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Warning: spoilers for Ad Astra are in play. If you haven’t seen the film yet, return to Earth, and blast off once you’ve caught the film for yourself.
By the time Ad Astra’s ending sees Brad Pitt completing a mission that takes him to the depths of known space, an audience member wouldn’t be faulted for being confused about what just happened. What seems to start as a routine “mission into space” turns into a journey of emotional catharsis, with some punctuated moments of action.
So naturally, when you get to those last moments that see Pitt’s astronaut Roy McBride reevaluating life in light of learning the true legacy of his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), it might feel a bit blindsiding. Have no fear though, as we’re here to discuss not only what happened at the end of director James Gray’s Ad Astra, but also what it means in the entire structure of the larger story at work.
What Happened At The End Of Ad Astra
Father and son clash on the outskirts of Neptune, as Roy, disobeying orders from his superiors at U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM), travels out to try and bring his father home. The only problem is, Clifford doesn’t want to return, as he readily admits he left his family and Earth for his “destiny”: to find intelligent life, no matter the cost.
Far beyond his original task of merely playing the role of bait to draw his father out of exile, Ad Astra’s mission to save the Earth from the supposedly mutinous Clifford turns out to be a big misunderstanding. The Surge that threatens Earth, and life in all of the universe, was a colossal accident, not some sort of villainous plot on the elder McBride’s part.
A scuffle between Roy and Clifford results in the son having to let go of the father, as Clifford would rather float into the vastness of space than live with the knowledge that there’s no intelligent life in the stars. Retrieving the vast treasure trove of data his father gathered for The Lima Project, the mission to find extra-terrestrial life out among the stars, Roy returns to Earth a changed man. He is able to reconnect with humanity in a way we haven’t seen before, with his marriage to estranged wife Eve (Liv Tyler) possibly being mended.
Where Ad Astra’s Conflict Really Comes From
Despite the conflict in Ad Astra being originally set up as simply hunting down a madman on the edge of space, the greatest threats and agents of change in Roy’s journey are the things he notices on his journey. The journey, not the destination, is where the beating heart of this movie lies, as the burden of expectations is the true villain of this narrative.
Throughout his life, Roy McBride is trying to live up to the shadow of his father’s work with The Lima Project. He shuns personal connections, and anything that feels like a normal life, to keep his eyes on his personal mission to the stars. To him, space travel is still one of the great equalizers, and the quest to find higher meaning in the universe is a siren’s call to him, as it was to Clifford.
However, we slowly see his Ad Astra worldview break down with each step in his journey. Roy slowly learns that humanity’s obsession with space is no longer special. The Moon looks like a Newark Airport style tourist trap, with raiders fighting it out for resources. And with the knowledge that there is no extra-terrestrial life out there, Brad Pitt’s protagonist walks away with one key takeaway: “Now we know, we’re all we’ve got”.
Ad Astra’s conflict originally looks to be about Roy finding his father and stopping a horrific event from happening. But the real struggle is Roy learning the truth about Clifford’s legacy, humanity’s journey to space, and ultimately his decision to reconnect with humanity itself as a result.
How Roy Reconnects With Humanity Through Ad Astra
Dedicated to the mission of the space program, Ad Astra introduces us to Brad Pitt’s Roy as a person who prefers solitude. He enjoys working on the International Space Antenna, and pretends as much as he can to enjoy other people’s company. So when SPACECOM asks him to go on a mission to establish contact with his long lost father, Roy jumps at the chance.
His obsession breaks apart gradually, as we previously discussed, and ultimately Roy chooses to reconnect with his humanity at the end of Ad Astra. Roy makes this choice because of two big developments, the first of which is his disillusion with the world of space travel.
But in another sort of twist in Ad Astra’s story, SPACECOM turns out to be less than trusting when it comes to Roy being able to potentially kill his father, and destroy the Lima Project outpost, in order to prevent another surge from wiping out all life. With the substitute father he devoted his life and time to turning functionally using him for their own means, and the truth about Clifford McBride’s own legacy being readily apparent, Roy chooses to recommit himself to life on Earth.
How Roy’s Relationship With Humanity Defines Ad Astra
With the line, “I look forward to the day my solitude ends, and I am home.”, Roy shows how his space journey has changed him. By the end of Ad Astra, the first thing he’s greeted with upon landing on Earth is a hand reaching out to help him, and he gladly accepts. Knowing humanity only has itself to rely on, Roy McBride is now officially a member of the human race yet again.
Ad Astra, at its core, is about a man who, once he learns some hard truths about the system he idealizes, allows himself to become human again. The great question, “Are we alone in the universe?” is answered two fold. While there’s no intelligent life, we as a species have each other to keep us company in the great expanse.
The answers humanity seeks aren’t “out there”, they’re at home; because if we can’t deal with our problems on Earth, they’re just going to repeat themselves anywhere we go. Learning the truth about how much his father and SPACECOM truly value him as a person, Brad Pitt’s character is able to return home to Earth with a clear head, trying to make things right with his wife, and humanity at large.