James Gray’s contemplative Ad Astra opens with a shot panning through the darkness. As the sun comes into view, the light refracts in circles across the image, eventually revealing the face of Roy McBride (Pitt) looking out at the glowing orb. McBride is actually on his way to work on the International Space Antenna, a towering structure designed to seek out intelligent life beyond the confines of earth. However, an unexplained power surge forces McBride to abandon his post on the exterior of the antenna. He drops into freefall, tens of thousands of feet above the ground.
The star man falls to earth.
In one way, the entire film unfolds in this opening scene, its themes layered into the action. Gray’s film is wrestling with a simple, albeit profound, question: what does it mean to be human? Roy McBride’s journey is one of discovery, but the discovery is less about experiencing long distance space flight or blasting through the rings of Neptune and more about who he is (and will be). The film’s answer: we are fundamentally emotional and relational beings, not self-sufficient, but made for love.
Gray’s film follows McBride’s fall from the heights of brilliant-but-cold-astronaut, a man whose sole focus is pointed upward, to the stars. The film highlights a fundamental disjunction in Roy—great at work, awful with relationships. He’s always calm—his heart rate never going above 80—but this leaves him distant from common human emotions. When catastrophe strikes at work, he stays focused on the task at hand. But relationally, it means he’s unphased when his wife leaves him. And in the most striking moment, Roy declares that he relies only on himself, something that makes him excellent in a difficult spacewalk, but which would destroy a marriage. Gray further highlights this disjunction by showing Roy making the right decisions in space, yet keeping most of his dialogue internalized—he’s either talking to a computer or to himself.
Over the course of the film, McBride hurtles toward a reality which reveals these relational limitations as a cauldron of emotion that has been simmering just beneath his placid, low-heart-rate surface begins to bubble up. Indeed, Roy’s trajectory in the film is a fall from detached, godlike status in the astronaut community toward something more truly and robustly human (and, frankly, more akin to true deity, but that’s another issue).
The contrast between Roy and other characters also highlights the importance of relationality and love. Clifford McBride’s old friend, Thomas Pruitt, remains dissatisfied (and ill, to boot), because his friendship with Clifford ended with a quarrel. Others express love through religious faith, offering prayers at key moments. These people (primarily the crew on the ship from Mars) also have natural relationships with each other, even if they seem fearful or judgmental of others, or a bit too tied to the rules. Roy seems to float above all of this emotion and relationality. His life is himself. This self-sufficiency is Roy’s defining quality, and the script from Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross interrogate this approach to life at almost every turn.
What inspires Roy’s fall into humanity? In short, reconnecting with his father, Clifford, a man who has been absent from Roy’s life for about three decades. Upon hearing the news that he would need to reach out to his father’s supposedly lost ship, Roy’s immediate reaction is to grapple with pressing regrets. He starts to message an apology to his wife (which he deletes without sending). After further reflection, including watching old video of his father, and a traumatic experience on the way to Mars, Roy admits to vast stores of rage simmering beneath his placid surface. The latent emotion within him continues to bubble up, and after a disorienting and isolating two-and-a-half-month journey from Mars to Neptune, a journey away from the only star and light in our solar system and into the darkness, Roy begins to yearn for others.
When Roy reaches his father, we realize how much Clifford’s journey has changed him. In an early recorded message from Clifford’s journey to Neptune, he told his teenaged son that he could sense God’s presence as they had passed Jupiter. And yet, by the time Roy reaches his father, any faith the man had has been swallowed up in reams of data that have found no signs of intelligent life. At one point, Clifford declares that we are all alone—it’s as if his faith has always been tied to the hope of finding some kind of concrete evidence for the divine. When the numbers didn’t cooperate, his faith faltered.
Roy has also changed, but in a strikingly different way. First, when his father tells him that he never loved him, Roy’s response is, with tears in his eyes, “I know, Dad. I love you anyway.” This is the first time we’ve seen this man make such a declaration to anyone or show any emotion to anyone, which is strange given the long journey he’s been on (most of us would share a hug or phone call with someone before we left). But second, when Clifford notes that the data points to their solitude in the universe, Roy answers with, “We’re all we’ve got.” There’s some ambiguity here, for sure. On the one hand, Roy’s words acknowledge the vital importance of relationships, a major change for him. On the other, the statement could be a declaration of unbelief—a kind of dismissal of the theological that he was likely raised with. However, he could simply be saying that a person doesn’t need scientific, observable and repeatable evidence of intelligent life beyond humanity (e.g. aliens) in order to believe. Maybe Clifford’s faith has actually been tied to the wrong things. Maybe his faith needed to be tied to the people—to the faces—of those in his life.
Once Roy parts from his father for the last time, he reflects on the data his father did collect. Gray offers us images of numerous planets, strange and unknown worlds. And as Roy describes them, he contrasts his father’s despair with these images of beauty, images that inspire “awe and wonder.” Rather than looking for God only in the things we don’t have, Clifford should have seen him all around, including in the face of his own son.
Gray ends the film with Roy eagerly anticipating his return to earth, and offers a voice over of another psych evaluation once he returns. The wording is almost the same as the one that opens the film. However, where in the first Roy made his independence clear, in the last he says exactly the opposite, depending on a close circle of family and friends, while making plans to “live and love.” All the while, Roy sits in a coffee shop, stirring his coffee, and then turns to see his ex-wife coming to meet him. The star-man has fallen into relationship with another human. He sees her face. He is learning what it means to love.
The final word of the film is “submit” as Roy sends the message, where it becomes something of a call to action, for there is no relationship, no love, without a willingness to submit ourselves to another.