Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers for James Gray’s Ad Astra.
The spaceman always finds his way to the moon. He makes it despite his spacecraft stalling in elevation, or sparking flames on its way down. Over and over again, we return to the same suspense, and the same malfunctions, all for a liftoff. The flame ignites, thrusting the rocket in the air, it’s heavy body against the laws of gravity. Our heads are crowned with visors, our necks collared in July attire; we are holding little American flags and drinking iced tea out of bendy straws. Finally, the second most iconic act, the spaceman sticks the American flag into the moon, like a candle on a birthday cake.
The space race calls upon a patriotism that has distanced America from the rest of the world. We return to the same images, sound-bites, videos of the liftoff as reassurance that in the space race, and the human race, America is closer to the finish line. When that wasn’t enough, we adapt our space conquests into dramatized historical biopics or science-fiction movies. We marvel at ourselves, watch as we evolve from hominins to pristine space voyagers dressed immaculately in what are essentially, pajamas.
Many space movies are a narcissistic retelling or foreshadowing of human potential. The spaceman embodies the competitive, resilient, and progressive nature of the American people. It makes us feel good to watch the spaceman persist beyond the laws of nature because that would mean we are excelling beyond our earthly bounds.Recently, after replacing my dental fillings with caramel, I lingered at the end credits of James Gray’s Ad Astra. People were vocally angry, complaining of wasted time as they shuffled out of the theater. I sat idly in my seat, considering the poor directorial decisions, and the great ones. In the film, the characters who work at the space stations on the moon and on mars, are either obedient or have gone insane (excluding Ruth Negga’s character). Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) goes through both stages, whilst also enduring an existential crisis.
After his father admits that he was unable to find life in space despite decades of research, Roy responds with: “Now we know we’re all we’ve got.” Roy travels to the Moon, Mars, and Neptune. Yet, each voyage is obligatory and unsatisfying.
Rather than just enticing the viewer with the latest fantastical visual effects of space, the director’s visuals instead focus on Roy’s earthly ailments, and his attachment to his terrestrial plain. The film’s motifs, from Roy’s defined hominin facial contours to the volatile man-eating baboon in space, attests to a message of human evolution. Evolution, not simply as the timeline of our beginnings, but the course of our futures as well. Our patriotism and territorial nature are primitive, yet we think those are the qualities of a progressive race. We say we love our nation, a justification for xenophobia. We call it our manifest destiny when we colonize and eradicate. How do we have the audacity to consider being partial and evolved enough to go into space, to be in contact with other life? To go beyond this earthly plain is to bring our contamination with it. Remember, we are an invasive species.
We layer on ideologies and justifications to mask the truth. That we are terrified. We are terrified that we are not enough as a nation. We are definitely not enough in the span of the universe.
To realize that as humans, we are feeble and flawed beings, does not require us to overcompensate by conquering and destroying anything that may threaten our fragility. We must continue to evolve beyond that. Rather, we must map the umbilical cord that ties us to this earth, the same cord that ties the spaceman to his vessel. Ad Astra acknowledges that humans are tethered to the earth, and instead of exiling ourselves beyond the stars, we must correct the mistakes we’ve made and tend to our roots. Only then, we will be worthy of even considering space exploration.