People talk about the void in space. But what about the void inside ourselves?
Roy McBride feels that void keenly. He embraces it, in fact. That void makes him the astronaut he is: clearheaded and ice-cold under pressure. It’s been said that his pulse has never breeched 80—not even when he fell off the miles-high International Space Antenna and nearly died in a spectacular splatter.
But that same void also makes it impossible to form healthy relationships, even with his own wife. He’s a shell of a man, free of pesky emotional distractions but unable to feel … anything.
Perhaps he inherited the void from his dad. Clifford McBride is the most decorated astronaut in world history, but he was a distant father—certainly emotionally, often literally. Roy hasn’t seen his dad since since Clifford left on what was supposed to be the crown jewel of his sparkling career, when Roy was just 16.
Clifford was selected to head of the Lima Project—a manned mission to the edge of the solar system to look for extraterrestrial life. And on that journey to Neptune, Clifford continued to burnish his stellar reputation, logging a whole bunch of new achievements. But then, suddenly, the Lima Project and all onboard seemed to vanish. They were never heard from again.
Well, so went the story anyway.
After a series of mysterious energy surges rock the solar system, Roy’s called in by SpaceCom brass for a top-secret talk. The surges, they tell him, are coming from Neptune. And the brass is pretty sure they have something to do with the Lima Project. So while the official line is that Clifford McBride is a very decorated and very dead astronaut, they have reason to believe the guy is still alive… and he might be somehow responsible.
Unfortunately, they can’t reach him.”Your father may be hiding from us,” they say. But a word or two from his son might be just the thing to bring Clifford out into the open.
Communication in outer space isn’t as easy as typing out a text on the iPhone 128, though. Neptune’s nearly 3 billion miles away, and the surges have played havoc on the solar system’s communication network. Roy will need to fly to Mars and North America’s last undamaged outpost there, send a pre-scripted message toward Neptune and … hope for the best.
Roy’s father might be alive? His project might be behind these catastrophic surges? You’d think this would be a lot for Roy to take in. And perhaps it is. But you’d never know it. He blinks once and agrees to go. His pulse is as regular as the orbit of Jupiter.
After all … like father, like son.
Both McBride men would certainly qualify as heroes on some level. Space travel and (especially) exploration, even in the movie’s not-too-distant future, is no job for the faint of heart. And both of them are not only willing to do it, but they do it exceptionally well.
Everyone knows all about Clifford McBride’s space exploits, of course. One space jockey tells Roy that his dad’s the reason most of them became astronauts in the first place. “He was the best of us,” the guy gushes. “Imagine the things he saw. Imagine.” And whatever role Clifford might (or might not) have in the surges, you can’t take away his accomplishments.
With Clifford lost in space, we get to see far more of Roy’s derring-do. He deals with a bevy of pulse-quickening terrors with a preternatural calm, saving lives in the process. And even though he has complex feelings about his father, Roy wants to save the older man’s life, too—if he’s still alive and if that’s possible.
Indeed, while Roy may pretend that this trip is just another job, he hopes that somehow, it’ll lead to an unlikely reunion—a chance to connect with a father he barely knew. At times, Roy’s desperate desire for that connection feels almost as tactile as the soil of Mars.
And that, when the credits roll, is what the movie wants us to remember: Not Roy’s skill as an astronaut, but the very human emotions that he rediscovers on his journey. In the emptiness of space, Roy finds he’s not so empty after all.
Clifford never bothered to look down at his son much—perhaps because he spent so much time looking upward. And he wasn’t just looking to the stars, but to God. In one of his last messages back home (received years before), Clifford tells Roy that he thanks God for the work—and that he’s overwhelmed by His presence out there. “So close,” he says.
It’s not the last spiritual reference we’re given, either. Right before a rocket takes off from the moon to Mars, the ship’s captain offers a prayer to St. Christopher, asking for safety on their journey. And when someone dies, he’s given a surprisingly tender funeral. “May you meet your Redeemer face to face and enjoy the vision of God forever.”
But it’s Clifford who seems the most taken with the transcendent. The movie suggests that his search for extra-terrestrial life and his religious faith go hand in hand. “For certain I am doing God’s work,” he says in another missive (though, in context, that’s more a confirmation of an unhinged mind than an expression of faith that we’d like to see), and when Roy sees a National Geographic cover that asks “Is Anybody Out There?” Roy has scrawled across it, “YES, YES, YES!” in what might be described as a profession of faith, both in extraterrestrial life and the Almighty.
