WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Ad Astra, in theaters now.
When Ad Astra's production was announced in April 2017, it was reported that Brad Pitt's character Roy McBride was "on the autism spectrum." That seemingly significant character detail, however, was not brought up in any of the film's promotion this year. In the final film, Roy is not once directly referred to as being on the autism spectrum.
Aspects of Roy's behavior, such as his extreme focus on his mission and general social discomfort, could still potentially be interpreted as signs of him being autistic. Looking at the film as a whole, though, especially in regards to how it's changed from earlier drafts of the script, it becomes understandable why there isn't an explicit diagnosis in the movie.
THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT
The draft of James Gray and Ethan Gross's screenplay for Ad Astra dated 8/11/16 presents a very different movie from the one that made it to screens. There's none of the constant voiceover of Roy's inner monologue and nothing about his ex-wife. The reveal of the Lima Project's failure is decidedly more dramatic, whereas the final meeting between Roy and his father Clifford is even more underplayed. You can see how certain side characters evolved into the ones in the movie, but they show up in very different contexts. Robots have a much greater presence, with an action sequence on Mars that almost certainly got cut down for budgetary purposes.
Also significantly different between the script and the film: in the first act of the script, a Med Tech specifically gives Roy a diagnosis of "Mild Autism." A General tells Roy that SPACECOM specifically seeks out astronauts who are "on the spectrum" because they "won’t let emotions or fears get in the way of a task." It's a statement that on one level makes sense (hyperfocus is often a strength for autistic people) but also doesn't exactly speak to the full experience of the spectrum: anxiety disorders are incredibly common among autistic people, so the assumption of extreme emotional control/repression isn't exactly a safe one.
One flashback to Roy's childhood, completely cut from the movie, might be the clearest demonstration of Roy's autism symptoms, showing him struggling with eye contact and socially appropriate greetings while still being able to emotionally engage with others when focusing on a shared interest.
A CHANGED DIAGNOSIS?
Despite going through multiple psychological evaluations in the final film, Roy does not receive any specific diagnosis on-screen. In the press, however, James Gray has now been identifying his film's protagonist with a diagnosis that sometimes overlaps with or gets mistaken for autism but is a separate thing: Schizoid Personality Disorder.
Schizoid Personality Disorder is generally defined by emotional detachment and a general lack of interest in social connections. These symptoms perfectly describe Pitt's portrayal of Roy McBride, a deeply emotionally repressed man whose asocial leanings are tested by the sheer emptiness of space. These symptoms can overlap with autism, and in many ways match common stereotypes of "high functioning" autism or Asperger's Syndrome, but such stereotypes aren't necessarily accurate. While autistic people generally struggle with social skills, this does not mean they lack interest in connecting with others and emotional expression among autistic people can just as often be extremely intense as it can be reserved.
Some autistic critics such as Logan Kenny have still found Roy to be a deeply relatable character. Interpreting him as autistic is still a very understandable headcanon. Given that Ad Astra's thematic interests are more focused on generalized emotional repression especially as it connects to traditional notions of masculinity rather than the specific nature of social disability, however, perhaps it's for the best that the film doesn't directly assign any diagnosis to its protagonist on-screen.
Directed by James Gray from a script by himself and Ethan Gross, Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Nega, Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland. The film is in theaters now.
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