We Have A Problem

Ad Astra (2019)

Brad Pitt as Roy McBride gazes down towards something below the frame. His expression is concerned, though his face is obscured by reflections.
20th Century Fox

  “We cannot predict the new forces, powers, and discoveries that will be disclosed to us when we reach the other planets and set up new laboratories in space. They are as much beyond our vision today as fire or electricity would be beyond the imagination of a fish.”

– Arthur C. Clarke, “Space and the Spirit of Man”


“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”

– [attributed to] Mark Twain

 

Some families find themselves in kitchens, caked in flour and broiled in communion. Others collect themselves among the garden, laughing past daisies and green grass and gently falling flowers. But my family has always found itself among the stars. 

We are not a family of astrologists, but there’s a certain way to track our stories across a night sky: The telescope—any telescope—that my dad would huddle us around; the hushed awe of four to seven of us going quiet all at once. Vacations to cities where we returned, multiple days in a row, to whatever the local space museum was, eager for another shot to build a new home planet or imagine ourselves in the suit. Beach trips where we lit a bonfire mostly to linger on the beach as it burned out while we laid back and took in the full Milky Way. We loved space, and were always eager for another glimpse of it. 

That presented in many ways, for many reasons. Both sides of my family had a flair for sci-fi, in particular the probing questions it asked. Where other folks might’ve stopped at a Will Smith vehicle, we were pushed onwards to the original Lost in Space (deeply silly) and Dot in Space (utterly bizarre). My dad has a rule that you have to read the book to see the movie, so I read 2001 in fourth grade.1 He may have been the primary root: always pushing his girls to dream bigger, to be unstoppable, to commit to science and math—an out and out space geek as long as I’ve ever known him. He instilled in us a deep reverence for space—but then again, maybe we were always eager to soak it up, like a sponge. 

By the time I was in second grade I knew I wanted to be an astronaut. I would be on the first ship that went to Mars, which scientists then-planned for the year 2020.

Cue me, my plans, 2020, etc.

That would be how I found myself watching the first ever private space launch, the first launch from American soil in almost a decade—a B.F.D., as they say. That would be how I found myself standing in my kitchen, feeling more hollow than ever.

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Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, wearing a space suit without a helmet, stands against a drab gray wall with a stairwell in the background. He looks pensive as he considers something beyond the camera.

Ad Astra is a film that is deeply attuned to a heritage among the stars. It is, in many ways, the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect of space movies, which take expedition as a given. The expanse of space demands action and intrigue to fill up the vacuum; operatic emotions, severe stakes, explosions (with sound, usually). But Ad Astra is different, quieter. From the jump, melancholy hangs over every frame, placing perfect bags under Brad Pitt’s weary eyes. 

It’s his Roy McBride that is left to fill the vacuum somehow, while staying in desperate check of his emotions. When we first meet him he’s performing a test to confirm his baseline emotional state, and we almost immediately see the sort of deadening of a workaholic who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. He says, “he will not allow his mind to linger on that which is unimportant,” looking at his wife leaving him in memory; she never comes into focus as she walks out the door. Neither does he, fully—as he conducts the test he’s shot against the inky window of the room he’s in, a blurry, hollow reflection of a man who feels just the same. 

As the ships churn through space and carry humanity across the cosmos, Ad Astra stands on the shoulders of all the movies that got us here over the years—the mythic scope of 2001, or the vibrant colorings amid muted desolation in Solaris. On a filmmaking level, director James Gray nods to those legacies, as interested in playing with them as he is acknowledging what they did for audiences over the years. 

“A lot of [science fiction films], not all of them, are obsessed with the existence of alien life, or are talking about dystopian or utopian futures. So you think, ‘What can I do that’s different?’” Gray told Little White Lies when it premiered. “I tried very consciously to do something that was a myth of man science fiction film, which I didn’t think we’d seen a lot of. So let’s do something that’s from Telemachus’ point of view.” 

And so the scene is set: Ad Astra pays homage to the legendary science fiction luminaries as well as the legends and folklore that have always propelled men to venture forth and explore. 

