Unpacking metaphor, mirrors and monkey business in Ad Astra, and asking: does that ambiguous ending actually happen?
When a deep-space power surge brings one astronaut crashing back to Earth, it kick-starts a disorienting quest for the truth.
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) soon learns the source of the blast is a space station which vanished more than a decade ago. Now, not only is the ship’s commander – Roy’s father – not dead after all, but he’s causing the surges.
With H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) carrying enough anti-matter to end the solar system, Roy sets off on a top-secret op to talk his dad back from the brink. But the closer Roy gets to Neptune, the more the mission spirals into madness.
A story hiding behind blockbuster tropes
It’s fair to say Ad Astra lies at the highbrow end of the sci-fi spectrum. It may come with a side of big explosions and space monkeys, but this is an introspective tale of loss and loneliness.
To get to that, you need to look past the blockbuster tropes – not to mention some pretty bogus (or strategic?) marketing.
Not only does the trailer feature material cut from the movie, but that movie is 1998’s Armageddon, complete with looming annihilation, a fearless hero and Liv Tyler.
Needless to say, Ad Astra doesn’t deliver on these cues. Here, the planetary destruction is mere backstory, Roy McBride an anti-hero, and Liv barely more than a prop.
Still, what lurks beneath the bombast is a story that says something meaningful and moving about the human condition. Ironically, in the end, that’s classic sci-fi.
Ad Astra and the human compulsion
Ad astra, Latin for “to the stars”, is a big clue to the film’s themes and encounters.
Most obviously, the story revolves around Roy’s voyage to Neptune to find his dad. However, that journey has striking parallels with finding a “father in heaven”, and mirrors Clifford’s own obsessions with touching God.
Variations of the phrase also appear in mottos, such as “per ardua ad astra” and “ad astra per aspera”: through hardship to the stars. And what is that if not the skeleton of most plots, space-bound or otherwise?
The phrase even appears – in disguise – in the film’s opening title card.
Humans have always looked to the skies. We send prayers to heaven, wonder where we came from, and ask if we’re all alone out here.
In the film, however, the desire to find greater meaning in the universe is an overwhelming compulsion.
That’s why a giant International Space Antenna looms above the Earth. And, ultimately, it drives Roy’s dad to the edge of the solar system … and into insanity.
Journeys in storytelling
It is a truth universally acknowledged that films which put a journey front and centre of the plot are never just about the journey. Movie voyages are tools of transformation: it’s not just the landscape that changes, but the protagonists. The Fly has a great spin on this, btw.
As you’d expect, then, there are a couple of journeys in Ad Astra.
Firstly, there’s Roy’s mission to Mars (via the Moon) to send a message to his dad. When the message fails to save Clifford, Roy commandeers a ship and heads for Neptune.
As it turns out, that journey is also a metaphor. The story of a man coming to terms with a lifetime of hurt is a parable for grief, resolution and saying goodbye.
This is Roy’s true destination. At the start of the story, he’s so cool, calm and collected that he’s entirely detached from his emotions. That may help when you’re working in space, but it’s no good for staying married or feeling fulfilled.
Learning to let go allows Roy to grow up, too. When he finally returns to Earth, he’s a changed man. “I will live and love,” he says, sounding dangerously like inspirational wall art. Still, he’s no longer an automaton, but a vulnerable, feeling human – flaws and all.
This low-key ending isn’t just about Roy, though. Humanity in the film’s “near future” toes the line between hope and despair.
Sure, we can build floating towers in space to send intergalactic whispers … but what if no one answers?
Lost in space?
After three decades of being utterly alone, it’s very likely Clifford McBride is quite mad. After all, he kills his crew because they want to stop searching and go home.
In fact, Clifford’s insanity is driven by a very different kind of isolation.
Project Lima was the first manned expedition to the outer solar system, an offshoot of humanity’s compulsion to find intelligent life “out there”. Incidentally, 29 years later, Roy works for the same goal on the International Space Antenna.
Note, though, that the search is for “intelligent life”. This means complex organisms (aliens), but also points to God or divine consciousness. Archive footage of Clifford even hints at this underlying motive.
Rather than finding God in the dark, however, Project Lima uncovers the hell of the eternal void. For all the strange and magnificent worlds out there, there’s nothing beneath the surface. There’s beauty, but no life, no meaning, and no maker.
Ad Astra’s vision of the future underscores this bleak revelation. Our species looks to the stars for signs of intelligent life … while a violent war for resources rages on the Moon.
Either way, what Project Lima discovers forces a deadly schism: the crew want to give up, Clifford wants to go on. Their struggle (he says) causes the electrical surges.
If the story is a parable for grief, Clifford’s madness mirrors humanity’s bigger loss. In a world of science, it’s hard to see or hear God … and we haven’t found any aliens, either. Like Clifford, maybe we’re all alone out here.
Everyone and no one is a hero
Roy and Clifford are looking for what’s lost. In their own ways, each is searching for a father figure, only to be disappointed. Meh, it’s not as bleak as it sounds. More significantly, it’s one of myriad ways these characters mirror each other.
