For the longest time now, the sci-fi genre has been used as a medium to explore the concept of humanity. The success behind this formulae can be attributed to the way such themes are contrasted amidst the larger background of the unknown. In space, these ideas do not exist in vacuum; they are accented with even more dimension and depth from the looming anxiety that comes with uncharted territory. James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019) is no such exception to this genre of narration. While it is indeed quite a slow-burn and contains an obnoxious amount of monologues, it presents a refreshing take on issues such as masculinity, repression and human bonds.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
From the get go, it was painfully obvious how repressed the protagonist was. Roy McBride is a man of many accomplishments in the field of astronomy. This, however, largely has to do with the prominent shadow cast with the disappearance of his father, Clifford McBride. Clifford was an esteemed astronaut in SpaceCom—the same company that Roy works for years later. He became increasingly renowned after disappearing while on a space exploration mission and was ultimately classified as dead.
Though absent for the majority of the film, Clifford’s presence looms imposingly over Roy. It manifests in the form of insecurity, which prominently embeds itself within Roy’s ethics, career, and relationships. Yet, Roy still possesses a small amount of admiration towards his father by virtue of doubt. The conflict occurs when this very esteem continuously clashes with the trauma inflicted by abandonment. As such, this love-hate relationship Roy has with his father becomes difficult to define.
Comfort Rooms and Masculinity
Throughout Ad Astra, you will find that the act of feeling, or rather emotion, is a motif that is touched upon rather heavily. It is unnecessary, and at times lethal, for the precarious nature of their occupation. SpaceCom members were thus required to check in consistently to ensure its members were not indisposed to their duties. The procedure tests for heart rate whilst giving a concise report on related events. Should you fail, you will be relegated to a “comfort room” which does nothing to live up to its name or function. It is cold, isolating, and most of all, unfeeling.
Apathy is a characteristic that is prominently exhibited in toxic masculinity, where a show of strength is expected of men more than anyone else. The very concept of a “comfort room” as a means to an end personifies all the problems in society: it is shallow in intent, and does nothing to offer solutions than to blindly coddle any unfamiliar feelings. Roy, for most parts, is potently adequate in keeping his emotions in check (read: suppress). He manages to avoid the need for intervention until one point in the film. The harms of comfort rooms become increasingly apparent with Roy’s display of suffocation while dismissed to one.
Roy McBride, you will find, is not nearly as strong a person when you compare him to the achievements he has made throughout his career. For the longest time, he has adopted a detached philosophy in his approach to his relationships with people. While he has successfully manufactured an amiable front, he struggles in developing a genuine connection with others. The extent of his trauma becomes apparent when his own wife felt estranged due to his undivided commitment to work. In his struggle to define himself outside of his pain, he becomes something he resents the most.
A Solitude’s End
When the plot reveals that his father was never dead, it gave Roy the opportunity to confront his trauma head on. On the long journey to reach his father, Roy’s aloof façade whittles down gradually, resulting in many vulnerable moments that were ingenious. While the monologues can be exhaustive, it becomes the decisive vehicle in articulating the nuances of Roy’s odyssey.
Roy’s fated reunion with his father was a moment that was long awaited, but its execution was satisfying enough that you might be able to forgive the film’s slow pacing. The meeting was cruel and swift; Clifford confirmed what Roy has been denying up to that point—he never did care for Roy nor his mother. Instead, he was obsessed with the notion of extraterrestrial life that he had completely forsaken those within his reach. Here, the film endeavors the apprehension of investing our hopes on something intangible, when we struggle to work with what we have right in front of us.
Seeing his father’s indifference in person turned out to be the catalyst he needed all along to spur him towards closure. The years of anger that Roy had built up then became pointless; there was no choice but to accept his father for who he was. It is arguably the most poignant part of the film, because it is Roy understanding that ending the cycle of repression begins with him. All his life, he knew only to hold on to his trauma because it validated his anger, which functioned to defer any accountability on his part. In doing so, he holds himself back from living and loving freely. This doesn’t have to be the case at all.
Of course, there is no sure way to overcome trauma. But, fostering bonds with loved ones is a definite step in the right direction. Before ending this article, allow me to quote one of Roy’s most memorable monologues (and there are plenty). I hope you can find even the slightest semblance of comfort from it:
“I’m unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and love.”
Written by Sofea Qistina.