Ad Astra: When There’s Life on Mars

Ad Astra: When There’s Life on Mars


There was a time when our relationship with our world felt more harmonious. A time when we felt more in control over our future; when our environmental troubles weren’t spoken of so fatalistically; when wondering whether there was life beyond the Earth felt like innocent speculation. Our parents flourished in those days.

In 1971, David Bowie asked his famous question about Mars. It was preceded by a rather simplistic observation, though not without cunning, about the restless nature of humans: I wonder if he’ll ever know, he’s in the bestselling show.1 Bowie’s persona in the song, bored at the cinema, raises the question why, even under the best of circumstances, we find reason for disharmony.

I wonder whether our restlessness may actually come from a different place today. Fear can often engender thoughts of escapism. When fate runs out of our hands, we conjure up different realities, where our dreams and abilities coalesce into a space truly our own. We build fictitious storylines in fictional worlds and find external manifestation for all the sentiments repressed inside the boundaries placed upon us by our parents’ generation—our guardians of the mainstream. Too often however, we fail to blame those who have forced us into submission, who made it so that all we can do is dream; naively, we quiet ourselves and become accomplices in our own repression.

James Gray’s latest film, Ad Astra (2019), ponders the consequences of our restless nature in a not so distant future. At the end of the twenty-first century, humanity has affected the Earth so severely that civilization has been forced into outer space; enthralled by frivolous quests for evidence of extraterrestrial life, we were led to dream about better situations, as we forgot to question our own.

While sci-fi adventures are inherently escapist endeavors, time and again we see auteurs make use of space to ponder the most basic aspects of human nature. Most famously Kubrick and his 2001 (1968), a movie whose questioning of humanity runs so deeply, very few have understood it even mildly.

It’s with this legacy that Gray proposes to converse. Ad Astra tells the story of Roy McBride’s search for his father, a journey that takes him into the depths of our solar system and back. It plays for its viewers on many levels. Two are made manifest by default: the literal and the metaphoric. A third, the symbolic, is perhaps the most important, for it enlightens beyond the screen, and provokes thoughts that far outweigh the cinematic experience. In this realm we find Gray at his most sentimental: from Little Odessa (1994) to The Lost City of Z (2016), his personal life has always echoed deeply within his movies, and Ad Astra is no exception—a rocky father and son relationship speaks at heart of the film.

Roy, we come to learn, joined the corps and became an astronaut to follow in his father’s footsteps; the legendary Clifford McBride is as heroic as haunting a figure in his son’s life. Opening the movie, we hear Roy’s voice relaying how his stoicism makes him feel disconnected from the world; his temperament manifests as an attempt both to make his father proud and emulate his great achievements. In one of the most heartfelt moments of the film, he records an audio message for Clifford: he expresses his solitude and his desire to see him again; he seeks validation by talking of his own accomplishments, which he only achieved, as he says, by following Clifford’s maxim of work hard, play later.2

While my relationship with my father isn’t nearly as conflicted as Roy’s—or Gray’s with his father, for that matter—I have also struggled with mimetic impulses and atonal urges to replicate boundaries placed upon me. To a large extent, all sons have; a father’s shadow is expansive by nature. Even if unconsciously, parents disperse their own traumas upon their progeny, but with fewer years of experience, the child can do very little besides accept the trauma as teaching. In an essay about his father, Haruki Murakami talked of the trauma that gets passed on from parents to kids, and how it engenders questions in the mind of the child that invariably pervade their lives. In his case, it was his father’s retelling of a disquieting moment he experienced while serving in the Japanese army: the execution of a Chinese soldier.3 In Roy’s, it was the tempestuous need to realize one’s identity through work.

Fathers and sons have argued through millennia in literature, and through decades in film. Freud talks of patricide as one of the great guiding impulses of men. Greek tragedies, in all their timelessness, magnify this dynamic to the archetypal axiom: sons must work towards a break from their fathers, toward catharsis. For Sophocles, breaking is literal: Oedipus kills Laius. But if there is an Oedipus inside us, there’s also an Orestes, and Hamlet is a great exponent of that: His impulse is to act against the stepparent in order to honor and avenge his father. As we shift to modernity, representations of relationships become more psychologically nuanced. Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) echoes the idea of a man stuck in a cycle with the disapproving parent: seeking validation through emulation, while the father was only disappointed at the emulation itself. Noah Baumbach has continually explored how the depth of admiration can force a son to love his father even when there’s very little paternal affection extended through their bond: in The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), for example, Danny finds himself so entrenched in Harold’s largesse, that he fails to issue due condemnation of the father’s constant acts of filial repression.

