“I’m attempting to reach Dr. Clifford McBride” reads a stoic Roy McBride from a pre-written statement in the trailer for James Gray’s forthcoming space odyssey Ad Astra; “This is Doctor McBride’s son”. He pauses in the dimly lit room, diverting his weary gaze from the document; “Dad, I’d like to see you again” he eventually utters.
With a twinkling of Joseph Conrad’s influential Heart of Darkness (and, equally, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), the film follows astronaut Roy (Brad Pitt), who is sent to the outer edges of the solar system in search of his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones). But while mystery, secrets and unanswered questions lie in wait, the story’s true gravitational force appears to be pulling it firmly in one direction: towards that of a strained relationship between a son and his far-off father.
But distant dads, in every sense of the word, are nothing alien in sci-fi cinema. In the last five years alone — something of a soaring pique in the canon of space exploration films — the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Gosling have brought the moral complexities of fatherhood to the final frontier.
Ad Astra looks to continue this trend, with Tommy Lee Jones the latest to join a crowded, renowned group of stars to have taken to the stars as a character archetype that has become a stalwart of science-fiction: the space dad.
In First Man, Damien Chazelle’s divisive 2018 Neil Armstrong biopic, its central figure is presented as father first and space man second. An intricate character study with a focus on the interior — Chazelle’s camera, using a mix of grainy 16mm and 35mm film, opts for shots inside either the spacecraft or the Armstrong home over grandeur establishing ones — forces our gaze within as much as it does upward.
Gosling’s performance is one of quiet restraint, painting Armstrong as an assured but introverted, emotionally distant enigma. At the film’s core, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer poignantly ask us to reassess the motives fuelling Armstrong’s lunar-treading achievement. Was his giant leap for mankind, in fact, a far more personal one: a father’s first step toward catharsis?
A father battling inner conflict is also at the centre of another of science-fiction’s recent heavy-hitters. In an article published in Entertainment Weekly in 2014, visionary director Christopher Nolan stated that at the core of his space opera Interstellar is “what it means to be a dad”. Like First Man, Nolan’s film is one of literal and figurative distance and divide that sees its paternal protagonist — pilot-turned-farmer Joseph Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) — torn by his fatherly duties to young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and his obligation to ensure the survival of humanity.
A painful catch-22 collides with Cooper — his absence will, ultimately, save his family’s life — exemplified in the film’s most affecting scene in which Cooper replays 23-years-worth of video messages from his family after returning from a space mission gone wrong. As he watches on, teary-eyed, helpless and vulnerable, he’s hit by the devastating realisation that, not only are he and a now-adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) the same age, but that it is in fact him, and not those left on earth, who has truly been left behind. Despite the black holes, wormholes and occasional plot holes, the real story Interstellar is trying to tell is one much closer to home.
Even Marvel has jumped aboard the vessel of cinematic space dads in recent times. After all, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, the second of James Gunn’s soon-to-be GotG trilogy, is a film all about fathers. There are biological ones — Kurt Russell’s man-planet Ego — as well as surrogate ones — Michael Rooker’s whistling Yondu — a point hammered home with very little subtlety by the rather on the nose use of Cat Stevens/Yusuf’s song ‘Father And Son’ to close out the film’s final scenes.
Such thematic threads are hardly exclusive to 21st century sci-fi, too. In Ridley Scott’s seminal ‘70s space slasher Alien, fear, frights and blood splatter the foundations of the film’s primary exploration into parenthood, as evidenced by The Nostromo’s central computer system (known as “Mother”), and Kane’s (John Hurt) infamous impregnation and subsequent breakfast table birth. Since then, we’ve had subsequent Alien sequels dealing in parent/child relationships and seen Bruce Willis asteroid drilling while his on-screen daughter (played by Liv Tyler) watches from Earth in Armageddon. And, lest we forget that arguably cinema’s most famous line, uttered by arguably cinema’s most famous villain, is the simple four-word statement, “I am your Father”.
But if the Hollywood studio sci-fi scene seems to be exhausting the space dad trope, not too far, far away, interesting new avenues are being explored. Earlier this year (going by UK release dates), Claire Denis’ dark, patient, retro-futuristic drama High Life saw Robert Pattinson face the challenges of parenthood in uncharted space. But while tension, danger, violence and supressed terror manifest aboard a spacecraft consisting of former prisoners, the narrative’s focal point offers an engrossing, morally murky tale about breeding, reproduction and something called the “Fuck Box”.
Layered, complex ideas also orbit around Duncan Jones’ 2009 film Moon, in which an impressive Sam Rockwell grapples existentialism, sanity and identity issues in pursuit of what is his sole objective: to get home to his family.
In the case of Ad Astra, the perspective appears to have been flipped: shifting focus from the father to the son. But what all these examples share is a reinforcement of the idea that the best science fiction, irrespective of its otherworldly setting, almost always navigates its way back to something inherently human. Invariably deployed as the story’s emotional crux, despite all the star-gazing, the characters, and by extension, the viewer, must ultimately look inside themselves to discover the answers they are so desperately seeking. The physical voyage amongst the stars is so often a metaphor for the deeper, more telling figurative journeys being taken. One must travel light years, it seems, in order to truly unearth the meaning of oneself.
Whether James Gray’s film will be ‘Rad’ Astra or ‘Bad’ Astra — the former if the early reviews from the Venice Film Festival are anything to go by — it seems that it will be, above all else, ‘Dad’ Astra.
Ad Astra is released in UK cinemas on 18th September 2019.