We meet Roy during a test to prepare him for his next mission, just before he’ll be called up to help get in contact with his father, working in orbit around Neptune. The film is ostensibly about his isolation from others, but even from the beginning Roy is often in a constellation of people—his father, pulling him across the universe; the crews he rides with, joshing around; those that risk their positions to help keep him informed. His opening baseline test ends with him straightening and looking forward, overlaid by a line of astronaut helmets. He is one of many, the latest model. 

The first time we get a sense of him, perhaps the more honest reaction of Roy McBride, is when the powers that be inform him that his father, who devoted his life to searching the galaxy for intelligent life from outposts further and further away from Earth, is actually alive. Throughout the scene up to this point, every answer by Roy is preceded with a glance to a monitor—a cadet taking his temperature to track his emotional response, a man taking note of his every twitch. When he receives the news, the camera lingers on him, isolating him in the frame as a range of emotions restrainedly parade across Pitt’s face. If his father is alive, then his answer about how he coped with his absence (all about his mother, presuming it was hard on his father as well) is open to change. Roy has to re-examine what it is that has driven him and his father all this time. 

Whereas Gravity interrogated the “why do we survive” question, Ad Astra is deeply invested in a much more muted one: Why do we leave? Even as Roy ponders that very question—“why go on?”—it feels more in relation to his connection to other people than to the question of his survival. What propels humanity to look to the stars for an adventure, to conquer a new domain? Would it be worth it if we found nothing at all? If you knew that you would miss out on a lifetime, your lifetime with people, why would you choose that?

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A bright and abstract series of concentric lens flares

Humanity has been looking at the stars and wanting to go there as long as there have been humans; movies have been doing the same, about as long as there’s been movies. 

Back in the day, the space race—and, thus, most Americans’ understanding of what going to space most tangibly represents—was largely populated by the public good utopianism of the 1960s. To go to the stars was the public’s responsibility and its glory. 

It is arguably not a coincidence that the space race coincided with turmoil within the States. “Exploration of space countered hostilities on Earth,” Bradley Shreve states in a journal article on the space race between 1957 and 1963. “At times serving as a safety net or pressure valve when heightened tensions were leading the superpowers precariously close to destruction.” It was an action that was driven by the people, idealized about what their mission could represent. Buzz Aldrin, who took what is thought to be humanity’s first Moonside communion, later said that while he didn’t regret it, he wouldn’t do it again: “We had come to the Moon in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics or atheists.” This, in so many ways, was the ethos of the space race, that it was for the interest of humanity, a wondrous future we could scarcely imagine. 

So it’s no surprise that the bedrock of the space law we have was developed during these times, and reflects a certain amount of idealism. The rockets had obvious military uses, and so—during a time of a cold war, and criticism around war and colonialism—treaties were drafted that would enshrine a philosophy of space-going as impartial, ensuring “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.” Those are the opening lines of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, going further to say: “the exploration and use of outer space should be carried on for the benefit of all peoples irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development.”

Still, the public good is expensive. Returning to the moon would cost NASA—aka taxpayers—anywhere between $20-40 billion. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that since the early ‘90s NASA’s spending has been slashed to about a quarter of what it was in its 1960s heyday. During that period, NASA found its missions deprioritized, and began shutting down programs. 

But the dream of reaching space didn’t wither like NASA’s funding did. In that same time, private companies bloomed in its place, largely working with NASA to develop their missions and apply their resources: SpaceX and Orbital ATK deliver cargo to the International Space Station in the Commercial Resupply Services sector; SpaceX and Boeing are working on new spacecrafts over in the Commercial Crew Program. This saves taxpayers money—about $3.5 billion per launch, by some metrics. NASA can also funnel their funding and their focus into more fresh areas, researching unknowns instead of burning up their budget on routine application of their old research. 

