Midway through Ad Astra, the crew of a spacecraft blesses one of their number with the words, “May you meet your Redeemer face to face and enjoy the vision of God forever.” And I sat up straighter. Prior to that scene, I wasn’t sure what kind of a movie this was, other than a story about Brad Pitt as a preternaturally calm and emotionally closed-off astronaut in the near future.
This prayer, and some other key hints dropped throughout the film, put a frame around that image. Yes, Ad Astra is a movie about space travel, about a man played by Brad Pitt who is searching for his father in the furthest reaches of the solar system. But it’s also a movie about God.
Or, more specifically, God’s silence.
That’s not an unusual subject for science fiction to tackle; even when it isn’t specifically about an entity called God, sci-fi often deals with the idea of transcendence, of feeling dwarfed by a world that extends far beyond our naked eyes. Nor is it untrodden territory for prestige cinema; in just the last few years, both Martin Scorsese’s Silence and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed have told stories about a God who goes silent.
But Ad Astra may be unique in its metaphorical approach, in how it answers the questions it raises, and in what it’s doing with those answers.
Ad Astra is about a man looking for his father, and a lot more
Director James Gray’s last film, the 2017 epic The Lost City of Z, was also about an explorer and his son. The way I described that explorer in my review works, almost verbatim, as a description of Ad Astra’s Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones): He “feels earthbound by his ancestors but longs for something greater, some experience that defies definition, to discover something beyond what his own civilization has managed to produce … He craves the experience of transcendence: to move beyond his world and see it as a bigger place, without the strictures placed on him by the culture and religion he was raised in.”
In The Lost City of Z, the adventurer is Victorian and the film’s protagonist. In Ad Astra, he’s an astronaut in the near future; as the film’s title cards explain, man’s ruthless consumption of Earth’s resources has forced him to look elsewhere for the species’ future.
He’s also only a supporting character. Ad Astra focuses instead on his son, Roy McBride (Pitt), who has followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming an astronaut and a major in the space division of the US military. (No, it is not called the “Space Force.”) Roy is stoic and unemotional to a fault, with a heart rate that rarely rises above 80 and an ex-wife named Eve (Liv Tyler) whom he drove away with his inability to be “present” with her, even when they were in the same room.
Roy is devoted to his job, which currently involves working on the International Space Antenna, a giant structure that extends from the Earth’s surface through the atmosphere and into space. But that isn’t why he’s so phlegmatic. We get the distinct impression he’s closed himself off to the world and possibly depressed. He narrates his life to himself — we’re privy to his thoughts but nobody else is — and yet rarely says anything unnecessary out loud. He’s on track to spend the rest of his days as a dependable, decorated public servant.
But then mysterious electric pulses start to rock the Earth, wreaking havoc on equipment and life on Earth as well as at outposts on the moon and Mars. Roy gets a call from his superiors. They have reason to suspect that the source of the pulses, which seem to be coming from deep space, may be Cliff, Roy’s father, who never returned from a mission into deep space years earlier. Cliff was searching for extraterrestrial intelligence; he left when Roy was 16 and then disappeared entirely from communication with Earth when Roy was 29, well over a decade ago.
The military now believes that Cliff is alive and triggering the pulses from somewhere near Neptune. They think Roy might be able to establish contact with him. So they tell Roy they want to send him to the US outpost on Mars to try to make contact. Roy, with unreadable affect, agrees to go and boards a commercial flight for the moon, the first leg of his trip.
Ad Astra gives a distinctly modern answer to man’s search for God
Brad Pitt is having an excellent year, between his role as an enigmatic stuntman in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and now Ad Astra. He carries nearly the whole film on his shoulders. Most other characters are short-lived on-screen figures; in space, you’re mostly alone, especially if you prefer to be left that way. It’s a strong turn for Pitt, one where he can’t lean on his considerable comedic chops. Ad Astra is a wonderful film, but it sure is deadly serious — and Pitt is playing a man whose apparent depression renders him almost devoid of emotion for long stretches. With a set jaw and creased eyes, he draws us into his inner world.
But the most remarkable thing about Ad Astra is that it exists at all, or maybe just that James Gray (who in addition to directing the film, co-wrote its screenplay with Fringe writer Ethan Gross) managed to raise enough money to make it. It is beautiful, giving space a feeling of tangibility, but it is not for everyone. It’s slow and very little happens, despite a thrilling chase scene involving space pirates. And even though there’s a little bit of world-building — we spot a Hudson News and an Applebee’s on the moon while Roy bemoans the fact that humans went to space and just replicated the stuff they have on Earth — it’s not a movie about futuristic society.
Instead, Ad Astra follows the grand tradition of many other science fiction films in interrogating the nature of what it means to be human. And that happens two ways.
