This article features nothing but Ad Astra spoilers.
The distance between fathers and sons can feel lightyears apart, even when they’re in the same room. This is the basic premise of James Gray’s moody and introspective Ad Astra, which places a literal solar system between Roy (Brad Pitt) and Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). It is also the one fleeting, if tangible, emotion to take hold when Pitt’s stoic son must let go of his even more taciturn father. Like some interstellar version of the “Cats and the Cradle,” this generally reserved picture uses emotional anguish and the heat it produces to fill the cold vacuum of space.
The actual events that unfold between the two are fairly simple… even while being subtly impenetrable. Having traveled from Mars to Neptune on a commandeered space shuttle, Roy confronts his once revered papa in the ruins of the Lima Project. That now almost forgotten mission was an open-ended research project designed to discover alien life and intelligence. A group of scientists led by Clifford traveled to Neptune, the last planet in our solar system, so as to better survey the surfaces of countless worlds beyond our earthly horizons. There they set up a space station that was essentially a floating lab where they stayed… until they cut off contact with Earth 16 years ago.
As it turns out, Project Lima did not die due to some unknown disaster as was widely reported, but rather Clifford became more fanatical in his desire to discover alien life, and he made sure mutineering subordinates couldn’t go home after they lost their faith. Three decades later, a new type of energy surge is emanating from Lima and Neptune. It is the same surge that almost killed his son Roy back on Earth when it disables a space antenna, sending him plummeting from the heavens. And it’s a surge of such ferocity it threatens the lives of millions at home. Roy’s superiors believe Clifford is threatening his home planet, but the truth is Clifford doesn’t give a fig for humanity, not even those he is most personally connected to like his son Roy and the unseen wife he left behind. As Cliff eventually confesses, “I knew I widowed my wife and left you an orphan.” His son responds, “I know, Dad,” with Pitt offering his signature disaffected, weary cool.
Roy obviously, desperately yearns for reconciliation, but at the end of the day he is here to put the past to bed, including by literally blowing up the Lima threat, and taking the old man’s legacy—the research of all those empty worlds—back, if not the man himself. That’s impossible with Clifford’s mind and soul lost to the horror of an empty universe. One he’ll soon drift through for all eternity.
That is the bare mechanics of the plot, but what it strives to mean is more elemental. From the beginning, the rarified company Ad Astra wishes to keep is implicit right down to its setting. By situating the climax of his story on Neptune, Gray is more than just picking the last planet from the sun—sorry Pluto apologists—he is going one step further than seminal films in far-reaching science fiction. And none reached further than Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The granddaddy of all modern “hard sci-fi” in cinema, Kubrick changed the way movies were made with that esoteric study of a voyage to the moons of Jupiter. There the secrets of mankind’s origins and destiny were unpacked in an opaque and nigh psychedelic vision of godlike aliens molding us to their own purposes.
No filmmaker had the chutzpah to fully follow that up until Christopher Nolan presented his own treatise on humanity’s future among the stars in Interstellar. If Kubrick’s deep space expedition found its conclusion in Jupiter, then Nolan’s Interstellar would blow right past it for the beginning of its intergalactic voyage that involved a wormhole outside the rings of Saturn. Like Kubrick’s protagonists before them, Nolan’s astronauts believe the wormhole they’ve been beckoned to is made by benevolent extraterrestrials—as almost a divine intervention—but in reality it is manmade, as Nolan imagines a humanist future where we alone are our salvation off this rock.
Ad Astra has Brad Pitt blow past both Jupiter and Saturn in wide shots (Uranus is notably not named or shown in the film) before reaching the culmination of his travels at Neptune. But there are no alien-like constructs here, nor even the pretense of alien life. In fact, it is the lack of little green men that has driven Clifford McBride mad. He came out here certain that he could prove alien life existed, just as he is certain of God, but his mission was a failure if only in his own mind. One planetary survey after the other showed empty surfaces devoid of life or the humanity he left behind. It also left a hole in his belief in God.
This is an irony as far as Roy is concerned. As his voiceover points out at the end, Dad’s mission proved that for all intents and purposes, we are alone—at least as far as we can travel for countless generations. It gives credence to the idea we must invest in what we have right here around us… and not what we hope or pray is in the heavens of the great beyond, be that cosmic or celestial. This is also an epiphany for Roy, who is so much like his old man. While Roy never abandoned a family such as Clifford, he let his wife—seen almost entirely in flashback as portrayed by Liv Tyler—vanish from his life. She saw the same emptiness in him that he inherited from his father. It was his birthright.
That steeliness is perhaps why he has the fortitude to never lose his cool when he’s tumbling from the very top of our atmosphere to the hard ground below during the film’s riveting opening sequence, but it is also why he never had the passion or instinct to salvage his marriage. He instead let it drift alongside the knowledge of what happened to Dad way out there. Roy generally let life happen to him, growing up to be as remote as the father he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager.
His journey across the solar system is obviously intended to mirror that of Charles Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (most famously reimagined by Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). In that story, a man pushes his sanity and soul to the limit due to an antiquated vision of traveling through Africa and beyond the safety net of civilization. There he finds Mr. Kurtz, a former trading post captain turned raving self-anointed deity among natives. Clifford views himself much the same way, a man whose vision of his mission carries with it the weight of God Himself. Like Kurtz he’s gone off the deep end and his superiors want him dead. Roy, in turn, is expected to literally kill the father if he should continue on his quest into the heart of literal darkness. For what is darker than the blackness of space? Of nothingness?
So he experiences vignettes of seeming madness, such as lunar pirates fighting over resources on the moon’s surface or the ennui of government bureaucracy reaching Mars. But these are just obstacles toward the true ending: a son that also must metaphorically kill the father. He didn’t come to Neptune to murder Clifford; he even tries to save him. But the son must let the father go, and the sins that go with them.
Once Roy releases Cliff’s line outside the icy hue of Neptune, he has released the hold his father had on him. He will carry papa’s legacy with him—including his research that proves we are alone, and perhaps that both Kubrick and Nolan’s reach toward a cosmic destiny is folly—but he also is able to let the void left by his father’s absence begin to heal. When he returns home, Roy takes the proactive steps of a man who realizes he doesn’t want to be alone. He is now vocalizing his internal thoughts to his estranged wife and beginning a quest heading toward the sunshine instead of away from it.