The shift in interests cannot be ignored, however: NASA is unique in having the luxury of exploring space for exploration’s sake. Missions like the ISS were made possible because who else would foot $100 billion bill in which there’s (as of now) very little chance in making that capital back? The big names in privatized space travel are rich white men, so wealthy that a trip out of the atmosphere is not the lifetime-accumulation that it would be for most of us. Suddenly the stars seem closer than ever for a few. So in a time with talk of “Space Force,” and proposed ISS privatization, and climate surveillance, and tourism potential, and asteroid mining—what do we, as humans, lose when outer space becomes the consumer space?

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Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, wearing military fatigues and viewed from behind, walks through a futuristic spaceport

That Ad Astra puts a mall on the moon is not a newly inventive idea. For eons, science fiction has been dropping our current structures into space as a way for us to envision a “new normal.” By science fiction standards—and, admittedly, as is usually dictated by the U.S. economy—when a public sector offering cedes ground it gives life to new private entities. And so we get the sponcon of the future: General Mills-built space station kitchens, McDonald cartons raining down in a high-speed hovercar chase, Zima-sponsored alien boxing.

But if you were to flip through the history, it’s not like sci-fi has a whole lot of positive stuff to say about these private entities being responsible for space travel. Avatar jumps off the ‘90s environmentalism trends to tell us about how the drive for comfort drove us to outer space, and made the Resources Development Administration more powerful than a government entity. The Alien movies are built around a corporation willing to sacrifice crew after crew in order to (not quite) secure the survival of a promising new creature. Even 2001, amid all its themes of evolution and gods, hinges on an artificial intelligence struggling with being more moral than its programmers. 

All in all, the use of powerful entities is a serene-yet-sinister way of maintaining the status quo to a certain degree; sci-fi creators choose certain elements of our society to keep in order to maintain palatable continuity. But those choices aren’t made in a vacuum, they carry political weight. 

So it’s telling that so much of sci-fi uses corporate and national interests relatively interchangeably. The callousness of either HAL or Ash’s programmed mission means it doesn’t matter if the power behind them is a private or public entity; it is enough that the entity is big, amorphous, nominally made up of thousands of people, but largely faceless in its representation. These governing forces feel banal and inflexible, expansive in reach, and evil. Their heinousness lies in its impartiality.

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Before Roy makes it off the moon, he and his team are attacked by a band of “moon pirates.” We never learn what it is these pirates represent within the world of Ad Astra—the moon buggies they attack clearly have no real goods to offer, and it seems rather hard to hold people for ransom on the Moon, where you can make giant leaps in a single bound. All we know is what Roy is told: they’re a danger that comes with the disputed territory on the lunar terrain. On first viewing, it is easy to feel like they’re just a plot device to inject some action into otherwise tamped down proceedings.

Immediately before they’re attacked, however, the team’s attention is drawn to the Earth above them. “The big blue marble,” the colonel he’s traveling with marvels. “Never ceases to amaze me.” 

The view is the same as the one captured by Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman on December 24, 1968. The image was a startling one at the time: the color photo, taken on 70mm film, had been preceded by a crude, black-and-white raster image taken by the Lunar Orbiter 1 robotic probe in 1961. The 1968 photo was our species’ first full-color view of our planet taken in full. Since dubbed “Earthrise,” the photo served to put lives into perspective: There we were, not even specks in the frame, all captured together for a portrait that we couldn’t imagine before. Joni Mitchell would describe the image in her lyrics, and the photo is widely credited with kicking off the environmentalism movement. 

A planetary body seen from orbit

And yet, not shown: the absolute tumult raging below, bringing losses and gains in equal measure. Reports commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one Black, one white—separate and unequal.” Nixon was a few months from taking office, as was Shirley Chisholm. A swelling tide against an intractable war; thousands marching for civil liberties and rights; a year that saw both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinated. A Christmas Eve capping off a year of deep civil unrest and awakening. 

The Apollo mission stood to represent what mankind could accomplish if they aimed to do more than oppress and kill. One U.S. citizen apparently wrote a letter to Borman, with just the simple message: “You saved 1968.” 