On one rather literal level, Ad Astra is about an absent father whose absence profoundly impacted son and about how love is what makes us human and keeps us that way. It’s the story of a son driven to search for his missing father and what he learns from that quest. In this regard, it’s a worthy follow-up to The Lost City of Z, which was partly about the fraught relationship between a parent whose passions led him away from home for years at a time and the child who grappled with his legacy and then joined him.
But Ad Astra gets bigger and more significant when you think about it as a movie about God, or rather about the way we feel about God in modernity. I don’t know if Gray meant it this way — and as an always-faltering but still-practicing Christian, I hope his vision of the future isn’t accurate — but what he’s made is a movie about the feeling of God’s absence.
To explain, I’ll need to talk more about what happens in the film. But if you don’t want to read on, know that Ad Astra is beautiful, contemplative, and loaded with meaning — not an action movie, but one that leaves you with plenty to ponder.
Cliff, Roy’s father, doesn’t actually show up in Ad Astra until near the end, and even then it’s a little hard to tell whether he’s real. (For most of his scenes, I thought Roy might be hallucinating him and I’m still not totally sure he’s not.)
But his presence hovers over the whole movie. He’s an absent yet omnipresent specter, sending what seems to be judgement (in the form of electrical pulses) down onto humanity for reasons the humans can’t quite figure out. Desperate for a solution, they send his son (his only son, I might point out; if that doesn’t make him a Christ figure, it sure comes close) as their intermediary, a person who might talk to God — er, I mean Cliff — on their behalf.
This reading of Ad Astra might seem like the kind of stretch a pastor makes in a sermon except that a Christian conception of God is very consciously invoked in the film beginning early on. The pilots of one spacecraft are heard asking for St. Christopher’s protection (Christopher being the patron saint of journeys) as a rocket launches. Roy watches old footage of his father aboard the mission on which he disappeared, saying that in space he feels closer to God, feels his presence as he never did on Earth. There’s the aforementioned prayer offered by the crew on behalf of a dead colleague and also the general sense of awe that pervades the film.
There’s no one-to-one correlation here; you can’t map the story of Ad Astra directly onto man’s search for God or some part of the New Testament. But the parallels are striking. And they become particularly notable when Roy finally finds his father out near Neptune, then realizes that his father has disconnected himself from humanity to the degree that he has no interest in coming home. Cliff is doing Roy a service, in a sense, when he tells his son to “let go” of him, to push him away. Roy then lets go of his conception of his father as much as he lets go of his actual father — and what’s left for him is an overwhelming sense that the only things that make life worth living are not “out there” somewhere, way out by Neptune or in heaven, but down on Earth, where people are.
Twice, that idea is visually reinforced on screen. Briefly, Roy and Cliff grapple in space, arms locked, Cliff trying to get away and Roy trying to hang on. The resulting image is a version of the hand that God reaches out toward man (at least in Michelangelo’s rendering on the Sistine Chapel ceiling), now desperate, man clinging to God for dear life, before finally letting go. Then a variation arrives near the film’s end: Roy lands on Earth and the first thing he sees when the door to his ship opens is a hand outstretched from above — the hand not of God or of his legendary father but of an ordinary man.
So there’s a sense in which Ad Astra is a movie about immanence winning out over transcendence: the notion that if God or something like it really did exist, it’s been gone for so long that all we have to keep us human, to actually make life worth living, is not our search for God but our love for one another down on Earth. Meaning is here; it’s not out there. We need to let go of our conceptions of some other being.
Of course, that’s not what Christianity or any number of other religious traditions teach. But it is a persuasive appeal worth pondering in our age, when most anything wondrous can be explained by science and where some people who spend their lives searching for God do so by neglecting the very real needs of their fellow man.
This is why I think the “absence of God” motif in Ad Astra is valuable no matter your belief system. If we’re receptive, it leaves us pondering the fact that an encounter with a universe that’s much bigger than ourselves — either in the solar system or in the heavens — can force us into an encounter with, well, ourselves. It’s our human foibles and failures that we encounter in solitude, our inability to love one another, and the possibility of letting our “search for God” overtake that love is chilling. Any God who doesn’t want us to love one another is not a God worth having.
Ad Astra is a poetic, almost symphonic testament to this idea, and a stunning one. In the credits, Gray thanks Tracy K. Smith, the former poet laureate who won the Pulitzer for her 2011 collection Life on Mars, an elegy to her father, who worked on the Hubble telescope and died in 2008.
One of the poems in the book is titled “My God, It’s Full of Stars” (Ad Astra takes it title from the Latin phrase for “to the stars”). In it, Smith invokes a variety of myths and stories, from the legend of the lost city of Atlantis to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It concludes with the perfect description of how history, humanity, and space interact in an ultimate search for meaning:
My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit-up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise
As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.
We learned new words for things. The decade changed.
The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is—
So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.
Ad Astra opens in theaters on September 20.