“Now we know,” Roy murmurs to his father near the end of Ad Astra. “We’re all we’ve got.” As the revelation sinks in, the solitude and perfectionism that have consumed the astronaut dissipate in Neptune’s orbit. He ventured into the unknown and found himself.
In his newest film, writer-director James Gray examines the magnitude of our universe and our infinitesimal place within it, but in the end, reverses genre expectations. Roy learns there isn’t intelligent life outside of humanity. The people of Earth are all we’ve got.
The vastness and isolation of Roy’s voyage into deep space creates metaphors that inspire self-reflection, challenge the way we regard our fellow human, and achieve a mood that makes the viewer feel meek in a comforting sense. Gray’s drawing from a deep philosophical well, that when scrutinized, extends to both his script and visuals.
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an experienced military man and the son of Space Communications pioneer, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared decades ago on a voyage to Neptune whose mission was to communicate with alien life. Roy is introduced as a performatively kind man who’s apathetic beneath the surface, uninterested in humanity and its potential to distract him from his work. However, when we meet Roy, he’s already questioning himself, waist deep in ruminations on the ways he neglected his wife. The workaholic is slowly realizing that his professional ambition is digging a hole in his chest that makes him feel emptier by the day.
For the first time in his aerospace career, Roy’s mission is both technical and personal. He must stop the power surges coming from Neptune that threaten life on Earth, which also means finding his father, a detached figure largely responsible for the way he’s shaped himself, a man Roy doesn’t want to be. His search for a long lost loved one is given meaning in the context of traveling to the edge of the solar system. He is emotionally, psychologically, relationally, and literally braving the dark of the unknown.
In Cinema 2: The Time-image, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze claims that “the soul of cinema demands increasing thought.” He theorizes at length about the power and importance of films that “bring the emancipated senses into direct relation with time and thought.” In other words, he champions films that plunge into the unknown, in which the audience’s engagement with the image is one of reading and interpreting opposed to simply viewing. He calls these “time-image” films. For Deleuze, the time-image isn’t merely preferential. It’s ethical. Time-image films make us think, and, as a result, help us “find new ways to register our link to this world.” They challenge our understanding, and allow us to gravitate toward a truer conception of what it means to be human, what it looks like to genuinely care for one another.
The time-image often “arises out of fragmented perception,” like in the isolated dream-state sequence of Roy’s 79-day time warp from Mars to Neptune. We see the astronaut suspended in zero gravity, as if overcome by paralysis, while video footage, flickering vessel lights, the cosmos, color, and memory flash chaotically on screen. The score is ambient but more disfigured than usual. His mind and our perception melt into a pool of thick fluid. To get on the film’s level requires the audience’s own letting go of sorts, or, at the very least, an admission that what we’re immersed in isn’t teleological.
To emphasize the significance of films that make us think, Deleuze differentiates between being and becoming, the former being a state of detached stasis while the latter is a mode of maturation and evolution. Ad Astra is unique in that we witness Roy transition from being to becoming on screen and are simultaneously able to consider a parallel, self-reflective journey. The transfiguring imagery combined with the contemplative tone of Gray’s cerebral sci-fi epic creates space for a state of musing ripe for self-aware thought. Who are we modeling ourselves after? What or who are we prioritizing? Who are we neglecting? How might we be despondent or inhumane?
For Roy, it’s no longer about being who he was, but becoming who he could be. The becoming isn’t wrapped up in the cutthroat brutality of technological progress or the escape of looking to the stars. As Deleuze states, “the good, the generous, and the noble is what raises the will to power to the level of artistic becoming.” It’s about living into a holistic generosity. As Roy travels deeper into the expansive unknown, he begins to think and act differently, to let go of the stolid, blinkered man he once was. Meanwhile, relief from the concept that our every decision carries the weight of the world on its shoulders hovers around us. The idea that we all burden one another or that we’re utterly dejected and alone comes under philosophical fire. Solace begets hope.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a Deleuzian film like Ad Astra unearths existential meaning where there might have been none. Venturing into the unknown is a way of challenging what we know and how we think. Writer-director Alex Garland uses The Shimmer, a mysterious prism that grew from the site of a meteor strike, in Annihilation in a similar way. Natalie Portman’s Lena crosses the threshold of The Shimmer into a threatening, unknown wilderness to find a loved one, and in the end, the reality-bending world around her inspires a different way of being. Literally, in this case: her DNA mutates. Roy’s transformation might not be so overt, but both arcs are evolutionary.
To venture into the unknown for love is to approach love in a new way, to scrap what one thinks they know in light of what they might learn. For Roy, it means to approach love with empathy, fueled by the core motivation of human connection. That doesn’t mean his relationship with Eve (Liv Tyler) will blossom when he returns, but it means there’s a renewed hope for it, and hope is the strongest tool he has.
In one of the first sequences, we watch Roy plummet from the apex of Earth’s atmosphere, the comfort of a distant, impersonal sanctum, to Earth, a place where he’s far less comfortable. The free fall reflects the crumbling mental and emotional state he inhabits when we meet him, and foreshadows his ultimate destination along with his actualizing lack of control.
Another less conspicuous metaphor comes moments before in the opening shot. The camera pans from left to right across the cosmos, a glare of light in the distance, which gradually shifts from red to yellow to green to blue. The light’s blue variation blends into the clean, atmospheric immensity of the Earth, but not before it flashes a spectral image of Roy’s face across the stars. Unbeknownst to first-time viewers, the movement along the color spectrum telegraphs his journey across the ambit of human emotion and the increscent existential awakening that comes from it, which culminates in his sanguine return to Earth.
No matter how important venturing into the unknown might be, the search for someone in Ad Astra reminds us that the most significant aspect of life isn’t the unknown but the someone. The unknown is merely the lens through which we see the world we know stripped of its conventions and redressed with new understanding. The feeling of gratifying smallness and humility, and the desire for human connection it inspires, is profound because it’s a confirmation that, regardless of what we think or believe, the reality or truth or god of the universe will always be incomprehensible, or, as the movie’s tagline goes, “The answers we seek are just outside of our reach.” The strange, existential comfort comes in knowing we can’t wrap our minds around it all, and no one is asking us to.
“We’re all we’ve got” might be the most astute words spoken in cinema this year, no matter how essential the truth they illumine. They possess a gravity that brings us down to Earth, into contact with the contagious, humanist impetus behind the final words of the film: “I will live and love. Submit.”
Luke Hicks has a master’s in film & ethics at Duke, and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: music, whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball. Lambast or love him on Twitter @lou_kicks.