Ad Astra: Male Misanthropes in Sci-Fi


Sam Harding critiques the unexamined potential hinted at in the self-serious yet flawed 2019 space flick

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Image by 20th Century Fox

By Sam Harding

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In the 2019 film Ad Astra, before he inadvertently murders the crew of a spaceship after sneaking onboard, Brad Pitt pleas to them in tones of grave, wounded seriousness, that he is the only way of reaching their mission’s objective. Something to establish right off the bat is that this is the Chanel no. 5 advert version of Brad, the leading man musing about existence and fragrance as if reciting lines learned at Derek Zoolander’s school for ants.

So in the movie, the necessity of his being on this space-team turned out to be unsubstantiated— their mission totally achievable without his involvement. This could just be regarded as a major plot hole clouded by overtones of importance across the smoulderingly emotionless Pitt’s face. However to me it represented a gapingly missed opportunity for the film to correct its path from pretentiousness and poor comparisons to other sci-fi films, towards self-awareness and justification for its depiction of Pitt and Tommy Lee-Jones as archetypal spacemen from some past era of cinema.

The mission Brad hijacks is one intended to destroy the marooned craft of a famous space explorer, long presumed dead after his last venture into distant space. But, like the disturbing radio frequencies emitted by Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz, mysterious energy waves sent across the solar system are attributed to this disappeared astronaut, played by Lee-Jones. Brad Pitt’s character is the son of this legendary figure, sent by the government to try and make contact with his long-lost father by sending a message from Mars, accompanied by his desire to confront, if not reconcile with a man who is eventually revealed to have forsaken his connection with humanity in his continued pursuit of cosmic exploration. Eventually it is decided, in his unresponsiveness and the threat that he poses, that he must be killed, rather than communicated with— leading Brad to force his way onto the spacecraft sent to destroy him, rather than return to earth in the shadow of his corrupt fame.

This hostile spaceship takeover follows Brad’s encounter with a Mars resident who’s parents were killed by his father on his last mission, in their desire to return to people and planet. Their deaths now fit alongside the many under threat by Lee-Jones’s continued activities in far-flung isolation, where his maintained position nearby Neptune involves the release of energy that risks the lives of those on earth, as well as the machines and spacecrafts that connect the Moon to Mars and maintain their tenuous link back to earth via launchpads and parachutes.

Pitt’s accidental killing of the crew extends his father’s murderous sins to him, deepening their connection’s significance and the implications of their estrangement from each other, and from other people generally. However all these bodies end up as peripheral, motivating or irrelevant details surrounding the two of them and whatever the meaning of Brad’s father’s departure had for him was. Ruth Nega plays the daughter of the two murdered astronauts on this past mission. She is barely more present in the film than the fleeting shots of Brad’s ex-wife, who’s presence makes hardly any dent in probing the psyche of the main character, who mopes and tells himself of his fuck-ups and his selfishness in continued deadpan narration.

But what if it really was only him who could find his father? What if this translated into a character who’s awareness that his pursuit of his father, for closure and emotional release, plays out with consequences that imitate his father’s wanton rejection of connections and the lives around him? By retracing the fallout of his father’s mission into space and away from people, the conflict between the canonisation of Lee-Jones’s character by society and the corruption beneath could have been explored as Pitt’s actions created similar debris. The harmful results of these masculinised figures and their frontiers, their exploration, could this not have been examined through Pitt’s journey into moral degradation and an understanding of true human connections?

Pitt’s character acts with impunity and the women around him are backdrops to a life spent imitating his father’s actions due to the hero worship created for Lee-Jones. In revealing his father’s murderous crimes and single-minded selfishness, could the sanitised, glorified status of these men not have been a way of tracing the legacies of similar leading figures across the sci-fi genre and cinema as a whole? It’s no coincidence that Lee-Jones and Pitt both represent particular eras of idealised male identities, where in this film Pitt’s character is literally unable to experience an elevated heart-rate— displaying not only his stoic, manliness, but the hollowness and emotional deprivation that living in the shadow of elder ideals of male behaviour has reared him with. Instead of connecting this to Pitt’s own actions however, such legacies are drowned out by the moping seriousness of his narrations. No psychedelia or disembodiment occurs in the profound unknowns of space or in the unexplored possibilities that should thrill and push the sci-fi genre forwards. And the film is all the emptier for it.