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AD ASTRA: a meditative journey up river to hope and conflict

Many critics have boiled down Ad Astra, James Gray’s ambitious space opera, to the phrase “Apocalypse Now… in space!”, and while this is hard to refute, Ad Astra feels as much Gray’s commentary on the difficult no man’s land between Gen X and Gen Y and the Baby Boomer generations.

Our protagonist, Brad Pitt’s quiet and contemplative astronaut Roy McBride, could have been played by a man in his 30’s. In some ways, he was; Pitt might be in his mid-50’s but his Peter Pan looks, while not ageless, are certainly allowing Pitt to play characters who ostensibly could be younger. This feels important to Ad Astra in how deep rooted the film is in how Roy exists in the shadow of his father, Tommy Lee Jones’ absent H. Clifford McBride, a NASA legend on the lines of Neil Armstrong who vanished on the Lima Project three decades ago – an ambitious attempt to reach the edge of the solar system and contact alien intelligence. Clifford has not just been mythologised by humanity but also by Roy, who is haunted by the terrifying question of whether, having followed in his father’s career footsteps, he will end up becoming a man who Roy steadily comes to realise was not the heroic bastion of humanity’s progress everyone believes.

“I do what I do because of my Dad” Roy states as he is placed on a literal quest to find not just his father but his father’s legacy. In this, you can see the Apocalypse Now parallels, moreover you can see Gray’s admitted inspiration—Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—in the journey Roy, much like Francis Ford Coppola’s Captain Willard, takes ‘up river’ on the search of a legend. Much like Willard, Roy externalises his thoughts via inner monologue, allowing his anxieties and concerns and existential turmoil to spill out as he travels his river, in this case the solar system. As in Apocalypse Now, or indeed Heart of Darkness, Ad Astra is less about the hardships of the difficult journey using near future spacecraft but Roy’s internal voyage of reflection, discovery and almost nihilistic destiny. Clifford becomes his darker id. Roy’s quest is one to destroy his own demon.

This is where Ad Astra crosses over from being simply a mythological quest into something else entirely. It becomes a generational battle.

There is a religious aspect to Ad Astra. It refuses to believe in life other than humanity but it leaves open the door to God. It wants to believe, in some sense. The X-Files’ Fox Mulder would be disappointed in the truth found here, but he might still be proud.

Roy at one point extemporises on the “sins of the father”, which stems all the way back to Christianity’s founding text, the Bible, in multiple books and verses. Deuteronomy 24:16 declares: “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin”, though Exodus 20:5 is much harsher in God’s punishment of siblings: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents”. A running theme in these testaments are how children must bear the weight of their parents’ misdemeanours, yet Ad Astra ostensibly presents Clifford as a saintly human hero, a man who died in pursuit of his own Revelation. It is as if Roy has always, within, known differently – that his own remoteness, his own distance, is a direct result of Clifford’s devotion to a higher cause than his own humanity, or family. “Why can’t I feel?” Roy asks, numbed at the sudden death of colleagues in an accident. He is equally frozen at the absence of Eve (Liv Tyler), a wife who watched him grow more obsessed with, even unknowingly, becoming his father.

Ad Astra suggests we can break free of this Biblical conditioning. We can have faith but we can also have choice, and we can take responsibility for our own actions. Gray’s screenplay (written with Ethan Gross) ultimately points Roy *back* at Earth, for a film all about traversing the first frontier, where no one has gone before. It has less in common with the outward exploration of Star Trek and more the haunted, possessed introspection of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. Roy’s voyage is, in the classic Campellian mythological sense, within rather than without.

The journey humanity is taking is far less optimistic than a Gene Roddenberry future. Mars is halfway to a dank, underground, futurepunk dystopia. The Moon has already been corporatised, hollowed out by commercialism in the manner of any number of Western cityscapes, while pirates battle for resources on the arid plains, as they would have in the age of ocean voyages on Earth. “Here we go again. Fighting over resources” Roy opines. A cycle repeating itself. Humanity never learning. Generations repeating the same mistakes. There is hope and conflict, as Gray’s opening legend at the very beginning of the film declares. They balance together on a knife edge in a careful dance throughout the picture as Roy literally moves further and further away from humanity while, internally and emotionally, he grows closer.

Firstly, he needs to banish the pain of Clifford, the haunting spectre that has cast a shadow over his entire life, and in literally confronting that demon, Gray is able to aptly pay off the deep metaphorical mythology within the drama. Clifford is less a character of his own and more a representation of a generation who have let their children down. If Roy represents a sundered Gen X, frustrated at the cycle of life forcing them into patterns that repeat their parents failings, then Clifford is a recalcitrant Boomer – privileged, hopeful, resolute in his belief the world would change for him, and embittered when what he thought would happen didn’t.

In a political and social climate where the generation gaps are growing, where collectively the young feel a great amount of frustration at the bullishness of the old in a fast changing world, Roy’s confrontation of his father’s sins and an offering of love feels ever more tragic. Clifford bitterly rejects the son he left behind to pursue his destiny but Roy embraces him, tries to pull him back toward the humanity he sundered, but ultimately in such a Campbellian tale, this is impossible. “Let me go!” Clifford tells Roy at the end, in a situation where the metaphor is literalised, and we are encouraged to do the same. Let go of the past. Stop obsessing over the journey. Embrace what we have. Reconnect with each other. Rediscover our humanity. Because, ultimately, we are all each of us have.

In other hands, Ad Astra’s message could well be sobering, but Gray’s meditative, ethereal sweep reflects the majesty of space. Cinema is full of pictures which see humanity stretching out into the farthest reaches of the universe but few films manage to capture the near yet so far awe of our own solar system. The Moon becomes a sweeping plain. Mars a stormy, arid mountain to conquer. Neptune a haunted orb filled with wonders unseen directly by human eyes. The vastness of space encompasses Roy as he ventures deeper up the river, closer to the demon he must conquer, but while in Apocalypse Now you feel Willard will never quite escape Vietnam and “the horror… the horror…”, Ad Astra leaves you with that all important hope that Roy will be okay. That maybe we all will be okay, in the end.

First we may have our own collective river to conquer. I suspect we already are halfway up it

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