"Ad Astra" and Searching for Answers on the Right Frontier
A Journey to Existential Riddles, and Beyond
The movie “Ad Astra” isn’t a dreary, joyless, existential space opera.
Viewed through the lens of what we’re trying to do here at LiveReal, we can see it more as a kind of modern myth. There seemed to be a lesson buried in the story that was worth digging out.
What we’re going to take away from it probably isn’t, we’re guessing, a nicely-packaged, shrink-wrapped “lesson” that was intended by the filmmakers.
It has to do with barking up some wrong trees, existentially speaking. And uncovering some of the sources of modern joylessness. And journeying to the outer limits not of space, really, but of a certain worldview. And how it fails. And what a viable alternative solution might be.
Maybe Ad Astra is a modern myth with something important to say, if we can read it right.
Let’s try to read it.
To make sense of this, let’s back up and tell a bit of the story.
(Major spoiler alerts ahead.)
(Seriously. If you don’t want spoilers, stop reading here.)
First of all, let’s introduce our hero. Maj. Roy McBride.
What is McBride’s backstory?
Well, apparently, he was the kind of guy who aced everything, everywhere, at all times. All through school, and before, and after. Smart, athletic, and he looks like Brad Pitt. And he’s also kind, calm, and humble. He probably went to one of the best colleges, aced everything there, too, of course, and then had has his choice of careers. Literally anything he wanted. And he chose to go Ad Astra, Latin for “to the stars.” He decided to be an astronaut. The fantasy of five-year-olds, one maybe one in a million or two actually anywhere even close to. He gets to live it.
And of course, he aces even that. He finds himself at the top of his class even among the other astronauts.
He’s done everything “right.”
We’re taking pains to lay all this backstory out because, in many ways, this guy is in some ways the ego-idealized epitome of our modern ideas of “success” in life.
The rest of us who aren’t imaginary characters sometimes think if we could only become a little more successful, well, that would be “IT”.
But this story isn’t subtle about the idea that this guy has gone there, and beyond. So if The Answer could be found in that direction, well, these would have been the guys to find it. (This idea applies on a few other levels as well, as we’ll see.)
OK, so with that element in place: now that he generally embodies our idealized image of success, what is Brad’s overall outlook, or life philosophy? What’s his word – or more accurately, what kind of worldview does his story take place in?
Answer: his worldview largely consists of one specific slice of the modern mindset.
The worldview is a science-and technology-driven atheistic existentialism.
In a nutshell, the worldview that forms the basic framework of this movie looks something like this:
• Science and technology dominate nearly everything. We’ve figured out space travel. We’ve colonized the moon. We even know how to program computers to give us psychological evaluations. Etc, etc. Lots of fancy gadgets.
• It’s atheistic. Religion or spirituality don’t appear to be significant factors in any way whatsoever. They’re irrelevant. They’re probably seen, when they’re mentioned at all, as pre-modern oddities that we imagine we’ve evolved beyond. There’s hardly a hint of a mention of any kind of spirituality anywhere in the movie.
• It’s existentialist. “The Big Questions” of life seem completely unanswerable, aside from whatever answers we can imagine or invent or conjure up for ourselves.
Part of this worldview is what, in the story, gets undermined.
Now, with the character and the world set up, we need a mission.
(Note: Some of this may seem like we’ve gone into orbit, but hang in there. Some of this requires a bit of a setup. But we will eventually circle back to our main point.)
Maj. McBride’s father, Tommy Lee Jones, believe it or not, was an even greater astronaut than Brad Pitt.
(Is there a word for even better than an “ego-ideal”?)
And many years ago, he – Tommy Lee Jones – er, McBride the Elder – went into deep space.
He went deeper than anyone had gone before. He went to Jupiter, Saturn, and eventually set up camp somewhere around Neptune.
For various reasons that include saving the world, Brad Pitt has to go find his father out on Neptune, stop him from what he’s doing, and bring him back home.
