The Latin title of James Gray’s new film, Ad Astra, means “To the stars.” It’s fitting for any sci-fi, space-exploration story, but it feels especially apt for this excellent film—one of the most theologically interesting of the year.
Even though gravity literally pushes us down to Earth, humans have always gravitated to the stars, insatiably curious about what (and who) is up there. Ad Astra is interested in how this orientation creates tension: between above and below, the far away and the right here, the lure of exploration and gratitude for home.
James Gray pondered this tension in his last film, 2016’s wonderful Lost City of Z, but in Ad Astra it takes on a more overt spiritual dimension. Since Babel man has desired verticality—transcending the limitations of gravity and working our way up to divinity. Astra opens with a riveting sequence that takes place, in the “near future,” on a Babel-esque “space antenna” that extends from Earth’s surface high up into space. The image is striking, but especially when we see the small stature of man (Brad Pitt’s character, Roy McBride) climbing on it and then falling from it, hurtling down to Earth from mind-boggling heights. Gravity always wins.
This sequence signals the film’s theological question: What does it mean that man is so hungry to leave the beautiful planet he’s been given, to explore infinity and beyond?
We Want More
No other earthly creature does this. Animals aren’t trying to escape their planet. Only humans have this brazen urge to push beyond limits (like gravity, oxygen, and so forth) to see and experience what seems out of reach. Indeed, the film reflects the famous Robert Browning line explicitly quoted in Gray’s Lost City of Z: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
Reaching for what is beyond our grasp—off limits, forbidden, only for God—has defined humanity since Eden. Adam and Eve’s reach for the forbidden fruit led to the fall of humanity. They weren’t satisfied with the world they had been given. They wanted more. We are so drawn to this, aren’t we? The grass, as they say, is always greener. How interesting that Pitt’s character in Astra is the estranged husband of a wife named Eve (Liv Tyler), and the son of a father whose absence looms large.
Reaching for what is beyond our grasp has defined humanity since Eden.
Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) left home when his son Roy (Pitt) was only 16. He went to the stars, becoming a NASA hero and the first man to both Saturn and Jupiter. He never looked back, eventually disappearing. Astra follows Roy as he seeks to track down a distress signal from the ship his father captained to Neptune. Could his dad still be alive? Could they be reunited after all these years? For Roy, the search is loaded with emotional tension (“I don’t know if I hope to find him, or finally be free of him”) in a way that parallels the aforementioned spiritual tension between the “here below” and the “up above.”
Too Heavenly Minded
The film’s narrative structure is on one hand geographic—from Earth to Neptune, with multiple stops in between, each with its own episodic adventure (on the Moon, on Mars, and so on). But the trajectory is also emotional, from thrilling, loud action scenes in the beginning (pirate battles, chases, and shootouts on the Lunar surface) to gradually quieter contemplation in the end (reflective of Paul Schrader’s “abundant” and “sparse” means in Transcendental Style in Film). The viewer will notice how the film’s structure goes from more populated with humans to more isolated, such that the farther Roy is from Earth, the lonelier he is. What man gains in wonder and adventure, as he travels farther afield, he loses in humanity.
It’s interesting that the astronauts in the film are the most religious characters. Clifford, NASA’s most decorated hero, talks about being “overwhelmed by seeing and feeling God’s presence so closely” when he’s in space. He describes his mission as “God’s work.” Other astronauts in the film are prayerful, blessing a fallen comrade with the words, “May you meet your Redeemer face to face and enjoy the vision of God forever.” From Roy’s point of view, his dad left him and his mom because he was more interested in “going up to God.” Earth had nothing for him. The heavens called. The unseen Face up there was more enticing than the known faces of his own son and his own wife.
The otherworldly religious impulse of the astronauts in Ad Astra isn’t depicted as a good thing. Rather (and especially as manifest by Clifford), it is critiqued in a manner akin to the familiar Oliver Wendell Holmes line that some people are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.
To the Earth
Even more than the “no earthly good” critique, the tragic flaw of Clifford and others like him is that they’re more driven by a “to the stars” desire to see beyond this world than a desire to “taste and see” (Ps. 34:8) the goodness of God on display in this world. As Roy observes of his father, near the end of the film: “He could only see what was not there, and missed what was right in front of him.”
How true is that of us? How often does our insatiable desire for what we don’t have lead us to forsake, ignore, or cheapen the good gifts we do have? How often do our wandering eyes betray our ability to see what we do have, and be grateful for it, and praise God for it?
This is often the origin point for sin. Ingratitude. Curiosity over contentment. Fidgetiness over faithfulness. As in Eden, so in Ad Astra. That Clifford believes Earth “has nothing for me” reveals how much he is living the reality of Romans 1: having rejected what can be known about God through what is plainly there, in creation (v. 19), he becomes futile in his thinking, his foolish heart ever more darkened (v. 21). He is willfully blind to what can be seen of God right in front of him.
Humans innately long for God. We want to be in his presence. But we go wrong when we seek to find him in our own prideful way—whether building towers to the heavens, eating forbidden fruit, or finding other ways to work our way up to him.
This misses the glorious truth of the gospel. We don’t have to go up to rescue ourselves (nor could we). God came down to rescue us. Our hope is not in man’s “to the stars” mission to be with God, but in God’s “to the earth” mission to be with man. When we look up to the stars, in awe and wonder, our instinctive question should not be, “Is there anyone else out there? Are we alone in the universe?” We should ponder instead the magnificent truth that God came here. He is with us. We are not alone. Our question should instead be that of David (Ps. 8:4), who gazed at the stars and asked, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”