Bryant Tyler’s review published on Letterboxd:
“Every boy, in his journey to become a man, takes an arrow in the center of his heart, in the place of his strength. Because the wound is rarely discussed and even more rarely healed, every man carries a wound. And the wound is nearly always given by his father.”
― John Eldredge
Through Ad Astra (“to the stars” in Latin), Grey recalls numerous works of classic literature, notably evoking the obsessive ambition of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”, and the journey to regain one’s soul in Homer’s “The Odyssey”. The film opens on a momentous space antenna that recalls the Tower of Babel as it extends from Earth’s surface into space, illustrating the small stature of man climbing it and then falling back to Earth. The desire for knowledge beyond our grasp has defined humanity since Eden, and this longing is posited as Grey’s thesis.
In the film, humanity has expanded to the moon and beyond, and the new environments have merely yielded repetitions of the old conflicts and idols. While times and circumstances may change, the film shows that the human condition remains the same.
The film follows Roy McBride, a well-regarded astronaut living in the shadow of his father, Clifford McBride, who famously led a mission to Neptune in pursuit of discovering extraterrestrial-life. Roy was 16 when his father left Earth and he was 29 when his father’s spaceship stopped transmitting a signal: ever since Clifford has been presumed dead. The absence of his father has created a significant wound for Roy, as he distances himself from his wife (appropriately named “Eve”) and dedicates himself to his career, striving to embody and connect with the one image that his father left behind.
When massive shockwaves begin rippling across the universe and causing catastrophic power failures on Earth, SpaceCom informs Roy that they believe his father may be alive near the planet Neptune, and that his father’s Lima Project seems responsible for the dangerous pulse. Roy’s superiors begin to shatter his illusion of his father by telling him “exploration isn’t always a noble venture. We have to hold out the possibility that your father may be hiding from us.” Roy is asked to travel to Mars and attempt to send a message to his father to stop the surges to prevent further destruction to Earth.
Roy is required to make routine diagnosis, ensuring he is emotionally and psychologically fit for each mission (his heart rate has never exceeded past 85 during a mission), proudly stating “I’ve been trained to compartmentalize. It seems to me that’s how I approach my life”. However, even though he has mastered his stoicism, he knows the truth of his own heart. He has accomplished all his goals: he became an astronaut and ultimately lived up to his father’s model. However, despite his achievements, he’s separated from his wife, haunted by both his failures and his absentee father. He is isolated in his work, but it is on his journey into the abyss of space that he experiences true isolation.
It is interesting that the most religious characters in the film are the astronauts. In a video-journal from space, Clifford speaks of being “overwhelmed by seeing and feeling God’s presence so closely”. Clifford also describes his mission as “God’s work” and directly says “I thank God” for everything that’s been accomplished. Other astronauts pray over a fallen astronaut saying “may you meet your Redeemer face to face and enjoy the vision of God forever.” Roy expresses he believed his father left he and his mother because he was more interested in “going up to God.”
The film ultimately depicts this Babel-like quest as something that draws us away from God rather than towards Him.
His journey is also about potential, to face his origins in his father. As Roy travels deeper into the unknown, he begins to think and act differently, to let go of his old self and his mental walls gradually collapse, as he contemplates his purpose and direction in his isolation. Roy remarks that the further he travels Earth, from the sun, from plants, from air and people he finds himself deeply longing for these attributes of home.
Roy’s journey also allows him to step into his father’s shoes and live his father’s experiences, particularly as he breaks aboard the flight which inadvertently leads to the entire crew’s deaths.
Additionally given the context of Roy’s changes and experiences for the mere 79 days in isolation, which had a profound effect on him, compared to Clifford who has been alone for 20 years.
The film relayed the story of demise of the Lima crew three times, each slightly different, which allows Roy to ponder the pieces of evidence. The first piece of information is from the distortion of the government, the second is from a top-secret video diary and the biased context from a descendant of the deceased, and the third is directly from his father.
This long 79 day journey to Neptune allows for Roy to reflect and process as he moves closer and closer to his father. When Roy finally meets his father, he finds his father has lost his humanity. Clifford is no longer the father that Roy knew, or even the man he saw in the video-journals. Clifford has been in isolation for 20 years, essentially in hell, in absolute deprivation without human contact or any of the God-given blessings of life. When first speaking with Roy, he tells his son that he “never loved him and has not thought about him”, in a reactionary effort to push him away as he is extremely frightened to feel or encounter any aspects of life through humanity again.
Roy is able to release his anger and he is able to understand the existential place his father has been trapped in. Clifford, unable to surrender his ambitions, proposes they use Roy’s functional ship and continue the mission together. Roy could have accepted: able to finally spend time connecting with his father and perhaps help him regain his sanity. Roy holds that he must return home to Earth, he cannot run away from his responsibilities, though he affirms his father’s accomplishment, telling him that he did not fail in his quest, he did indeed discover that there is no extraterrestrial life and “we’re all we’ve got.'' This realization affirms the uniqueness of humanity.
Roy persuades his father to give up and come home with him, putting an end to the experiment by blowing up the equipment. Roy is able to take his father’s work with him and pass on Clifford’s legacy, though he is not able to persuade his father to return home with him. When they leave the airlock to go to the shuttle, Clifford forces Roy to cut him loose and he drifts off into space.
Roy returns home with a boone to pass on, though more profoundly he himself has changed: having gained a new somber and sober understanding of the sanctity of creation and humanity, of gratitude for what he has and those around him. All the time spent in isolation allowed him true reflection to truly appreciate the beauty and meaning inherent in life with others, and an urgency to treasure and value the people in his life.
The true discoveries are to be made in the people around us and in ourselves, and his voyage into emptiness of space allowed him to appreciate the uniqueness and fullness of life on Earth.
Clifford traveled to the reaches of the solar system looking for intelligent life, but abandoned the intelligent life closest to him: his own family. He chased after his ambition at the expense of those who loved and needed him, as Roy lamented “he missed what was right in front of him”.
This is repeated with Roy, as his wife told him: “you seem preoccupied with your work. I feel like I’m on my own all the time… You’re so distant, even when you’re here.” Roy’s mission allowed him to gain this sober realization as he reflected earlier “so many times in my life I’ve screwed up. I’ve talked when I should have listened. I’ve been harsh when I should have been tender”, and now concludes “the answers we seek may not be out of our reach, but right where we started”. Roy comes to a full regret of how he treated his wife and is able to seek reconciliation when he returns.
Director James Grey remarked, “there's a famous Arthur C Clarke quote: ‘either we are alone in the universe or we are not, both are equally terrifying’, and that's true. But, at the same time, Earth's pretty good. I've got my wife and children and they're great, and I can find plenty of joy in that. To rely on false gods, the idea that there's these little green men out there that'll either save us or eat us, to me that's more horrifying than having to rely on other people." 
As Grey articulates the distraction and emptiness of idolatry, no matter how important venturing into the unknown may be, the search for someone in Ad Astra reframes the focus to affirm that the most significant aspect of life isn’t the unknown but the personal, the relational, the human.
The understanding of the small place of humanity in the expansion of the cosmos instills humility and inspires the desire for human connection, this is a profound confirmation that, regardless of what we think or believe, the full knowledge of reality and God will always be, as the movie’s tagline states, “just outside of our reach.” The strange, existential comfort comes in knowing we weren’t meant to comprehend it all, and ultimately this desire was the basis of ‘original sin’: trying to be like God.
Roy astutely concludes “We’re all we’ve got”, the height of creation, and this essential truth, possessing a gravity that grounds us to Earth, is further illuminated by the final words of the film: “'I’m unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and love. Submit.”