So here’s where things go a little off the rails.
So, Tommy Lee Jones was apparently the greatest of the greatest of the greatest as far as astronauts go.
But he wasn’t a great Dad.
He was apparently more interested in exploring deep space than he was in his family.
His reasoning for this wasn’t explored in much depth in the film. He offers a few lines, maybe, but doesn’t really delve into the “why” behind it. The film mostly leaves it to us to speculate on his motives.
So speculate we will.
Here’s our take on why McBride the Elder chose deep space over family.
The elder McBride’s answer to the meaning of life was to go where no man has gone before, in exploring the outer, objective universe, for the progress of science.
He probably saw it as a heroic and noble quest to further the evolution of humanity. Maybe some of it was a rebellion against the drab and joyless tedium of “normal life.” Maybe he saw life on earth as a mundane, uninteresting, and relatively pointless rat race (atheistic existentialism), where the point of it all was just to enjoy yourself, amuse yourself, however you can, however you want. (Existentialism.)
If so, then well, Tommy did exactly that. What he wanted was to travel across the solar system, and that’s what he did.
We could describe his motivation like this: he saw the source of meaning in life – his answer to meaninglessness, or why we’re here, or his response to the core existential questions – as something to literally seek out in the external, physical world, via materialistic science.
So, what was he searching for in all this, exactly?
For that matter, what was anyone – NASA included – searching for in this entire, massive endeavor?
Well, one part of these missions seemed pretty simple: see what’s out there.
But there was also mention of another mission:
To search for aliens.
That was one answer to at least part of the “why?” behind it all. It was apparently the primary purpose of the world’s-tallest-skyscraper-that-literally-reached-out-into-space.
Apparently, they thinking went something roughly like this. (Pardon the geeky science jargon).
If we’d make contact with extra-terrestrials, well, that would be really cool.
So now we have two clear motives:
1) exploring the external physical world for the sake of science, and
2) looking for aliens.
As the story continues, Brad Pitt gets tasked with saving the world – or more specifically, our solar system. The mission is to travel to Neptune, Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now/Return of the Jedi-style, rescue his father, and bring him back home.
So, what happens?
(final spoiler alert warning)
Brad finds Tommy Lee Jones.
Tommy Lee Jones decides that he doesn’t want to come home. He’d rather murder his fellow astronauts than return to Earth. And in fact, he’d rather die himself than come back.
So he does.
(He seemed to do this, by the way, without much explanation, and in a way that just makes him seem insane. In our view, this weakened the movie. A clearer portrait of stronger motives on his part would have strengthened it. He didn't follow Casey Kasem's advice, to "keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars." He reached for the stars, but didn't keep his feet on the ground.)
And here, Brad makes his own choice:
I don’t want to search for meaning out in deep space like my father did. I want to search for it back home, among humans, in my relationships.
That seems to be the filmmakers’ intended message of the movie, which is fairly explicit.
But there’s more we can take from this.
This is where we start getting into the juicy stuff.
Few of us are in danger of wanting to fly out to Neptune and stay there.
But the rest of us are living through “The Death of God” these days. The basic idea there is that science has become the trusted authority on things, and religion and spirituality aren’t really as important as they once were.
Science is great, of course.
(And once again, just to be clear: real science is great. Nothing anti-science here. It’s offspring, technology, can be great, too.)
But what happens when science and technology become your religion?
(“Religion” here is defined as “what you give your life to,” or “your answers to The Big Questions of life.”
Well, once again, Brad and Tommy Lee offer to completely go there and check it out for us.
So if someone really goes with this, and takes this as far as possible, then they could very well wind up dedicating their life to exploring the outer physical world, like McBride-the-Elder does. You might search for aliens. You might put your faith in being able to download your consciousness into machines (because, you know, what could go wrong with that?)
But here’s the thing:
In this story, Tommy Lee Jones takes this way further than anyone else. He went to the outer limits, and beyond.
