Ad Astra is a lonely movie. Set predominantly in space—on the Moon, Mars, and ships—it’s an isolating foray into the mind of a man so adept at controlling his emotions he doesn’t mind weeks of solitary confinement in the cosmos. What’s even more bleak is that this astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), is searching for his father (played by Tommy Lee Jones), a man he thought was dead but who might just have gone rogue during a NASA mission near Neptune. It is, in a word, dispiriting—and a far cry from the enthusiasm of movies like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff.
This has always been the polarity in space-travel films. For every Martian there is a First Man, one movie looking at triumph, another examining struggle. But in recent years, the psychological turmoil of space exploration—the existential void, the interpersonal drama—has been at the forefront. Interstellar might’ve been about finding a new home for humanity, but it was also about the fear that such a place may not exist. Gravity focused on one astronaut’s attempt to get back to Earth and the anxiety of literally being lost in space. First Man was as much a celebration of Neil Armstrong’s life at NASA as it was a meditation on his mental state during the stressful years of the Apollo missions. The forthcoming Lucy in the Sky also deals with an astronaut trying to return to a small life on Earth after seeing the cosmos.
If anything, it looks as though the age of the space-set psychodrama is fully here. That doesn’t mean patriotic, heroic astronaut films are a thing of the past, but in a time wrought with anxiety, perhaps the 2001s ring truer than the Space Cowboys.
Ad Astra is about a man—Roy—who must confront not only his own daddy issues (of which there are many) but also his own lack of emotional connectedness. His ex-wife, played by Liv Tyler in a callback to her Armageddon days, always told him he had a self-destructive streak, and, despite a shockingly low resting heart rate, he struggles with his rage. He is, then, the prototypical strong, silent type, a rock that could crumble at any time. When he’s asked to take on a secret mission to find the father he thought was dead, he’s equipped for the journey, but perhaps not for the implications of a reunion that comes 30 years too late.
The psychological impacts of going into the unknown have been well–documented, and director James Gray even sites an article he read about NASA’s search for astronauts who can handle those pressures as an inspiration for his script. Pitt, for his part, has said the movie is meant to challenge problematic notions of masculinity, and the film itself points to the trauma that those ideas inflict on men and the people they come in contact with. (How would you feel if you thought your father was deceased but had, in fact, just abandoned you to search for aliens?) But what’s surprising is that, while Gray sees his movie as an examination of what’s wrong with the world, he also sees it as hopeful, in its own twisted way.
“What we’re trying to say is, ‘There’s nothing out there, nothing is going to save us,’ and if this is all we’ve got, what does that mean?” Gray says. “If those answers are not out there for us, then human connection is everything.”
This may feel like a weird logical jump, but it’s not. Since its inception, space travel has been focused on scientific discovery and exploration, but the ulterior motive is often a search for life in the universe. This has always been, pardon the phrase, a mindfuck. If we Earth-dwellers ever find alien life, it would be a universe-altering achievement. But, as Gray’s film points out, going on that search pulls people away from actual intimate relationships. Counterintuitively, the search for connection, for contact, is isolating. And perhaps those who are best suited to go it alone in space aren’t the best ambassadors to meet the creatures they might find there.