Roy McBride is alone.
And as the son of a long-lost space pioneer, that is exactly what he wants. After all, there is only the mission and then the next mission. There is nothing else, nor is there room for anything else. Rise in the morning. Work ’til dusk. Sleep. Do it all over again. But when a new threat arises that threatens all of humanity, McBride will be pushed to his limits as he goes on a singular philosophical journey across the solar system to save it.
Ad Astra (Latin for “To the Stars”) is a 2019 American psychological, science fiction drama that is film produced, co-written, and directed by James Gray. Starring Brad Pitt as the stoic astronaut McBride, the film follows an astronaut who ventures into space in search of his lost father, whose obsession to find intelligent alien life threatens the solar system and all life on the earth. Ironically, he threatens to destroy exactly what he is looking for in the universe: sentient life.
For McBride, his emotionally distant father contributed to his focused work ethic. His father, the famed scientist and astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), left him nearly three decades ago on a space voyage with one goal: to discover alien life. For a few years, there was still communication between him and Earth, before he finally went dark in deep space, sixteen years ago. The younger McBride has all but buried his relationship with his father, accepting a life of solitude, especially after his wife leaves him due to his lack of emotion and love. However, when strange energy pulses from deep space threaten life on Earth, NASA and the other scientists across the globe suspect the long lost space pioneer. McBride is assigned the task of reaching out, to travel to the space station on Mars and send out a message, calling to his father, and hopefully ending the crisis.
Of course, as all journeys go, it is not that simple. As the mission develops unexpectedly, McBride fights space pirates, disobeys commands, hijacks a rocket to Neptune, and embarks on a month-long voyage alone to save the solar system by stopping the pulses.
As the months pass, the emotional wounds McBride has been hiding for so long tear into him more and more. The further he goes into space, the more acute he becomes of his relational problems and the void of love in his life. When he finally does reach his father’s spaceship, he sees his father for the first time in sixteen years. Clifford explains that he is determined to continue his mission and find extraterrestrial life, and he confesses that Earth was never truly his home.
This is a powerful climax for Roy, as his own emotional traumas are reflected in his father, whose life’s devotion to his work has ultimately failed him. Roy sees his father for what he truly is, a deprived old man that never cared about his family or anything besides the next mission. Roy has an emotional epiphany and urges his father to return home with him. This invitation to travel back to Earth together emphasizes Roy’s personal growth, despite the trauma his father has caused him.
Roy returns home with a better understanding of the value of human life and questions his father’s search for life elsewhere when he did not appreciate his life on Earth. Changed by the moments he shared with his father, and the days alone traveling through space, he understands that life is more than just work and goals; people, relationships, and love matter. Inspired to reconnect with those closest to him, the movie ends on McBride’s conclusion: “Now we know, that we are all we got.”
This movie carries a particular amount of weight amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While Ad Astra was already a deeply philosophical and insightful film, watching it under the context of a world-wide shutdown full of stay-at-home orders and quarantine mandates strikes a deeper chord in the audience. As McBride ventures alone into the far reaches of the known universe, we have also been going on a journey. While most humans haven’t traveled through two billion miles of space alone, coronavirus and the ensuing pandemic have brought a similar experience to so many people. Even though our journey has not been across the solar system, we have all been asked to go into a period of solitude and isolation, much like what McBride did as he traveled for months in deep space. For the lone wolf McBride – and for many introverts out there, not interacting with other humans for months may seem like a dream. However, as we and McBride have discovered, human interaction is more important than we ever realized.
After being locked in our homes, away from our friends, our coworkers, even our annoying neighbors, it becomes clearer than ever that people do need relationships in their lives and that life is not lived for work, but for love. The pandemic has taught us many things, but none more important than relationships and time spent with our loved ones. Perhaps humans will finally acknowledge these truths, and take heed of the final words of Roy McBride:
“I will live. And love.”