Ad Astra's Existential Crisis Got Me Playing...Destiny Again?

Image: Bungie

A strange thing happened to me after I walked out of James Gray’s Dad Issues (in Spaaaaaaaace) saga, Ad Astra—something I’ve not even remotely thought about doing for near enough a year. I sat at my PS4, thoughts about the film still jangling around in my head in process, and I booted up a game in search of a feeling. I played Destiny 2.

Well, not immediately. I had to download way too many gigabytes worth of patches because, as I said, I hadn’t touched Bungie’s online sci-fi lootgrind of a first person shooter since the release of Forsaken, its last significant content release. But while I was doing that patching, I briefly thought to myself, “Wait, what the hell caused this?”

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Destiny 2 was where people were. Friends, strangers, family members, people who kept playing while I had long put Destiny’s seemingly never-ending quest to acquire New Guns with slightly bigger numbers than the Old Guns. Admittedly some of those guns can now be bows, a thing I enjoy as a grand absurdity in a sci-fi world where approximately every few minutes you can explode in a technicolor dreamcoat of superhuman abilities, but that’s beside my point: There were things out there in Destiny’s galaxy. And there was nothing in Ad Astra’s.

And it had apparently scared me to my core.

Image: Fox Searchlight
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A lot of Ad Astra revolves around a research mission conducted by Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) called Project Lima. Lima was humanity’s furthest-flung attempt to send researchers and astronauts into the depths of space in search of extraterrestrial life. The project going dark is what sends Clifford’s son, Roy (Brad Pitt), out on a mission to find his long-gone dad in the first place—and hopefully reconnect a relationship that the absence of has left Roy cold, taciturn, and distant to everyone around him—and it’s also the cause of a major antimatter surge that has begun wreaking havoc back on Earth.

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After going through moon pirates, millions of miles of space travel, and at least one completely out there gnarly monkey attack, Roy eventually finds Lima and his father, the sole survivor of an insurrection where his father mercilessly put down an attempt by Lima’s crew to bring the project back to Earth. The reason why they wanted to go home? Lima had apparently completed its mission and come to the conclusion that non-human intelligent life did not exist. Out in the black void of the universe, humanity was all alone.

Refusing to accept that apparent reality is what broke Clifford McBride in the first place and it’s eventually why he forces Roy to let him jet himself off into the void of space to die—the thought of not just returning to Earth, but having to accept the Earth was all there really was, being too much to bear.

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Image: Fox Searchlight

In the end, it seems, Ad Astra’s key thesis is to appreciate what we have right now, to focus on the family we have close to us instead of constantly striving for something more. When Roy returns to Earth having, to various questionable stretches of scientific fact, survived flying through the rings of Neptune and hitchhiking the cresting wave of a nuclear explosion, he reconnects with his distant wife (the criminally underused Liv Tyler), who had left him prior to the movie due to his toxically dogged work ethic and emotional distance. It’s a nice enough message: Live in the moment, appreciate those nearest and dearest. But as nice it was, there was something about the idea of us being all alone in the vast interstellar cosmos that sat with me for way longer than that otherwise optimistic message, and chilled me.

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What primal part of my brain made me want to find an answer in Destiny 2 though? The world of Bungie’s sci-fi shooters is placed in a future far beyond the one in seen in Ad Astra. After discovering a seemingly benevolent giant spherical being called the Traveller on Mars, humankind finds itself propelled into a golden age of space exploration, establishing colonies and research stations all across the solar system, the Traveller uplifting humans to not just long life but empowering select numbers of them as its superheroic Guardians (the faction the player characters belong to) as humanity goes looking ever further into the beyond.

Naturally as it’s a mainstream video game and therefore needs conflict players can fight against, humanity gets beaten back to the point of near extinction when a mysterious force dubbed only vaguely as “The Darkness”—alongside various hostile alien races, from killer robots like the Vex to domineering warmongers like the Cabal—puts a violent back-burner on that human exploration to the point that just a single city on Earth is all that remains.

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Image: Bungie

By the time of Destiny 2's story, all that’s long in the past, and after fighting back a new invasion on that last remaining city by a faction of the Cabal, the early days of a second Golden Age have begun. In spite of all that it has endured in learning that alien life not just exists, but is incredibly not cool with humans, humanity starts taking its first nascent steps back out into the stars, armed with the hope that there might be something brighter out there beyond that nebulous Darkness. And that has always struck me as something powerful about Destiny’s world: Like Clifford McBride, the humans of Destiny couldn’t accept that all was out there was bleak, hostile blackness, that there just had to be something more.

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Destiny’s relationship with its storytelling over both the first and second games has evolved to a relative distance—it’s there if you want to dive deep into the weirdness, but it’s not the focus, a transparent bit of window dressing for you to find some friends to go shoot things with, and get better things to shoot those things with, all over again. But even as it’s distanced itself from that storytelling as a primary focus, it has always chased that feeling of hope first established in the very first cutscene of Destiny when it was released five years ago—the moment when three human astronauts look up into a sudden rainfall on Mars to gaze upon the giant mass of the Traveller for the first time:

The music swells in this moment that is both triumphant and extremely melancholy, beautiful, yet haunting. It encapsulates this nebulous feeling of the potential of space exploration: the desire to seek out the alien, regardless of the danger it could bring, because of that potential that it could be something wonderful and hopeful. That there was more than just what was on Earth, good or bad, and alongside friends and strangers alike we’d go out and find it. It’s something neither Destiny or its sequel ever quite lived up to, but it still kept chasing it.

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There’s parallels there to Ad Astra’s ultimate thesis. But instead of feeling so chillingly insular—appreciate those alongside you because they’re all we’ve really got—it felt beautifully optimistic: Take those alongside you, and go out into the stars in search of new horizons to share with them, in spite of what’s been shown to be a harsh and unforgiving cosmos.

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Image: Bungie

It was a weird place to find a little hope after Ad Astra’s existential bleakness. But as weird as it was, I appreciated re-finding it.

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About the author

James Whitbrook

James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!