And what did he discover?
There’s nothing out there.
There’s basically a lot of empty space out there.
OK, to be fair: he gathered a lot of hard drives full of information about various planets and moons and stuff. Some cool topographical maps. Data about Neptune.
Which is…you know. Kind of interesting.
But…well, not that interesting.
I mean, it’s good to know about Neptune, I guess, if you’re into that sort of thing.
But in the bigger picture: there’s a lot of nothing out there.
Of what consequence,
though our planet explode,
if there is no character involved in the explosion?"
- Henry David Thoreau
That is the conclusion of certain atheistic materialistic scientists who search for meaning via the scientific method using an atheistic materialist approach: they don’t find anything, and conclude that, well, since they haven’t found it, there is no answer, no purpose, no grand metanarrative. The Answer to it All, they say, is nothing.
But maybe it’s not actually the case that there’s “nothing” there. Maybe it’s more that they aren’t looking in the right way.
Just a few hundred years ago, entire regions of Earth were unexplored (or seemed that way, at least.) Intrepid explorers could launch expeditions to discover strange, never-before-seen continents. Oceans were fathoms deep, and we hadn’t plumbed those depths. Beyond here be monsters. Outer space was a realm of wonder and mystery. There were mysteries all around.
But now, we’ve been there. Seen it. Done it. For the most part, we now know a great deal more about space than we used to.
And one effect of this: it’s been disenchanted.
What’s out there in the external physical universe beyond our planet?
Well, most of it appears to be a whole lot of cold, dead, lifeless emptiness.
At the end of that particular search is…truly, nothing.
“But then there’s the search for aliens, though...”
If someone’s philosophy determines that only the physical world is real (that’s their metaphysics), then the search for meaning has to target the external physical world. Under these assumptions, searching for aliens might seem like an interesting thing to do.
For those who of this mindset, aliens might even be the last possible refuge of real wonder and mystery.
The idea, presumably, seems to be something like this:
We’ll reach out and make contact with beings from another world. And we’d make friends, and they’d hopefully be really cool, and really smart. And they’d show us all kinds of cool gadgets, and we’d swap stories. And they’d be smarter than Aristotle and more charming than James Bond, and they’d show us how to make cool things like potato chips that don’t make you fat, and we’d all just have a grand old time together.
So the story wouldn’t be that we’d make contact with, like, a murderous race of insect-like creatures with stabby tails and acid blood that hunts humans for sport and makes our entire human saga here into something out of a horror movie.
No, of course not.
So the search for aliens, in a way, could be seen as The Search for “IT” – the search for The Answer, the Great Relief, the Resolution to The Mystery of it all. In some ways, it’s the only socially acceptable form of this that can take place within the premises of a materialistic, atheistic worldview in which the external physical world is all there is.
This basic dynamic could be the same thing behind why we climb Everest, or go to the moon. The idea is that there’s something within us that craves mystery and wonder and intuits something magnificent just beyond our reach, and we project all kinds of idealistic hopes onto it, unconsciously or not, and instinctively expect some kind of profoundly wonderful payoff at the end of it.
A while ago, we used to project that sense into outer space. Outer space was seen as the vast, deep mystery.
So we sent out some scanners, went there ourselves, and checked it out.
And what did we find?
OK. To be fair, we have found topographical maps of Neptune. We’ve learned interesting stuff about how many galaxies there are in the universe, how tiny ours is, and information about things like black holes. Validation of the Big Bang has been interesting. Swell.
But we’ve also learned that a great deal of space is a cold, lifeless vacuum.
There doesn’t seem to be anything out there that is going to change our lives here in any significant way, anytime soon.
If we colonize the moon or Mars, then we’ll have new rat-races going on in some new locations.
So, what does all this mean?