It is not hard to draw a comparison between that snapshot and our current moment—in fact, it’s hard not to. With their latest launch NASA is, once again, representing itself as a beacon of hope in difficult times. Though representatives didn’t go as far as saying that their 2020 launch could fix the world—and in fact, openly acknowledged that sort of bar “might have been a little high”— they hope to drive home just how much their actions should be perceived as something that does bring people together. The problem is, too often these launches feel like they’re happening in a total vacuum. Then, as now, rockets leave an Earth in a bleak state, turning back to look only through rose-colored glasses.

But in Ad Astra you can’t escape rebellion. As mankind has spread throughout the universe, it hasn’t tamped out revolt, insurrection, disobedience—whatever these moon pirates represent. It’s illustrative that as they approach, Roy’s dismay isn’t so much with the pirates themselves but the enforced scarcity they stand in for: “Here we go again…fighting over resources.” They are as much a byproduct of humanity as the Subway sign greeting him as he steps off the lunar shuttle. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re fellow Americans.

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Space has, in the American imagination, always reflected a sort of presumptive right. Those who pursued it spent millions of dollars, work hours, relationships (as something like First Man shows). Webster Presbyterian, the “church of astronauts” down the road from Johnson Space Center, believes that God is found in the wonder of the universe; astronauts who have spoken there call it “part of God’s eternal plan for humans.” 

So perhaps it’s not surprising that all seven billion of us couldn’t agree on exactly what to make of the opportunity space presents. Even all those proto-utopian ideals laid out in space law aren’t quite as secure as they once felt. That original Treaty has been called into question, with academics noting at the time of its 30th anniversary celebration that “almost every use of outer space has a potential military and/or conflict application,” with the military benefiting greatly from supposed “peaceful uses of outer space” outlined in the Treaty. Just as Roy’s real mission starts to get a little fuzzy as he gets further from his home planet’s gravity, so too does the line between military might and military plunder, for the good or for the benefit of the public, start to get a little blurry. 

Many of the key assumptions of last century’s space diplomacy—nation-state sovereignty, the global ban on weapons of mass destruction, the freedom of space exploration, and the prevention of harmful contamination of celestial bodies—feel more destabilized now than they were before. It’s not a leap to see the Manifest Destiny thought at work in outer space—American science fiction has always capitalized on the idea of the quest, focusing on space as a frontier masked in mystery. The same party line about bleakly fearing some exploitation of resources that are in abundance in the unknown also drove the westward expansion, so many years ago. Now it’s a race against China, with water and valuable heavy metals on the table. 

As these ways of thinking loop endlessly through the cosmos, it’s no surprise that in the U.S. so much of the space program has been, historically, white and male. In 2018, Jeanette Epps would’ve been the 15th African American to fly to space, the fourth African American woman, and the first to be an ISS crew member. Then NASA abruptly announced she would be replaced, with little more to say about her removal than that they were “personnel matters for which NASA doesn’t provide information.” Last-minute crew changes are not unheard of—like Roy McBride’s handlers in Ad Astra it comes down to some perceived qualities around “flight-readiness,” which can entail some perfect cocktail of physical, emotional, and mental preparation. 

To this degree, the final frontier is just yet another backdrop on which to focus our deeply problematic energy. As we work to try to privatize and accessorize it, we’re only splattering our nation’s brand across the galaxy. The idea that space travel is made up by individual people who believe in the mission, believe in the idea that it’s for all mankind, still holds water. But the overall effect is still largely—glaringly—white, privileged, militarized. Wherever you go, there you are.

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Brad Pitt as RoyMcBride pilots a spacecraft. Multiple orange lens flares pierce the image.

Almost immediately it becomes clear to us, if not to Roy: The powers that be are not here for him and his emotional journey. Roy knows this, on some level, but it’s not always clear to him just how deeply he has buried it. The brass is here, has brought him here, to get a job done—to continue getting a job done, and continue expanding the reach of the United States of Earth and all the resources that all those people require. He is secondary, subsequent to the system.

