Midway through Ad Astra, Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride boards a ship to Mars. When they see his name on the manifest, the crew asks if he is that Roy McBride. He says he is and they celebrate; they’re honored to transport the son of a hero, the son of the greatest astronaut there ever was.
Roy just kind of stands there.
His relationship with his father is incredibly complicated, and the exact nature of that relationship is uniquely situated within Ad Astra’s world. But, frankly, father-son stories aren’t exactly in short supply. For Ad Astra specifically, it seems that Homer’s Odyssey was particularly seminal.
You probably haven’t heard of Telemachus. His father, though, will probably ring a bell. He was Odysseus, the eponymous hero of Homer’s work. He went off to fight the Trojan war when Telemachus was a young boy. It took a solid two decades for Odysseus to beat the Trojans and find his way home again, with the latter half of the quest being made especially difficult due to divine intervention. This left poor Telemachus to grow up ‘sine patre’.
This paternal alienation is paralleled in Ad Astra. Upwards of twenty years prior, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) led the doomed Lima Project on its journey to the farthest reaches of the solar system. Then something went wrong. The crew was lost and the project went dark. Unfortunately, they had made it too far away from Earth to be recoverable, as we couldn’t simply go to Neptune to check in. So, Clifford and whatever was left of the crew were left to eternally drift throughout the outer solar system. Leaving poor old Roy to be fathered more by the idea of an astronautical legend than by an actual person, much like Telemachus thousands of years prior.
The obvious omission here is the question of Roy’s mother: did she not raise her son? The answer to that is well, probably? But whatever trace she left on Roy is dwarfed by Clifford’s impression. This, in a way, also reflects the Odyssey, as Penelope’s presence in the Odyssey is mostly defined by her relationship to her Husband, effectively limiting her narrative impact. Roy’s mother stands as similarly limited. This diminished maternal importance becomes especially clear once we consider how both sons stand as lesser copies of the men their fathers’ were.
Telemachus did his best to model himself after Odysseus, trying to become a crafty statesman and warrior. Roy, in turn, became a dedicated astronaut like Clifford. Unfortunately, Telemachus is barely able to hold Ithyca together until Odysseus returns, and Roy is more of a skilled astronautical grunt than anyone leading the charge into the future. Both sons therefore, if measured by the same standards as their fathers, are failures. However, at this point the parallels between Roy and Telemachus end. Where Telemachus only ever seems to be a lesser Odysseus, Roy’s journey allows him to redefine his measure of success. But, the similarities between The Odyssey and Ad Astra don’t end there. The nature of Roy’s journey actually quite resembles Odysseus’ journey home.
There isn’t a one-to-one comparison to be made, obviously, but the overall structure of going from one far-away place to the next, encountering various episodic trials and personal revelations certainly calls the Odyssey to mind. It’s worth mentioning that when I call the trials Roy faces episodic, I mean more than just there being a sequence of events. Each of the conflicts along the journey are starkly different in both tone and content, each one challenging Roy in a different way than all the others. This structure irrefutably resembles the Odyssey, which also relied on this structure, whether director James Gray intended it to.
Another resemblance between Roy and Odysseus is that both are heroic figures. While it’s true that Roy isn’t the same trailblazing astronaut that his father was, Roy is shown to be remarkable when early on he plummets down from the upper atmosphere amid a hail of raining shrapnel. All the while, we’re told, his pulse never topped 80 beats per minute. This unnatural coolness under intense pressure distinguishes Roy from his peers within the film’s world, as we’re told this is exceptional. Also worth considering is that ultimately, it’s Roy’s personal connection to Clifford that makes him perfectly suited for the mission to find him. By virtue of his blood relations, Roy quite literally becomes the chosen one.
All this to say that Roy is a blended figure: by nature and archetype he is a Telemachian figure, but within the world he performs the role of Odysseus. This necessarily creates a tension within his character. He is fundamentally unlike his father but at the same time is expected to fulfill the same roles his father did. Roy, despite participating in the events of the film, seems to view it all with a cold, objective reticence.
This creates a narrative fertile for discussions about the nature of heroes, and whether or not the heroic narrative is as cut and dry as it seems. This is visually evoked when, on Mars, an atypical “heroic walk” shot takes place. It’s a perfectly framed, perfectly lit shot of Roy walking down a hallway after having just single-handedly averted disaster. It’s his moment. But midway through he stops walking and faces away from the camera. What he had to do to earn this moment troubles him– landing the ship was an absolute nightmare brought on from tragedy. Are heroes born only from Tragedy? If so, are they worth it?
** somewhat significant spoilers for the next few paragraphs, feel free to skip ahead**
The relationship between tragedy and heroics becomes most clear when Clifford McBride’s true nature is revealed. On Earth he is seen as the epitome of what an astronaut can be. He’s a hero that gave his life to the cause. The tragedy of his loss also canonized him within the film’s world.
Fairly early on it is revealed that the crew of the Lima Project, save for Clifford, wanted to return home after being gone for years. But they hadn’t completed their mission. Clifford, realizing he would be unable to convince them to stay, killed everyone but himself. For a while it seems as though Clifford may be crazy, but once Roy finds him it becomes clear that he just didn’t want to admit failure.
And so, Clifford’s heroic status is revealed to be reliant on a cycle of violence: tragedy strikes, and Clifford becomes a hero. In order to maintain his heroic status and avoid failure, Clifford is forced to create more tragedy and suffering, thereby exacerbating his heroic identity. Consider Odysseus and all the people he killed- should we idolize that man?
Within Ad Astra this is codified with the film’s relationship to the divine: Homer’s figures can kind of get away with all the murdering because they are chosen by the gods, and therefore deemed more important than others. The astronauts within Ad Astra’s world are also deeply religious, Clifford even going so far as to believe his mission is divinely mandated. The problem is that Ad Astra‘s God is silent, a non-entity. No one is designated as better than anyone else. This reveals Clifford’s actions to be ultimately reprehensible.
Heroes have always been held up as an ideal for us normal people to strive for; we’re meant to see the determined self sacrificing of Captain America, or the reckless desire to help others of Iron Man, and we’re meant to reach for it. By evoking engaging with one of the seminal heroic narratives and exposing the weaknesses of the character type, Ad Astra instead asks us to stop mythologizing ourselves. We are never going to be these remarkable, larger than life people. Even if someone seems to be that person, they’re not. The film suggests that instead we should focus on living loving, well rounded lives, defining our own successes and failures on how those closest to us feel. It advocates for the removal of the ego, and the exposure and destruction of toxic individualism run rampant.
Roy is better than his father because he realizes that he doesn’t need to be better. Roy chooses a life worth living over becoming an icon. He does what he does without trying to hurt anyone, without mythologizing himself. In the end, Roy’s heroic moments are simply that: moments, instances where he makes a choice that minimizes human suffering. He isn’t in it for the fame or the acclaim. He just did what needed to be done.
If it doesn’t walk like a hero, and talk like a hero, is it still a hero?
I don’t think it matters all that much.