Gray has, in fact, talked about the ever-present nature of mythology and archetypal values in his writing process, and how the use of myth creates an atemporal feel in his narratives and characters. Profiling Gray for the New Yorker, Nathan Heller emphasizes the director’s reliance on classicism: “the idea that what remains from the past can provide guidance for making art in the present.”4 In that sense, Roy too struggles in memorializing Clifford. On one hand, there’s the pioneer astronaut, a hero in his field; on the other, the absent parent. The need to honor the father, to find his approval at the end of the tunnel, is as strong a sentiment as the repudiation of the man who left his son and wife behind. But if that weren’t enough, Roy now must also reconcile the accusation that Clifford might be the cause of the electric waves being shot at the Earth. After years of space exploration, Clifford may have lost his mind, and seems now to threaten humanity.

As the mythological hero, this is Roy’s call to action; as a good soldier, he promptly accepts it. Thrust onto a quest to pay for the sins of the father, Roy travels away from the sun—to the moon, Mars and Neptune, where Clifford is stationed—symbolically like Aeneas, who travelled into the underworld to speak with Anchises. In different ways, both heroes find final lessons in their descents. Aeneas says goodbye to his father and is clothed in the prophecy of Rome; Roy accepts Clifford’s wish to drift to his death, and realizes the need to be his own man.

It strikes me that Roy was forced into a struggle he had no part in creating; the decisions that put his world under threat did not involve him. Filled with hubris, his father’s generation acted without care for their offspring’s continuum, but when the inevitable worst happened, it became the job of the current generation to fix the trauma of the past. We are haunted by comparable traumas today. The hubris that imbued Clifford’s generation also imbued our parents’, taking form as a reckless abuse of the environment, which we, like Roy, must now account for.

Speaking of its structure and narrative, critics from NPR to The Guardian have raised similarities between Ad Astra and Apocalypse Now; Gray doesn’t seem to shy away from the comparison: His opening shot, albeit brief, spins us around the darkness of space from inside Roy’s helmet; Coppola puts us flat on our backs, forcing us to observe the spinning of a ceiling fan, as his protagonist does. The comparison is apt, I would say, and falters only if we consider the underlying messages of the two stories. Apocalypse Now (1979) is a barren representation of a sunken humanity: Captain Willard is tasked with stopping Colonel Kurtz, who having descended into madness, leads independent incursions during the Vietnam War as a sort of demigod. Through decadence and death, the tragedy concludes with Willard’s killing of Kurtz, but we are deprived of his return home. Echoing Jim Morrison’s fateful words from the film’s soundtrack, we are left desperately in need, stranded in a desperate land, wondering about the honor and the horror of the act witnessed.5

 Ad Astra however, is anything but eternal affliction. After Roy rids himself of the father, he returns to the familiar land. Though he also faced, and caused, death on his march, his struggle is validated by the weight of his sacrifice, and what it meant for humanity.

He has undergone catharsis, and now espouses a message of liberation—Roy’s monologue closes out the movie: “I will rely on those closest to me. I will share their burdens as they share mine. I will live and love.”

As Coppola questioned human nature, Gray accepted it. For him, our nature is what it is, and trying to change it is a fruitless endeavor; the best we can do is act morally, in pursuit of life, when faced with the worst in ourselves. A sequence in the movie exemplifies this well: from the moon, Roy boards a rocket to Mars. Midway on his journey, the crew are forced into answering a distress call. Roy, along with the captain of the ship, goes out to investigate the source. As they board the other ship, the tone turns sinister; there’s no evidence of other people aboard. The two split up to investigate, and the captain is ambushed by monkeys, who were being used as lab rats. Roy struggles with the animals, but eventually fends them off and brings the deceased captain’s body back to their ship. This perhaps is a point of dialogue with 2001, where monkeys in their violence signaled the dawn of humanity.

Kubrick, like Coppola, interrogates human nature and our most basic instincts of violence. Gray, again, concedes the nature question, and asks only that his audience ponder the morality behind displacing animals from their homes. When we act against life’s natural mandate, when we prioritize egotistical needs over the welfare of the people, the animals, the planet, we disrespect the sanctity of life, and give away control over our existence. Outside of their natural environment, the monkeys rebelled, reverting back to their most basic state, and acted, like their handlers, in defiance of life.