When I say that he knows this, it’s because almost every part of his own internal metric reflects it. Even his voiceover, designed to bring clarity to a fairly opaque character, reflects its own kind of wall, not digging too deep at all. This could, potentially, be a waste of a device. But in Ad Astra it speaks more to the themes that Gray returns to throughout his work: a slipstream of anxiety that helps illuminate the cost of stoic masculinity, ambition and self-doubt forever eating their own tails. It is the barometer by which the movie measures Roy’s passion for his work, always investigating what he sees as the bottom of his truth, and tilting towards a truer one underneath. 

There is another quote from the Ad Astra press junket that I think is important. In further elaborating on whether this was his attempt to “make his own 2001,” Gray says that he was interested in subverting both Kubrick’s take on the cosmos—“the myth of gods”—and Spielberg’s, which play more like fables. His goal was to, sort of, peer into the void and hear absolutely nothing at all.

“[Aliens are] probably so far away we’ll never reach them, so then by all intents and purposes, we are alone in the universe. What does that mean for the species?” Gray told Deadline. “What I was trying to do was to say, OK, well, what if there’s nothing? What if you can’t rely on the potential beauty of a furry little man to help you out in a moment of need, or some horrible goblin that will destroy you? What if, really, the only thing that matters is human beings?”

For so long, I have turned to the Arthur C. Clarke quote that leads off this essay in my explanation for why I find space travel so enchanting. In it, he talks about how the “perfect environment for life” is actually the sea, the place where life originally evolved from. There is, as he tells it, very little reason that mankind—or, at least, mankind’s ancestors and precursors—should’ve left the sea, “an all-pervading fluid medium [which] carries oxygen and food to every organism.” But, he continues, we had to. How else could we have developed sharper eyesight, higher brain function, the use of metals, not to mention any branch of science and technology. “No fish can see the stars, but we will never be content until we have reached them.”

Perhaps in Clarke’s mind there was a greater call to arms, that someday the military would give way to a new frame of being. But I am still left to wonder: to what? To DHL shipping to the moon? To ride TWA red-eyes and escalators across an interstellar vacation? 

I don’t mean to doubt the heart of Clarke’s essay—that space travel is a worthy venture unto itself; it is the philosophy I have espoused as long as I can remember. But his final cry to our better sensibilities to remember that, “If our wisdom fails to match our science, we will have no second chance,” seems too little too late. He couldn’t know then how much of our lives would feel motivated sheerly out of profit, paid in full to some humongous entity we can’t even wrap our minds around. These are not the people we can trust our lives, our space to. 

This is essentially what Roy McBride finds at the end of his journey. After traveling light years, taking months of his life, costing the lives of several astronauts along the way, he reaches his dad and finds nothing. When he finally comes face-to-face with his father Clifford all the way in the rocky rings of Neptune, theirs is almost an anticlimactic face-off. Like the rest of the film, the action is internalized. Reconciliation is quickly cast off the table in favor of casual ambivalence from Clifford. 

Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride sits in the dark aboard an abandoned space station, his expression haggard and mournful

Roy and Clifford do not fall on a neat divide of opting to exploit vs. preserve the serenity of outer space. Roy mentions that his father would’ve torn down all of the Moon’s shopping centers if he could’ve seen it. And as far as we understand it, Roy largely agrees: “All the hopes we ever had for space travel,” he bemoans. “Covered up by drink stands and T-shirt vendors…We are world-eaters.” 

No—their division is something more profound. When downloading his father’s research, Roy acknowledges that Clifford “could only see what wasn’t there” in the strange and desolate worlds he captured images of. After decades of research, dedication, lives, and shreds of sanity, Clifford had heard nothing back from the void at all. And so he failed to recognize what was right in front of him. “They were beautiful, magnificent, full of awe and wonder,” Roy’s voiceover tells us of Clifford’s photography, briefly allowing emotionality to bleed in and flush his descriptors. 

