Warning: This post contains spoilers for Ad Astra.
The premise of Ad Astra is as follows: Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent on a top-secret mission to find his father, the man who might be responsible for a series of catastrophic power-surges that threaten humanity’s very existence. Problem #1: Roy’s dad is decorated astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared 13 years earlier during a groundbreaking mission to explore the potential for intelligent life in deep space. Problem #2: Though Clifford appears to be alive, he’s also suspected to be hanging out near Neptune, approximately 2.714 billion miles from Earth.
As it turns out, Clifford didn’t really disappear. His mission, known as Project Lima, failed to find any evidence of aliens. Refusing to accept the outcome, Clifford murdered his mutinous crew rather than let them return home with no answers, a tragedy that was covered up by the government’s space program to avoid any embarrassment. Instead, he and the rest of Project Lima were declared heroes, missing in action and presumed dead. But when power surges deriving from Project Lima start causing major casualties throughout the galaxy, Clifford’s continued existence becomes impossible to ignore, and Roy is sent to make contact.
So begins a quest that takes Roy from the moon (I’m still not over that rover chase scene) to an underground bunker on Mars, all in pursuit of his father.
The space setting is gorgeous and creative — director James Gray imagines a near future in which humans treat space travel like a casual jaunt to Dubai; expensive, but not out of the ordinary for those who can afford it. There’s even an airport on the Moon, complete with an Applebee’s and the palpable grey aura of travelers’ despair. But it’s that same unearthly backdrop that enables Gray to tell a distinctly human story. Remove people from their natural environments, and the existential questions of what makes a life worth living becomes all the more clear.
Those themes are central to Ad Astra, a film that’s just as much a contemplative character study as it is a blockbuster space epic. Most of the dialogue takes place as an internal monologue within Roy’s head. He’s lonely, broken, and craving connection. In the deepest night of space, his mind wanders between snapshots of his father, who left him and his sick mother when he was 16 to push the boundaries of human potential, and his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), who’s recently left him, tired of waiting for him to get it together. But that veneer of stoicism (one of Roy’s character traits is that his BP never goes above 80) crumbles when he comes face to face with Clifford, the last man alive on Project Lima, parked on the outskirts of Neptune’s ring.
Like so much in this movie, what takes place between them is pretty straightforward — and not at all. Roy takes a shuttle from his own ship to Project Lima, jettisoning the latter when it can’t land due to damage — he’ll have to find another way back. Once in the airlock, he finds a series of dead bodies of the Project Lima crew murdered by his dad, and eventually reaches the main lab, where he places a nuclear bomb (conveniently sized as a portable weapon) to destroy the anti-matter powering the ship — the cause of the surges. It’s then that Clifford finally emerges from the shadows.
It’s not a warm reunion. The two never got the chance to be close. In fact, throughout the film, Roy isn’t so much mourning specific memories of his father as he is the total absence of them. But what’s immediately clear is that, while Roy regrets what could have been, Clifford does not. So fanatic about his search for life off-Earth, he is immune to the one he left behind. He confesses without visible emotion, “I knew I widowed my wife and left you an orphan,” causing a single perfect tear to roll down Roy’s face.
And yet, with those words, a new connection is forged between them. They are, ultimately, cut from the same cloth. They’re ambitious, hard-working men at the peak of their profession. Roy’s reaction causes Clifford to view him in a new light — as a potential space partner, rather than a burdensome human connection.
Finally, Roy convinces Clifford that they must leave the ship. Their most intimate, vulnerable moment comes when the son helps the father put on his space suit, an act that connects them more than words ever could. But once out in space, with three hours left until the bomb detonates and destroys Project Lima, Clifford jettisons backwards, pulling Roy, who is connected by a tether, with him.
As they start to float away from the ship, Clifford yells at Roy to let him go, while the latter tries to pull his dad back towards safety. After a tense moment, however, he cuts the tether, releasing his dad from a future he can’t cope with, and severing ties with his own broken past. By letting his father physically float off into the distance to die, Roy’s accepting that he doesn’t have to be like him. He can embrace a fuller emotional existence, depending on others for comfort and relief.
Using a piece of Project Lima as a shield, Roy floats back to his own ship, right in time to use the power of the nuclear explosion as a way to launch him back towards Earth. It’s (literally) a long journey from the darkest abyss towards the sunlight, one that runs parallel to Roy’s mental state. He’s no longer going to hide in the shadows of his past.
In the film’s final moments, we see Roy sitting in a coffee shop, surrounded by people after weeks of total isolation. A door opens, and his estranged wife Eve walks in. As he told Clifford in response to Project Lima’s absence of findings: “Now we know we’re all we’ve got.”