Ad Astra And The Evolution Of Masculinity In Film

***Spoiler Warning***

“Ad Astra” is more drama than it is sci-fi; this is a rumination on whether or not the pursuit of knowledge is worth the expense of one’s humanity. Admirers of contemplatively mournful futuristic films like “Solaris”, “Gravity”, and “Arrival” will have much to stare at with wonder here. The film is also a provocative meditation on masculinity and how it’s defined by most people today.

In the near future, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt),  is an astronaut whose “pulse never goes above 80”–even as he plummets down to Earth after a mysterious electrical surge damages the space antenna he’s working on. It is revealed that the source of these surges, which pose a threat to life on Earth and the entire solar system, is suspected to be related to the Lima Project, a pioneering mission to find extraterrestrial intelligent life outside Earth. The hook being: The Lima project was led by Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Thus, leads Roy on a trip to Neptune as he somberly reflects on grief and loss that he had compartmentalized for most of his adult life.

The film presents a message that serves in equal parts as a reminder of the importance of the relationship children have with their parents. James Gray’s film proves to be an antithesis to those traditional Hollywood films depicting parenthood, in how Roy’s admiration of his father–and his curiosity surrounding whether or not he sees his father in himself–provide the film with it’s most powerful moments. Often, powerful moments such as these can be found in a film’s subtext, yet “Ad Astra” has a voiceover which makes it difficult at times to project our own lived experiences into Roy’s complex character; without the voice-over, Pitt’s performance would be 80% wordless.

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“Ad Astra” invites us to view how the concept of masculinity is evolving; it asks to examine our preconceived notions of society’s backward views about masculinity–ones that are etched in history and culture.”

This is important because your worldview and framework of understanding are unlikely to change when you enter your adult years. Parents influence their children both directly and indirectly. Directly: in how parents are responsible for teaching and raising their children with values; from determining right from wrong to religious education, to how best to interact with people, to basic rules and expectations; formation which manifests itself in how one’s worldview and presuppositions are shaped. Indirectly: in how children watch their parents interact with other people and go about life, thus making an impact on how they further develop their moral selves.

“Ad Astra” invites us to view how the concept of masculinity is evolving; it asks to examine our preconceived notions of society’s backward views about masculinity–ones that are etched in history and culture. Pitt’s character exudes an air of what one would call unpleasantly masculine self-control: stifling one’s emotions, being uncommunicative about one’s feelings (lest you be deemed “un-masculine”), and this leads to–what we’re led to presume upon the film opening–a wedge in the relationships he has with people in his personal life. His journey concludes with his realization that the psychological walls he’s built around himself have resulted in the deficiency he has, thus, makes human interaction seem like such a chore for him.

The importance of vulnerability to our loved ones conveys to them that as humans, we are all flawed in our own ways and that there is humility in admitting so. Thus, pushing back on the whole idea of toxic masculinity that still sadly permeates itself in our culture.

We ascertain, (even if Roy can’t yet), that this kind of ‘manly-man’ attitude is a recipe for disaster, as evidenced by how Roy is incapable of handling his own feelings; he wrestles with unresolved issues regarding his father’s absence. He also drives away the woman he loves (an underused Liv Tyler). The inciting incident that gives Roy the opportunity to go on his journey is how the government uses him as a pawn sending him on a mission–that includes locating his missing father– to defuse an intergalactic disturbance that’s causing peril to life on Earth with electrical storms. With this, Roy begins to question his unfeeling approach to his life and work, as well as his loyalty to his employer.

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“Ad Astra” succeeds in depicting how someone who has grown up in a toxic, masculine environment eventually loses touch with himself and his emotions. Roy, throughout the film, feels an ongoing sense of loss, and loneliness due to his father’s absence. His inability to accept his emotions results in him buying them. Roy realizes that by being denied his own feelings; the invulnerability he has sought has come at the expense of being open to his loved ones.

The importance of vulnerability to one’s loved ones is how this conveys to them that as humans, we are all flawed in our own ways and that there is humility in admitting so. Thus, pushing back on the whole idea of toxic masculinity that still sadly permeates itself in our culture. In English, “Ad Astra” means “to the stars”, because it’s literally to the stars that Roy goes in order to seek answers that he can’t find on Earth.

Despite this, the film’s greatest success is in how it conveys that all the answers we seek lie in our ability to understand the one thing we, universally as humans, seek to know: ourselves. And it is precisely this understanding of the self, that helps us reconcile the grandeur and meaning of these universal, earthbound emotional truths.

“The notion of toxic masculinity isn’t the fault of individual men–but rather, built into a system of ideas and values that culture has (mostly) unquestioningly accepted throughout the course of history.”

Roy’s trip out into space is accompanied and mirrored by his journey within. Pitt’s filmography is filled with roles which depict the traditional male invulnerability; thus, making him quite a unique choice to this film, which deconstructs and rebuilds that very image. Throughout the film, Roy undergoes continuous periodic psychological evaluations. This is done with him affixing a white patch to his neck to measure his vital signs as he answers questions regarding his emotional state.

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Throughout his character’s journey he begins to be more honest with his internal emotions (this is most telling in the scene wherein a character expresses to Roy that his father may very well still be alive), result in a failed psychological test this leads to his superiors to question his capability in carrying out the mission. The notion of toxic masculinity isn’t the fault of individual men–but rather, built into a system of ideas and values that culture has (mostly) unquestioningly accepted throughout the course of history.

“I will not be vulnerable to mistakes,” Roy tells himself early on in the film. We build towards a confrontation between Roy and his father which leads to Roy finally uncovering the answers for all the questions that have haunted him all of his life. The ending of the film, bringing the story back to a beginning–a new beginning for our hero, Roy; one which feels completely earned.

Article by Mique Watson (twitter: @miquewatson)

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