Ad Astra Ending Completely Explained
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
Join WatchMojo as we explain the ending of director James Gray's (The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant) Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones starring sci-fi drama "Ad Astra" (2019). The ending of this visually stunning sci-fi epic, which finds an astronaut (Pitt) traversing the galaxy in search of his long-lost father (Jones), might've had you leaving the theater with more than a few questions. Luckily, you won't have to travel to the stars to find the answers to answer all of your "Ad Astra" questions.
Ad Astra Ending Explained
Let’s just say that you’ll want to call your dad after watching this video. Welcome to Watchmojo, and today we’ll be dissecting the ending of James Gray’s “Ad Astra.”
If you haven’t seen this Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones-starring film yet, consider this your spoiler warning!
If you just look at the poster for “Ad Astra,” you may expect a traditional science fiction adventure. Nothing is ever what is seems in James Gray’s film, however. When astronaut Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt, lands on the moon early in the film, he’s disappointed to find that it’s become nothing but a cheap tourist trap. Roy’s rudest awakening comes later in the story, though, upon learning the dark secrets of his estranged father, Clifford McBride (the amazing Tommy Lee Jones).
Roy has been carrying the weight of abandonment ever since his father departed from Earth almost three decades earlier. Clifford left his family to lead the Lima Project, a deep space mission to communicate with extraterrestrial life. But then, along with his crew, Clifford disappeared for 16 years, without ever making contact during that time. When mysterious pulses begin booming throughout the solar system, the military informs Roy that the so-called “Surge” may be emanating from Clifford’s ship orbiting Neptune. Roy is thus enlisted to travel to Mars where he’ll send a personal message to his father. And although Clifford responds to Roy’s message, the military hasn’t been entirely upfront with him.
Digging for answers, Roy learns from a fellow astronaut that Clifford killed a majority of his crew in the name of his futile mission. Now his experiments with antimatter are putting the entire solar system at risk. Instead of dying a hero, like Roy assumed, Clifford has lived to become humanity’s greatest threat. Imagine a flesh and blood version of HAL 9000. The military plans to send Roy back to Earth after his answered message, but he decides that if anyone is going to confront Clifford face-to-face, it’s going to be his son. Roy stows away on the ship headed for Neptune, but without originally meaning to, he gets the whole crew killed in due course.
If Roy proves anything here, it’s that he’s exactly like his father. Both men are so committed to their missions that they wind up with innocent blood on their hands. The parallels don’t end there. Although he assumed Clifford was gone forever, Roy has nevertheless spent his entire adulthood trying to win his father’s approval. Like Clifford, Roy dedicated his life to the space program and became consumed by his work. This inevitably put a strain on his marriage with his wife, played by Liv Tyler, only briefly appearing in scattered scenes. Just as Clifford was always cold towards his son, Roy is a closed book who has shut himself out from the rest of the world.
The similarities between Roy and Clifford become especially apparent in the third act when they’re finally reunited. After so much buildup, the audience expects Clifford to be a raving madman. Instead, we find a frail shell of a man overwhelmed with denial. Even if extraterrestrial life does exist, it’s clear that the Lima Project isn’t going to make contact after all this time. Clifford can’t bring himself to face the fact that he’s committed a majority of his life to a lost cause. In his fruitless search for aliens, Clifford ironically ended up alien-ating himself from the rest of humankind. Likewise, Roy has spent most of his life ignoring the people right in front of him, instead dwelling on the relationship he’ll never have with his father. In that sense, Roy and Clifford are the true aliens.
Even after everything Clifford has done, Roy tells his father that he loves him. Does Clifford feel the same way about his son, though? As far as we know, Clifford abandoned his family and never gave them a second thought. When Clifford sees Roy for the first time in almost 29 years, he seems to have more admiration for his son than affection. Clifford doesn’t express much remorse for his wrongdoings either, arguing that he still has a job to do. That being said, Roy was the only person who could get a response from Clifford on Mars. Had another astronaut arrived at his space station, Clifford probably would’ve killed them, or tried to.
It’s Roy’s unconditional love that ultimately convinces Clifford to throw in the towel. While Clifford does leave his post, he can’t bring himself to return to Earth. Clifford allows himself to be sent adrift in space, but Roy remains resolute on roping his father back in. As his son hopelessly clings to him in orbit, Clifford tells Roy to let him go, literally and figuratively. Despite his initial reluctance, Roy rips the Band-Aid off and lets his dad float away. Clifford is also letting go in this moment, making peace with the notion that his mission was a failure and it’s time to move on. Why did Clifford choose such a dire fate, though? Was it to avoid answering for his crimes or so that Roy would no longer be tormented by the sins of the father?
Shortly before their last moments together, Clifford tells his son that they’re the last of a dying breed. Clifford sees much of himself in Roy, from their headstrong determination to their stoic demeanor. Clifford can also see that Roy may be on the fast track to making the same mistakes he did. When Clifford tells Roy to let go, he’s not just talking about himself. He’s telling him to let go of the past and live in the present. By letting go of his father, Roy can finally start letting others in.
Although they’re cut from two very different breeds of sci-fi, Roy and Clifford share a great deal in common with Luke and Anakin Skywalker. In both cases, a son grew up wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, only to learn later that he was looking up to a monster. Nevertheless, Roy and Luke still believe that they can save their dads. While neither Clifford nor Anakin makes it out alive, both find some form of redemption through their sons.
He may not return with his father, but Roy succeeds in blowing up the Lima Project and making the leap back home. This presumably puts an end to the Surge, although it’s unclear if Roy faces any consequences for disobeying orders and getting multiple people killed. From what we can tell based on the film’s final minutes, it appears Roy has reconciled with his wife and found closure. As a rescuer extends a helping hand, it’s implied that Roy is going to emerge from his escape pod a changed man and embrace the people he once shunned.
There isn’t any extraterrestrial life in “Ad Astra,” but the film was never really about making first contact. It’s about making human contact, which for some people can be even more difficult than trying to communicate with another order of beings. Humankind has often looked to the stars in the hope of answering life’s greatest mysteries. If there’s one message to take away from this movie’s ending, however, it’s that the meaning of life doesn’t necessarily await beyond the stars, but, rather, somewhere closer to home.