I was stunned to discover an inspirational message within the movie Ad Astra. I’d read about the dramatic cinematography and went into the theatre expecting an entertaining but essentially “light” experience. In all honesty, I’d avoided reading much about it, because I didn’t want to read any spoilers. The only thing that might have given me a hint was a blurb somewhere comparing it to the movie Solaris. But reading reviews after the movie, I’m surprised to see how few reviews even mention what, to me, was a stunning surprise.
Most reviews focus on the cinematography and mention how this was based on real science. Well, visually they were certainly correct; the movie is visually fantastic. As to the supposedly real science…I’ve learned that being a physicist I’d be unable to watch many science fiction movies if I expected such a thing to be true. Science mistakes abound, but perhaps less than most such movies. I just locked my inner scientist in the closet so that I could enjoy the show without hearing him scream.
What was immediately obvious is that this movie is a character study. I enjoyed that aspect thoroughly, though I must admit I worried after a while that the movie might be less science fiction and more of a “daddy issues” story in space. As I found out, it was much more than that. But I’ll get back to that shortly.
The plot is basically that Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) has a astronaut-hero dad (Tommy Lee Jones) that everyone believes died many years ago, on a mission to the outer solar system looking for signs of intelligent life. It turns out this isn’t quite the case, and daddy is somewhere around Neptune doing nefarious things that require intervention from Earth. Roy is brought in to try and appeal to his dad. He sets out on a journey that eventually leads him to Neptune.
We learn when first meeting Roy, and throughout his journey, that he is a closed-off person who has walled himself emotionally from the world. This has driven his wife (Liv Tyler) to leave him. It is obvious that her leaving bothers him, but he is unable and unwilling to change his loner behavior. It is also extremely obvious that he feels abandoned by his father, and this was key in forming his isolated personality. We learn more and more that his father’s search for intelligent life is a monumental obsession, and that daddy never returned because this search is the most important thing in his life, much more important than Roy and his mother.
***** Spoiler alert! *****
Read no further if you haven’t seen the movie and want to learn Ad Astra’s message yourself.
It is only when Roy reaches Neptune and finds his father that things get real. The movie builds up the expectation that this is all about aliens, so I expected aliens. It turns out that daddy has studied a wide portion of the universe (inner scientist still firmly in closet) and found no hint of intelligent life. Nada! Zilch! Zero! At this point I must admit I was annoyed. I am a firm believer that alien life must be out there, so I found this plot twist profoundly annoying. Anyway, daddy refuses to give up hope and abandon his study, because he feels like an abject failure. So he won’t return with Roy to Earth. Long story short, daddy essentially commits suicide and Roy must return alone. Before he leaves, Roy says something about his father like: He only felt like a failure because he doesn’t understand what he discovered.
Wait! What? My wheels started spinning like crazy. What did I miss? Were there aliens somewhere and I missed it? As the brief action scenes of Roy’s return trip played out on the screen, my head kept searching for what he might have meant. What discovery did daddy make and fail to understand?
Back on Earth, we get a glimpse of his wife come to meet him; clearly there’s hope there. And Roy’s inner dialogue does a 180 degree turn, now he’s determined to live and love and engage with the world. Then it hit me!
Daddy searched so hard for intelligent life because any reasonable scientific analysis says the universe should be lousy with it. In fact, from a scientific point of view, for intelligent life to be only on Earth is unlikely in the extreme; given the countless other worlds in the universe, it is unlikely to the point of virtual impossibility. What Roy’s father discovered is that life on Earth is a Miracle. I’m not using miracle as a synonym for beautiful here; I mean miracle as in: defies scientific understanding.
Think about it. What if science started to see intelligent life on Earth as inexplicable given the rest of the universe? In such a case, only a miracle would be able to explain human life. Now we wouldn’t have to depend on faith to give us a really obvious miracle, like walking on water, because we’d have one staring us right in the face. This is what changes Roy’s heart. All his life he’d believed, like his father, that the mysteries of the universe were somewhere out there waiting to be discovered; now he understands that the greatest mystery of all can be found in the faces of his fellow humans.
I must admit that it really took me by surprise to find this inspirational message in Ad Astra. My belief that intelligent life must exist out there somewhere has blinded me to the opposite possibility. What if we are really alone in the universe? A lonely feeling? Yes. But also an invitation to stare at the miracle right in front of us. Us.