Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we head out in search of the meaning of the ending of Ad Astra.
From its opening sequence, James Gray’s Ad Astra promises to be an exciting outer space odyssey. The film hardly begins before we are thrust into the spectacle of rugged, space-suit-clad Roy McBride (Brad Pitt in a career-defining performance) tumbling to earth from a Space Antenna in a shocking, nerve-pinching sequence. From this moment on, we settle in for what we assume will be a thrilling space-romp like First Man or The Martian. What we get, however, is much, much different.
The reason for Roy’s epic plunge is a power surge that came from a mysterious device near Neptune. Was this power surge a terrorist attack? It’s starting to look suspiciously like it. To make things more complicated, a space mission called The Lima Project went radio-silent right around that exact area. Oh, and just because things weren’t quite weird enough, Roy’s thought-dead father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was a part of The Lima Project.
So, how do we make sense of all of this? Is Roy’s dad alive? And, if so, is he behind a massive terrorist attack on Earth? Roy is sent to Mars to communicate with Clifford in the hopes that a response would help those on Earth identify his exact location, and hopefully prevent future mayhem.
Ad Astra comes to its climax when Roy, after receiving communication from his father, disobeys the orders from his superiors and travels to the outskirts of Neptune to bring the senior Clifford back to earth. But Clifford doesn’t want to go home. It turns out that the reason The Lima Project went silent in the first place was that those aboard the mission failed to find anything to support their theory that extraterrestrial life exists out there. But Clifford believes it does exist somewhere out there in space, and he’ll do anything to find it. And if that means becoming an old man, alone in a broken-down spacecraft, and never seeing his son again, that’s a price he’s more than happy to pay.
So, Roy makes the most devastating choice of his life: he leaves his father behind forever and returns back home to Earth. Despite his heartache, waiting for Roy back home is his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), and, most importantly, the revelation that there probably isn’t extraterrestrial activity in space like his father thinks. And that’s okay. And, furthermore, if there is, well, it doesn’t matter anyway. Perhaps his father will find some alien forms up on Neptune. But regardless, Clifford will remain alone: physically and psychologically. Roy now knows that his home is on Earth, and that he is far from alone.
At the end of Ad Astra, Roy is rescued from his spacecraft back on Earth. A group of men runs toward him. At first, they look like aliens, but when they come into focus, they are unmistakably human. Roy seems to have this realization at the same moment we do and smiles as he is greeted, tears in his eyes.
While being quarantined following his expedition, Roy says, “I look forward to the day my solitude ends, and I am home.” Indeed, Roy’s solitude in quarantine is physical, and he is looking forward to being physically reconnected with his loved ones. But his solitude up until this point has been persistently psychological. For his entire career, Roy felt as though there was something missing. He imagined that without his father, and without the knowledge that we are not alone in the universe, he was alone. Ad Astra posits, then, that as long as you believe there is something greater waiting for you beyond your own home, you are living in solitude.
What begins as a space-adventure becomes much, much more about Earth than space. Great space films have always told us that we have to venture to the edges of the universe to really appreciate our own humanity. Take Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films feature a heroic venture to the outskirts of atomic capabilities only to discover a newfound appreciation for human life.
Ad Astra does something similar, but it is never really about space to begin with. It is never about unexplored planets, or alien communication, or extraterrestrial properties. It is about a father and a son, and the sacrifices the son must make to be whole again.