Over two decades ago I went to a cinema in Leicester to see Lost In Space (1998), a film loosely based on the camp 1960s space-family-Robinsonade of the same name. It’s not a great film — 28% on Rotten Tomatoes — and I remember little about it, except that the plot significantly hinged on re-uniting Will Robinson with the father he believed had abandoned him, who it turned out had loved him and been proud of him all along. Even then, I found this hackneyed, and remember coming out of the cinema complaining about Americans and their relentless fixation with father-son reconciliation narratives: “I love you dad!” / “I’m proud of you, son”. I read somewhere a theory that this was all really about (white, settler) US culture’s fractured relationship to its European colonial forefathers, the yearning to be approved of and taken seriously by the great tradition it had left behind, but I don’t think that’s really it. It’s more to do with an authoritarian form of warrior masculinity, which seeks above all to maintain the fantasy of a patrilineal line of inheritance, as if fathers birthed sons spiritually, forming their souls in the crucible of aggression. The movie plot which hangs off this fantasy is one in which the male protagonist gets to have his cake and eat it, healing the wounds of emotional repression while also coming into the inheritance that repression was intended to secure. The moment of reconciliation is also one of consecration or initiation, in which the boy forgives the father for the violence through which he has been shaped into a man.
Watching Ad Astra (2019), my first thought was, understandably, “not this again”. It’s the same old story wrapped in a little bow, the bow being a tidy moral fable about toxic masculinity. Brad Pitt, whose superlative proficiency at space stuff depends on his ability to keep a slow and steady heartrate while all around him are losing their shit because things are blowing up, etc, recognises his own inner propensity for howling simian rage in the howling simian rage-face of a rampaging baboon on a research vessel, and eventually manages to shed a single perfect tear. The mission that propels him across the solar system is to find the father who abandoned him to look for aliens, the antimatter power source on whose reseach station has gone apeshit and is sending waves of destructive energy back to Earth, where they are fucking everything up. I initially thought of the waves of destructive energy as representing the father’s obscene, excessive libido or something — “See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the spermament” — but it’s more like his baggage, his unprocessed shit. The father’s search for aliens has become an unhealthy monomania, to which he will sacrifice everything, including the rest of the crew on the research vessel who just want to give up and go home. He has forgotten (this is the moral of the story) the value of human interconnection, in his obsessive focus on the vast and apparently empty Outside.
Space itself is curiously amniotic in Ad Astra, a fluid blackness across which the son languidly drifts on his way to make contact with his great progenitor. The golden yellow tinge of one such scene put me in mind of Andres Serrano’s notorious Piss Christ, which rather beautifully, if blasphemously, depicted a plastic crucifix floating in a glass container of the artist’s urine. There is also a pervasive religious sensibility to the film, which I found myself wanting to counter with another line of Burroughs’s:
To travel in space you must leave the old verbal garbage behind: God talk, country talk, mother talk, love talk, party talk. You must learn to exist with no religion, no country, no allies. You must learn to live alone in silence. Anyone who prays in space is not there.
Ad Astra insists that it is simply not possible to “live alone in silence” — the vast radio silence of a cosmos void of discernable alien life. It is a film set in space which entirely, symptomatically and wilfully fails to go into space, settling instead for projecting Oedipal drama across the heavens: a film for those who always believed that the moon-landing footage was created on a Kubrick-directed soundstage.