Many folks today have a certain degree of faith in science and technology. They don’t look for guidance much from the spiritual-religious side of things. The way many folks see it, one side has hard facts and truth, while the other side is seen as soft-mined wishful thinking.
But the story of Ad Astra, to some degree, argues against that route.
Like good art should do, Ad Astra acts as a scout that runs ahead to gather information and try to get a bead on what’s in store for the rest of us if we keep heading in the same direction.
And the path of cold, impersonal, dehumanized, existential, materialistic-scientific progress?
Neat gadgets and stuff. Great. But as for the rest of it, well, it just might lead to a joyless, dreary, empty dead end.
Even if we could figure out how to make it to Neptune (and we’re nowhere near that) – it seems highly likely that we’d only discover that there’s just nothing there.
So the good stuff, the heart of it all – “IT” – must be somewhere else.
Sometimes a cool topographical map is just a cool topographical map.
How does it benefit a guy to acquire some cool topographical maps, but lose himself?
In Ad Astra, Brad struggles within a dehumanized, impersonal world to find some kind of connection to real life. And the impersonality is literal: the authority on psychological health – the depths of human nature – in the movie is literally a machine.
The idea, presumably, is that a thing – a clever algorithm, no doubt – has more insight into our souls than we do.
It doesn’t get much more dehumanizing than that.
At any rate, he decides, eventually, that The Answer isn’t going to be found from within a hard materialistic atheistic worldview.
Launching yourself into deep space is the ultimate form of “going for it” in that sense. If anyone was going to find it, Tommy Lee Jones would have been the guy. But as depicted in the movie, Tommy Lee launching himself into deep space, never to return, wound up setting himself on a course for nothing.
And here’s where the problem gets even thicker.
Brad decided to come back down to earth and dwell among the humans, and search for meaning somewhere in the midst of the messy, troubled, often neglected, always confusing personal relationships.
“IT” seems to be somewhere amid us humans, the thinking goes.
It’s a better choice than his dad made, no doubt.
But here’s the twist:
McBride Junior’s personal relationships seemed to be a total mess, too.
So is that supposed to be “IT”, The Answer, The Great Relief?
Is that the point of it all? Fleeting moments of joy and intimacy, mixed in with two people nagging each other over who is squeezing the toothpaste tube wrong?
Isn’t this really just another version of the human condition playing itself out, where we’re trapped between the soil and the stars, between the earth and the heavens, pulled and torn in both directions at once?
Sure, love is at the heart of things, no doubt, if we can risk sounding like a platitudinous folk singer.
But personal relationships – especially these days – can be a confusing, confounding battle of the heart.
There are reasons why some folks decide to bolt for Neptune.
The point is: merely playing “the relationships game” isn’t The Answer either.
If it was, everyone in an intimate relationship would be enlightened. Even when relationships are wonderful, we often thirst for more than what even the best of them can offer us. If science makes for a lousy religion, then intimate relationships might very well be just a slightly better lousy religion.
But “slightly better” is still, well, better.
Which is a good thing.
But can we skip ahead here? Can we try to search out the key, critical, secret ingredient in all this?
What makes intimate relationships a better solution than the exploration of the physical world?
How do we go from the outskirts of Neptune to someone we spend our weekends with? How, in other words, does the scientific search for objective answers on the other side of the solar system lead us back to the Relationships Arena?
Well, one idea:
Intimate relationships bring up our “issues.” They confront us with deeply personal aspects of ourselves that we’d often likely just as soon keep hidden if we could. But we can’t keep those hidden within an intimate relationship.
So in this sense, in relationships with other people, you wind up exploring the outer limits of your ability to love and be loved.
And the process of this often rubs your face on those limits like a cheese grader.
In other words, intimate relationships can bring us face-to-face with ourselves.
And maybe that’s where we should seek it.
Space, as it turns out, actually isn’t the final frontier.
We’ve been there. And it seems to be whole a lot of nothing.
The real final frontier is yourself.
“We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time."
- T. S. Eliot