Beyond Ad Astra

[Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the movie Ad Astra]

The last decade has seen no shortage of space movies: Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity launched a new era with its ground-breaking CGI, while Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar blew our minds with its stunning special effects. Other notable entries include Ridley Scott’s light-hearted The Martian and Damien Chazelle’s First Man, along with the docu-drama Apollo 11.

Clearly there is something about space that fascinates us. Is it the vastness? The terror of being alone? The possibility of extraterrestrial life? The beauty and grandeur of the planets? The quest for greater knowledge? Or perhaps we are fascinated with space because it forces us to consider what it really means to be a human being, or because it brings us face-to-face with what really matters. This last idea is the theme of James Gray’s Ad Astra.

Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) features Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride—a serious minded but troubled man, who has dedicated his life to the exploration of space. Roy is exceptional at his job and passes his psychological evaluations (which occur frequently in the film) with flying colors. He is calm, even keeled, and focused. He keeps his heart rate in check and stays focused on his mission, to the exclusion of everything else.

However, when Roy learns that his father (Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared in space when Roy was young, is still alive, he must confront the truth about what really matters.

 

With this scene, Roy is launched on an exciting quest to find his father. But for all his calm, Roy is not at peace under the surface. Roy is estranged from his wife, and his father is lost to him. Indeed, much of the film is taken up with Roy’s narration wondering what became of his dad, his wrestling not to become his father, and his own failure to connect with others.

Roy is clearly on his own search for meaning and purpose. Why did his father leave his family? Why does he remain silent? What did he find out there in space? And ultimately, what really matters? Roy’s journey takes him to the outer reaches of the solar system.

The Search for Answers
The quest for meaning and purpose, the search for answers, haunts humanity. Despite the insistence of many in the scientific community that there is nothing beyond the material universe, most people simply cannot accept that. We are somehow hard-wired to believe that there is meaning and purpose to our lives, even if we cannot discover it.

Locked in a materialistic view of life, we can see no purpose beyond the here and now. We attempt to find ultimate purpose in our careers, in our popularity, in sex, in money, in fame, in power, and in glory. Yet somehow, we still feel empty. We fail to understand that the gifts that we receive here are not an end in themselves, but are meant to point our desires to their true place of origin—the loving creator-God.

However, though the concept of a strictly material universe is unsatisfactory, many are still unwilling to consider the God of biblical revelation—a God who, though perfectly loving and good, is also just—as a viable alternative to atheism. For some, it is easier to consider the possibility that the purpose of life and the answers to our greatest questions lie in the stars. So, we take to space in search of greater knowledge (either through study of the universe or extraterrestrial beings) that we hope will answer our deepest questions.

No one has found intelligent alien life in outer space yet, but one wonders if it would be a good thing if we did. In the movies, the search for extraterrestrial life in space often leads to downplaying the value or role of humans. One thinks of movies like Prometheus, Aliens, or older films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In each of these films, the ambition of a few principal characters leads to the sacrifice or neglect of many lives.

At a critical point in Ad Astra, we learn that Roy’s father killed off many of his own crew when they refused to continue the journey into deep space. The quest for extraterrestrial life consumed Clifford, and his focus on the mission—to the exclusion of everything else—led him to disregard the lives of his crew. Roy is in danger of letting his search for answers consume him as well. His own actions to find his father inadvertently lead to the deaths of at least three other astronauts.

Exciting as the search for extraterrestrial life might be, one begins to wonder, “Are we missing something?” It is this question that Ad Astra forces us to reckon with.

What are We Missing?
When Roy finally finds his father, he is confronted with a man who is totally lost to the obsession of finding life in outer space. The encounter is the more terrifying because his father is almost beyond remorse.

In examining his father’s records, Roy sees the many beautiful worlds that his father has discovered and he is confronted with a choice. Will he continue on into outer space, taking up where his father left off? In one sense, this would be the easier choice. Roy could avoid dealing with his personal problems and his failure to connect on earth.

But ultimately, Roy chooses a different path. Though his father discovered beautiful worlds, there was no life in them, no love, no human connection—only vast emptiness. Yes, they were beautiful, but they were not what really mattered. We know that Roy has made the right call when he says of his father, “He could only see what wasn’t there,” but he missed what was right under his nose. He missed his family, he missed the value of other humans, and he lost his own son.

Roy concludes with a determination to focus on what really matters, to the exclusion of everything else. He returns to earth, where he seeks to make things right with his wife. Director James Gray’s statement accurately sums up the film, “Roy thinks that the answers to life’s riddles are in space and comes to learn, actually, that the beauty of life is the human connection.”¹

Too often, our search for answers leads us back only to ourselves. It becomes a narcissistic quest for self-fulfillment or self-gratification. It becomes all about us and our needs, what we want and what we desire. “We are the center of the universe. It’s just us.” But Ad Astra won’t let us go down that road, despite its conclusion that “we are all there is.”

Ad Astra is a call to confront our own misplaced ambitions, the things we have focused on to the exclusion of everything else. Many a sad tale is told of pastors who focused so much on “serving the Lord,” that they failed to care for their own families; or the seminarian who got lost in an obscure theological debate and forgot to love his neighbor; or the parent who pushed their child toward their own version of success, but ultimately pushed the child away completely; or the child who throws off their family in pursuit of a goal; or the spouse who abandons their partner for another “more satisfying” person; or the CEO who makes it to the top, but finds that he is alone.

Are these the stories we want to tell? Who are we leaving behind? Are we missing what is right under our noses because we are so focused on our own ambitions? Our desires were meant to point us toward God, Who in turn points us back toward our fellow brothers and sisters who need us. We need human connection more than we need lots of money, fame, power, or material possessions. Ultimately, the search for answers, the search for meaning and purpose, leads us back, not to ourselves, but to a loving God and our fellow human beings.

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