When they leave Earth, the curiously decrepit Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) confides that men like Clifford use exploration as a way to disappear. In fact, this is exactly what Roy later learns: Clifford is hiding on Project Lima. And he’s not the only one.
SpaceCom pushes the image of Clifford as the ultimate hero to mask the truth: they’ve lost control of Project Lima, the beacon of humanity’s search for meaning. But, it turns out, others are hiding behind the same mask.
- Like Clifford, Roy uses his astronaut persona as a disguise. Really, he’s always looking for an exit (from people and pain).
- When Cepheus picks up an SOS call en route to Mars, Roy realises the first lieutenant is scared but, like everyone else, can’t show it.
So, persona is a performance (see also Unknown). Thus, Ad Astra flips conventional storytelling emblems of masculinity and heroism. This adds to the film’s sense of disorientation, a story in which, once again, the cues don’t deliver on expectations.
The infinite mirror
How else are Roy and Clifford twinned characters? Clearly, both are astronauts, self-absorbed, and emotionally unavailable; both abandon their wives. Both work on the same project, 30 years apart.
So far, so obvious. However note also:
- Roy boarding the SOS craft to find it full of dead astronauts foreshadows his arrival on Lima.
- Similarly, Clifford’s body language parallels the angry baboon. After the monkey attack, Roy notes: “I’ve seen that rage in my father, and I’ve seen that rage in me.”
- Roy wants to be like his dad, and IS like him, but also wants to be different. At one point, he wonders: “Am I you, being pulled down the same dark hole?”
- Eve says Roy has self-destructive tendencies. So does Clifford (quite literally, you might say).
- Roy kills the crew of the Cepheus to get what he wants, just like Clifford does on Lima.
In Ad Astra, this comes down to the choice each makes on being alone in the universe. For Clifford, the enormity of isolation is too much, and not enough. He chooses to stay behind, and to die.
Roy has a different kind of revelation, realising Clifford:
“could only see what was not there, and missed what was right in front of him.”
Roy is tethered to Clifford long before their deep-space showdown. Now, he chooses to unclip, go home and be part of the world once more.
In its final frames, Ad Astra offers us the glimpse of resolution, and a happier ending. Still, the question remains: does this father-son reunion really happen?
The ambiguous ending
Of course Ad Astra works exactly as we see it unfold. It’s a fantastical story grounded in the realism of physics and space travel. Well, kinda.
There’s no end of rebuttals to the film’s science, including tweets by Neil Tyson. Still, essentially it’s a story about two men who go to the edge of the solar system, and only one comes back. The End.
… not quite. There are pockets of disorientation that suggest this film is entirely or partly dream-like (or, if you want to get cynical about it, needs more work).
- The movie begins with a character falling to certain death, but who miraculously “wakes up” … to his unresolved trauma
- Everyone believes Clifford died years ago and, you know what, that’s way more likely
- Strangely prescient dialogue mirrors Roy’s subconscious working through grief and betrayal (psst: your dad’s a big phoney hiding out on Neptune)
- The plot’s creeping sense of claustrophobia: “Seven weeks since Earth. Since air, since sun … trees and birds”
- As Roy nears Neptune, he drifts between dreams, memories and hallucinations
- Clifford’s real-talk at the end may be face-melting honesty or insanity. But it also sounds like the story we tell ourselves when someone hurts us. It confirms Clifford never cared about Roy … neatly setting up the big release to come
- When loved ones die, it’s common to imagine they’re not dead at all, but somehow living somewhere else. Ad Astra is pure wish fulfilment. If Clifford is already dead, of course Roy can’t bring him home. Instead, he imagines a final goodbye.
… and back again
If Ad Astra is a fever dream, that might explain the monkeys. On their own, however, they don’t necessarily suggest delusion, because there’s a plausible reason for their being in the plot.
Simply put, the electrical surge knocks out the craft’s power, releasing the vengeful baboons. Story of my life.
Either way, the monkeys are symbols of rage and isolation. Like Colonel Pruitt, they’re a message to Roy’s subconscious, steering him to a life-changing realisation.
Whether Clifford dies now or years back, in the end what plays out on screen is the story one character tells to release the pain of loss.
Of course, the final irony is that this all takes place at a time when humanity desperately scans the stars for meaning.
The message that comes back – a [divine?] wave of energy – isn’t the one we’ve been waiting for; it’s not even compatible with our existence. But for the man who picks up the call, it’s the answer of a lifetime.
Ad Astra (2019), directed by James Gray
What to read or watch next
- Fight Club (Brad Pitt)
- Gravity (space, grief, falling to Earth)
- Sunshine (space, isolation)
- Moon (space, isolation, liminal female characters)
- The Grey (ambiguity, grief, liminal female characters)
- Solaris (space, cerebral sci-fi)
- Arrival, Rendezvous with Rama, Project Hail Mary (alien life)
Picture credit: NASA