Gray constructs his movie within the boundaries delineated by the great filmmakers that came before him. In the established frontier, Gray finds freedom, even if mired in irony: he questions our historic understanding of progress, through a lens crafted for him by previous generations’ categorical imperatives. The fundamental undertones of Ad Astra are inevitable, constructions that echo the violent states of nature of both Kubrick and Coppola. At the end, Gray contents himself with exploring this world, as it is, to its fullest. The thought reminds me of some verses of Fernando Pessoa:

The gods do not consent to more than life.
Let us refuse everything that might hoist us
To breathless everlasting
Pinnacles without flowers.6

There was a time when our relationship with our world assumed inherent ownership over animals. A time when we felt that careless burning of fossil fuels was the wave of the future; when our environmental troubles were masked under the guise of progress; when wondering whether there was life outside the Earth felt like innocent speculation. Our parents flourished in those days.

Per aspera ad astra means through hardships to the stars. Facing our problems, Gray asks us to look to the stars for guidance and inspiration, but not to escape. Clifford was sent to Neptune in order to find intelligent life beyond our galaxy, and after years of fruitless isolation, he lost his mind. When the other astronauts on the ship with him tried to return home, Clifford, blinded by his hubristic ego, murdered those who threatened his task. When Roy finally reaches his father, he finds a man made desolate by ambition who still refuses to fail. Yet, as the son says, he did not fail, he simply showed us that “we are all we’ve got.”

Today there are people willing to colonize Mars—perhaps for the thrill of it—others are willing to build a Space Force—perhaps for defense against the imminent threats of the universe—while blinding themselves from the realities of Earth. At the beginning of the movie, Gray asks us why we should need to go beyond this planet. And with the failure (or success) of Clifford’s mission, he ventures say that we shouldn’t. In many ways, this movie speaks to those who seek the unknown at the expense of their home, and to those of us who incentivize, or stay silent in the face of their futile undertakings.

I wonder however, if it was truly necessary for Gray to answer his own question. After all, the problem lies not in exploration itself, but exploration for its own sake; rooted not in a desire to propel humanity forward, but in escapism. Humans will always have thirst for knowledge; the lust for development and change is inevitable, therefore it may not be for us to contain these impulses, but simply to channel them into pursuits that advance our existence.

Art at its best should question, it should connect an audience, it should raise problematics, and deconstruct clichés, it should inspire. Gray said something similar himself: “A work of art ought instead to extend a viewer’s empathetic reach, to force a confrontation with the mind and the experience of someone else.”7 But art does not have to solve anything. To give the tools for the patient to beat his afflictions and achieve his catharsis was Freud’s understanding of the psychoanalytic method; he extended this understanding to art in his countless critical writings. While analyzing a soliloquy from Richard III, he lauds the fact that Shakespeare mires his message in subtlety, that he, through hints, inches ever closer to a total answer but never actually says it aloud.8

This is where we may hold Ad Astra at fault. Noble as its purpose may have been, spelling out an answer for the reader creates a deep-seated paradox with its message. If the point is to free, to allow us to experience life at its fullest liberty, then Gray’s answer perhaps should have been less rooted in the boundaries of the past; perhaps it shouldn’t have been so explicit.

Nonetheless, the message is the message, and powerful still as such.

The irony is self-referential at the end; a movie predicated on an exploration of space concludes with an all too humanist idea: that we, humans, are all we got, and to focus on the Other at the expense of your fellow man is a mistake. Chico Buarque said it best: “There’s more samba on the ground than on the moon.”[Fn]“Tem Mais Samba, track 2 on Chico Buarque, Chico Buarque de Hollanda, RGE Discos, 1966, free translation.[/fn]

  1. “Life on Mars,” Track 4 on David Bowie, Hunky Dory, RCA Records, 1971.
  2. Ad Astra, directed by James Gray, 20th Century Fox, 2019.
  3. Haruki Murakami, “Abandoning a Cat: Memories of My Father,” translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, The New Yorker, September 30, 2019.
  4. Nathan Heller, “James Gray’s Journey from the Outer Boroughs to Outer Space,” The New Yorker, September 9, 2019.
  5. “The End,” written and performed by The Doors, track 1 on Apocalypse Now: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Elektra Records, 1979.
  6. Fernando Pessoa, “The Gods Do Not Consent,” Selected Poems, Translated by Jonathan Griffin (Penguin Classics, 2000).
  7. James Gray quoted in Nathan Heller, “James Gray’s Journey from the Outer Boroughs to Outer Space.”
  8. Sigmund Freud, “Some Character-Types Met with in Psychoanalytic Work,” The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XIV, (1914-1916), translated by James Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001).
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