At the Venice Film Festival Ad Astra was a hit, not because of the film necessarily but because Brad Pitt was present. Scores of people surrounded the red carpet and journalists packed the press conference to see the super star explain his role in this sci-fi fantasy story with a deeply spiritual theme. It begins saying this time is one of both hope and conflict.
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is called on to help investigate an extreme power surge that will strike the solar system and possibly wipe out human life. The U.S. Space Command believes it originates with the Lima Project, which was created to find intelligent life outside the solar system. It originated with Roy’s father, famed astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who reached Neptune and was never heard from again. They believe he may still be alive but gone rogue. Authorities want Roy to try to make contact with his father by hitching a ride to Mars from the Lunar base. Once on Mars he is rigorously tested. In one radio attempt to connect with his father he goes off script and makes an emotional appeal. We find out that he had a conflicting relationship with his father who had a destructive side to him. In a recording, Clifford says that he feels God’s presence there alone in space. As Roy struggles with his past he sees his own destructive tendencies and his constant alienation of others in his life.
After his emotional appeal, the authorities remove him from the mission and he is told to return home. They bring on another crew to go destroy the Lima Project with nuclear weapons. While sequestered, Roy is visited by Lantos (Ruth Negga), who was born on Mars and whose parents were crew members of the Lima Project mission with his father. She tells him that when the entire crew rallied against Clifford to return to earth when no life was discovered he turned off their life support. Lantos believes Roy needs to confront his father directly and so helps him hitch a ride with the crew sent to destroy him.
© 2019 Ruth Negga as Lentos with Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride. Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.
There are many spiritual references in this film. Clifford prays to St. Christopher and there is an image on his ship. Then when the crew enters the rocket to go destroy the Lima Project the captain prays to all the saints and angels for safe travel with a reference to the “souls” on board. In a strange twist of fate, the ones who pray end up dying. Is it trying to say that prayer is futile?
Once discovered on the rocket going to Neptune, Roy is told he is to be destroyed. A fight ensues and there is an accidental explosion destroying all the crew members except Roy. In the fantastical storyline, one discovers that it is less about the science than about the relationships. Roy realizes that he struggles with rage just like his father, especially when he left the family for this obsessive pursuit of intelligent life. Roy’s own relationships suffer because of the hurt and pain caused by his father. He realizes that he has let that keep him from caring about others, especially his wife. As he reaches Neptune he reflects, “I don’t know if I hope to find him or finally be free of him.”
Though the story is a bit fantastical and choppy in its script, it reflects on our human need for one another. We cannot live alone. Only in relationship do we come to know ourselves. It is the capacity to give of oneself in love to others that gives joy and happiness to life. Roy has to embark on this journey to Neptune to find his father, but really it is a journey within that sets him free. He must face his own rage and fear in order to be at peace. The beauty of the universe and amazing effects of being in space provide the background setting of a deeply spiritual quest. When we go “to the stars” we are defied by the grandeur before us, one that science cannot comprehend. It leads us to imagine what is beyond, what is that something more for which we truly long? That is the human quest—to find our peace in this universe through relationships with others and ultimately with God.