But we see Roy take in the majesty of the cosmos more than once. Before being attacked on the moonbuggy, he takes an almost childlike moment of reaching up to brush his fingers against the floating debris as they whip through it. The thing that makes Ad Astra such a curveball of a space film is the same thing that makes Roy such a rich character: all along the way he can’t help but take in the splendor of space. He vows to not miss what’s right in front of him, to not eschew the human connections that propelled him back and forth across the Milky Way. Roy is left to rebuff his dad’s legacy, turn towards love and support and solving problems that he can reach out and touch without being encased in a $12 million suit

This is not a lack of resolution, even if it feels almost dissatisfying on first pass. This is a recognition that whatever he hoped to find at the other end of the world couldn’t be there, as we can tell from Roy letting repressed longing leach out of him like water from a sponge. It is an anguished catharsis, the kind wrenched from a person who refuses to acknowledge that was something you even needed from them. Roy is ready to go home; Clifford can’t imagine a home on Earth. So, they let go.

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Since the current uprisings against police brutality and white supremacy began, we’ve seen a lot of dumbass corporate outpouring, trying to get a handle on the moment without risking their market share in the process. No one is quite sure what will be the new world order. So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that NASA can’t quite move past the idea of this being a “moment of unity for the nation” amidst all our “challenges” of the moment. That’s not new; that myopia is as old as time. 

I cannot in good conscience say NASA is bad, or that the private space companies are beyond hope.2 Certainly what I can say is that amidst all the hoopla and missteps, the men and women who have been to outer space seem determined to remind us that there’s a fight to be had here on Earth just as much as there is one to go to the stars. For all the gross Twitter jokes about “leaving Earth just in time”—as if an acknowledgement of injustice is worse than continuing to live under it—many of the individuals who make up the spaceflight world have reached the same conclusion as Roy, that love is the thing of it all. 

Brad Pitt as RoyMcBride gazes skyward through his space helmet with tears in his eyes

And so on some level I have to let go of space, or at least my expectation of being there. As I sit in this chair, I can feel my whole body tingle at just the thought of zero-G, tumbling as I peer out the window at that big blue marble. For me outer space did feel presumptive, like somehow, in some future, I would be there, and all I had to do was wait for someone to make it happen. I yearn in the same way Roy does, eager to thoughtfully peer out every goddamn window in the rocketship. But Roy is right when he makes the case that the opportunity to live a full life on Earth outweighs that of a half-life among the stars. 

For space travel to matter, it has to feel rooted in our communities in a way that right now they just do not. Maybe Arthur C. Clarke was right too, there is a lot beyond our imaginations. These days, I’m just a little more excited about us putting that to use on a local level. After all, how could I have grown up on a lifetime of science fiction only to internalize its most valiant goals and not its realistic reflections? Science fiction is often at its best when it feels like a warning, an alarm to call us to action about a societal woe we’ve been ignoring in the moment. Over and over, we see the genre illuminating inequality—holding up a mirror to our own society is the hallmark of the genre. Perhaps it’s time we stopped taking this restitution of our inequity as a given, stopped chasing their futuristic tech, when what we really need is some actual recognition of the very human dangers that still follow us across the universe. When Elon Musk is able to launch a rocket to go to the ISS in the middle of two pandemics, perhaps we need to examine that a little more closely than just “yay space.” When resources are manufactured to feel scarce enough that it’s still a problem on the moon, we have a problem. 

This is where we leave Roy: warmed by our sun, grounded by our gravity, so happy to be among humans reaching out to support him that he’s on the verge of tears. As he repeats his baseline test, he has a half grin; he knows it doesn’t matter what the results say. We understand the irony that twists around the words of the test, restoring a light to his eyes like we haven’t seen. Those eyes will no longer gaze out on passing planets or millions of stars, but seeing to the end of the horizon, or just to the end of the bar, means more than any of those views ever did. 

  1. I know what you’re thinking: Didn’t that book come out later, or at least concurrently with the movie? In case you’re wondering if that makes a difference in my dad’s philosophy I’ll just say that my now-12-year-old youngest sister finished 2001 the book before she saw the 2001 for the 50th anniversary IMAX rerelease.
  2. Though *Meryl Streep voice* I have such doubts.