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I Should Feel Something: On Space and the Unknowable Self in Ad Astra | Features

“I always wanted to become an astronaut for the future of mankind and all. At least, that’s what I told myself,” Roy admits, and the admission carries a jagged sarcasm, and a blunt candor. At first, Roy’s resentment of his career and its myriad obligations feels mundane, but juxtaposed with his presence among the stars, his disinterest takes on a sort of subversion. To experience the singularity of no longer being on Earth, but outside of it, and to still be unfulfilled—that displeasure undermines so much of what we expect from this genre, and what space cinema normally imposes on us about the specialness of these people. Imagine Tom Hanks in “Apollo 13,” or Sandra Bullock in “Gravity“: Would either of those heroes disparage the astronaut experience like this? Still, Roy goes through the motions, and he does them well. When a catastrophic power surge hits the International Space Antennae on which Roy is performing maintenance, electrocuting numerous people, setting off explosions in the upper towers, and thrusting the station into chaos, Roy springs effortlessly into action. He literally flips a switch to stop the chain reaction. When he tumbles backward from the antennae toward Earth, he has the presence of mind to maintain communication with colleagues on the ground, offering technical commentary the whole way down: “Control—McBride. I’m in a spin. Atmosphere’s too thin to stabilize. I’m trying to keep the tumble down, so I don’t black out. Control, do you read?” The fall seems to last forever, and we stay with Roy as he plummets steadily toward his death until he manages to flip over, deploy his parachute, and steer himself to the ground even as debris falls around him. When people run out to offer assistance, he doesn’t meet their eyes. “‘A self-destructive side,’ that’s what she used to say to me,” Roy says, alluding to Eve without saying her name. “I should feel something. I survived. I should feel something.” Roy’s unlikely escape is the stuff of immediate legend, and his actions save lives. But is either of those enough to make him a human being?

“We are world-eaters. If my dad could see this now, he’d tear it all down.”

The electrical storm that nearly killed Roy, SpaceCom explains to him in a classified briefing, is part of a series termed the Surge. The phenomena are destructive, wreaking havoc across the globe and leaving tens of thousands dead, and their origin is outer space. Esteemed SpaceCom astronaut H. Clifford McBride had a son he left on Earth, who grew up to be Roy. And H. Clifford McBride had a project he devoted more decades of his life to than he did his family, and that project was the Lima Project—the first manned expedition to the outer solar system, tasked with finding evidence of intelligent life outside of Earth. Into the great unknown the elder McBride traveled, certain he would return with secrets as yet undiscovered, and the younger McBride has been intermittently exalting him and cursing him for it ever since. Building himself in his shadow; struggling to live up to an impossible ideal of a man 29 years gone and 16 years disappeared. So when Roy learns that Clifford is still alive near Neptune, firing off surges of antimatter that are causing the Surge and might destroy the planet he left behind, it’s a revelation that upends everything he thought he knew about his father, and about himself. There is a lifetime of pain in Roy’s “My father’s alive, sir?”, more emotion exhibited in those four words than during his entire tumble from space to Earth. And yet when SpaceCom asks for Roy’s help in reaching Clifford, believing “a personal plea from you to your father might elicit a response” and asking him to travel to the Moon, then Mars, and finally to Neptune to try and communicate with Clifford, Roy’s skepticism is clear in his shifting eyes, in the slight pause before he agrees. “‘Are you with us?’” Roy growls mockingly, repeating SpaceCom’s request. “Like I have a choice.”

Clifford’s survival unsettles Roy, his father’s seemingly reckless use of the dangerous antimatter unnerves him, and the two reveals open up a schism between what Roy thought he knew about Clifford, who SpaceCom has immortalized for decades as a lost hero to discovery, and what Roy feels about the world around him. “My father was a pioneer,” Roy seethes in voiceover when SpaceCom dares to suggest that Clifford could be operating his own agenda. In contrast, Roy seems to wonder, are these people worth saving? An archived message from Clifford to Roy 27 years ago paints his father as a godly man, a loving husband and father, an optimist who is appreciative for the international attention in the Lima Project, an explorer convinced that he will be the person who finds intelligent life. “We know we will,” Clifford emphasizes, and Roy is visibly overwhelmed watching the clip, blinking back tears.

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