At one juncture, Roy contemplates the influence of his father in scriptural terms, saying, “And the son suffers the sins of the father.” Someone talks about being “free of your moral values” in the farthest recesses of space.
In flashback, we see Roy and his wife, Eve, on their bed on occasion, but fully clothed and covered and simply enjoying each other’s company. Roy confirms to SpaceCom officials that he and Eve never had children.
Also worth noting: At least one trailer and some production photos showed a scene that included scantily clad male and female holographs (including a guy wearing briefs and a cowboy hat). This scene didn’t make the final cut of the film.
Note to the future: Never take baboons into space.
Roy encounters a couple of the primates here—creatures that were originally housed in a floating laboratory but escaped due to the recent surge. One kills and partially eats a guy: We see the man’s broken helmet, his gorily disfigured face and a bloody stump of a hand.
In a showdown with moon pirates, several people get shot (one brutally in the head) and fly off their lunar cruisers. Someone flies into the door of a spacecraft—dying in the process and leaving bloody spatter on the window. Two people are asphyxiated. A creature explodes in a spacecraft, splattering a window with gore. A man flies off into space, to his apparent doom. A few folks fall off the incredibly tall space antenna, presumably to their deaths. Roy falls, too: He deploys a parachute once the atmosphere is thick enough for it to be useful, but debris tears through the chute, making for a rough landing.
A dead mouse floats around. Someone suffers what looks to be either an injury or serious health problem. We hear later that he’s been taken into emergency surgery. We hear that the latest surge killed more than 43,000 people.
Roy talks about the anger he feels. “I’ve seen that rage in my father,” he says. “I’ve seen that rage in me.” In flashback, we see a still-earthbound Clifford roughly grab Roy—then just a little boy—and pull him out of sight of the movie camera. We don’t see what happens after that, but it’s suggested that the kid potentially was beaten.
[Spoiler Warning] We learn that there was a mutinous clash aboard the Lima Project ship. We hear audio footage (which consists of lots of screams), and then see video of Clifford saying that he locked the rest of the crew in another part of the ship and executed them. He admits that he “punished the innocent along with the guilty.” Bodies float in the ruins of the Lima: One looks as though its head has been crushed to a nubbin, blood coating the inside of what seems like a plastic bag. Someone who knows what Clifford did tells Roy, “Your father murdered my parents.”
One f-word is uttered—an unfortunate standout in a movie that mostly eschews from strong language. We do hear one use of the word “b–ch,” though, three uses of “h—” and four misuses of God’s name (including three pairings with “d–n.”) We see a couple of crude hand gestures.
Astronauts aboard a Mars-bound ship are given mood enhancers to help them deal with the long journey and the growing space between them and their home planet. (Roy is given the substance, but he does not actually take it.)
SpaceCom officials are less-than-forthcoming with what they mean to do once they find and make contact with the Lima Project. Roy disobeys orders and sneaks aboard a spaceship (with tragic consequences). Finally, let’s face it: Clifford’s kind of a jerk.
In the movie’s press notes, writer/director James Gray says that Ad Astra pulled from a lot of sources, ranging from Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, The Hero’s Journey to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But he especially drew from Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness. And this film does indeed go to some dark places.
Clifford, like Conrad’s enigmatic Kurtz, is a complex figure: hero, villain, madman. And Roy’s quest to find him isn’t just about stopping the surges. It’s about understanding his enigmatic father and, perhaps, finding some sense of redemption. It’s about saving Clifford from the fate he deserves, perhaps, or saving Clifford from himself, or saving even their relationship—a relationship that was never really there in the first place. Roy’s terrified of reuniting with his father: He admits as much. But he has to try: “I don’t know if I hope to find him or finally be free of him.”
My feelings on the movie itself are conflicted as well.
Ad Astra thinks it’s smarter than it is. Yes, the characters drawn here are complex and compelling, and I found the story pretty engaging. But sometimes it feels like it doesn’t quite know what to do with the space side of things. It all feels pretty grounded and realistic, and then a rocket lands on Mars like a pencil—eraser side touching down on the landing pad. The film is anchored by some fine performances (via Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones), but even though it wants to give off a 2001-like vibe, it dares not embrace its ambiguity, and so some of its messages feel just a little on the nose.
And then, of course, audiences must navigate moments of bloody violence here—moments that throw off Ad Astra’s contemplative vibe and push it closer to horror.
We’ve been treated to some provocative sci-fi films recently, from Gravity to Interstellar to Arrival. Ad Astra aims for the same orbit, but it’s both darker and dimmer. And despite its ultimately heartening message about human connection, it still keeps the audience at arm’s length.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.