, another electrical surge hits, paralyzing the pilot with fear. The ice-blooded Roy is forced to assume command and land the craft.
On Mars, Roy’s attempts at radio communication, first done reading messages written for him that appeal to more formal reasons for contact, become more personal as Roy begins to go off script and recount memories of his father’s lessons for him and love.
When it is clear that Clifford has responded and that he has been located near Neptune, Roy is informed that his personal relationship makes him inappropriate for the mission to go and fix the problems with the Lima Project. For the first time ever, Roy fails his computerized psychological examination—his bodily signs now showing the effects of his psychological state. The commanding officer of the Mars station, Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), seeks Roy out and reveals to him that the story he heard about his hero father’s disappearance had been sanitized. Her own parents died because of Clifford’s Odyssean tendencies. She helps Roy secretly enter the Cepheus, bound for Neptune, but is detected. After a disastrous series of events, Roy, like his father on the Lima Project, is alone alive on board. Upon arrival at the Lima Project he finds his father, though aware of his failings as a husband and father, still obsessed with the task of finding intelligent life in the universe.
Roy returns, successfully having stemmed the surges, but without his father. To say more would require spoilers for a movie only a year old. But I will say that upon Roy’s return he is a different man. Telemachus, in this story, will not be able to fight and rule with his father but will be able to live a different and less disconnected life.
Mr. Gray’s movie is science fiction at its best: a window not into technology and life in the future, but a reflection on what is enduring in human life. His footage of space shows the stark beauty and indeed the romance of the cosmic deeps (the footage of the moon and Mars actually incorporates film taken “on location” from spacecraft) but also the difficulty of keeping one’s mind clear and sane in isolation from other persons. The coziness of the universe does not appear to us without others with whom to share it. The harrowing sequence with the moon pirates is a potent reminder of what space colonies with scarce resources would bring with them in a universe still populated by broken humans.
And it is the brokenness of humans, particularly of men whose fathers are absent, that is the true story here. The friend who recommended it to me observed that such a story could only have been written by a Gen-X writer because it is an honest take on the reality of life in a world where parents have gone off to pursue their bliss and left children who struggle to integrate their hearts and minds. Those of the walking wounded who are labeled successful often are those like Roy, best able to compartmentalize their lives and get on with the professional success without a personal life to anchor it. Given Yeats’s famous dichotomy, “perfection of the life, or of the work,” is it any wonder children abandoned in favor of other lovers or the pursuit of money, fame, or obsession will choose to put their effort into the latter even though the former is so much more important?
My friend was right on the facts that Mr. Gray is an X-er (born 1969), and likely Mr. Gross too, though I cannot find his birthdate. But though their film may tap into my generation’s experience in particular, its provenance in Homer’s epic indicates that the tensions between the aspirations of adults, especially men, to experience and accomplish out there in public, on the one hand, and to build, protect, and nurture their own little platoons, on the other, are universal. Doing, making, and exploring are all needed for a society to flourish. But for the wives and families of those men to flourish, they must practice some form of husbandry. In its etymological sense a husband is one who is bound to the house—he protects it and raises up the lives and talents of those in it. To do so is a great sacrifice, but it is also necessary for the doer-maker-explorer to understand what his accomplishments mean and are designed for: something larger than his own ego.
I have no evidence that the writers are themselves religious men, but I found the periodic nods to the maker of the universe intriguing. Christian prayers are still said and the bodies of the dead in space are still commended to God. In a long-ago video message from Clifford saved by Roy, there was a sense of the beauty of God’s presence observable on the face of the heavens. The much older Clifford, if the dialogue in their reunion near Neptune is any indication, has lost the sense of God’s presence and can only think of the necessity of finding other intelligent life out there, evidence for which the Lima Project seems to have found none. There seems to be a connection between Clifford’s loss of religion, a term from the Latin meaning to bind (ligare) to the gods, and his loss of husbandry, seen in his inability to truly reunite with his son. He can neither love God, whom he cannot see, nor his son who stands in front of him. Instead, he pursues a non-existent extraterrestrial idol.
Roy, on the other hand, is not dismayed by the knowledge that “we are alone” because, unlike his father, he sees that we are not alone. His return to earth yields a different attitude toward those who help him out of his ship—Pitt’s face, so emotionless for much of the movie, apart from pain, comes to life in a smile. Roy (meaning “king”) reconnects with his wife, Eve (“mother of all the living”), for what we hope to be a new and different kind of adventure.
Though Roy’s heart rate may go over 80, the enlargement of the heart involved in husbandry is well worth it.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened slightly for clarity.