“Ad Astra” and Dad

“Through Hardships to the Stars”

Duo Dickinson / 10.14.19

Usually I disdain movies. But aesthetics can seduce, and I am a sucker for dystopia, and, well, last night I was beat. So we went to see “Ad Astra.” I had heard of the sublime art direction and the contrast between the full-on space travel and the intimate subplot of the father/son relationship.

You may already know the basics, but astronaut Brad Pitt (Major Roy McBride), son of super-astronaut Tommy Lee Jones (H. Clifford McBride), is sent to find Dad and to put a forceful end to the danger that his Neptune-stranded ship poses to Earth. (I know, it’s a movie.)

There is a calm about Pitt that is as unlikely as some of the physics depicted, of huge velocities and forces applied to him with zero net effect. Gratuitous scary stuff happens amid stunning visuals, but Tommy Lee Jones hits you like a 22nd-century Captain Ahab. But more.

Brad Pitt confronts Tommy Lee Jones, personally, after not seeing him for 16 years, after Jones killed many to save his mission, ending up alone, dedicating his existence to finding life outside the earthly. Jones’ reaction upon seeing his son? “I never cared for you or our family.”

The response is the kind of tightly focused headshot that always loves Pitt, revealing a tiny, silent tear running down the corner of his eye. Ultimately Jones breaks away from Pitt, because his mission of finding life beyond his own did not include his son.

That tear meant more than the entire exquisite array of cosmic techno-fantasy. It meant more because we all have fathers. When grown men deal with their fathers, they instantly become children. When I was 32, my father lay dying in the hospital that I was born in, and I gripped his hand and said, “I love you, Dad,” despite 30 years of confused, often cruel rage he inveighed pretty much on everyone I knew, except me.

He had not had a drink for 4 months for the first time in 60 years of daily intoxication. “I love you, Doodle,” he murmured, barely. I left to go on a site visit in a nearby town. He died a few hours later.

Like Pitt in “Ad Astra,” I did not know what to do. My father had literally pushed me away to live his dreams — but I was 14. I was left in Buffalo wondering, like Pitt, how my father was. I still wonder how my father spent his life, and I will never know. But his mission, whatever it was, was not to be a father, let alone my father, just like the elder McBride.

The title of the movie was taken from the phrase “ad astra per aspera,” which means “through hardships to the stars.” For Pitt’s character, those hardships were of the personal kind, and he found dismay at the source, his Dad. Meanwhile the elder McBride found no other intelligent life in the observable universe, despite taking extreme measures to search the heavens for it; all he found was unthinking beauty and no life but humanity. He was despondent.

We all want to have or know more than ourselves. But the McBrides, father and son, have no connection to anything beyond their own humanity. Even unto themselves, personally. I get that. Alone in Buffalo, I often felt detached from any context but my own survival, alone.

But there was, and always has been, more than me. I knew, even in the dark of downtown Buffalo, what is described in Psalm 100: “it is He who made us, and not we ourselves…” — a reality so obvious in our inscrutable complexity and sentience, so daunting in our isolation, that it can be completely invisible.

In “Ad Astra,” neither McBride takes this perspective. To them, either we find others or we are alone. There is no other anything that what we can know but ourselves. A God of impossible grace is not knowable. That God is not definable as a different intelligence. No — if unseen, there is nothing to see.

The conclusion of the movie fulfills this definitively pat presumption. In the perfect Hollywood response, Pitt’s isolation leads him to find connection with, of course, Liv Tyler — his estranged wife. In finding this human-to-human connection, the film confirms that there is no greater meaning to any life. Despite the spectacular special effects.

Maybe if God was believable, the things unseen could offer a different perspective than “Ad Astra.” Perhaps if God the Father was with us at all times, certain questions could be answered.

Yes, it is a movie. But it is a movie about humans, and I am one. And I just know that there is more than humanity, despite the absence of evidence. I have faith.

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3 responses to ““Ad Astra” and Dad”

  1. Sarah says:

    Lovely, thanks. And thanks for addressing that annoying ending!

  2. CJ says:

    “That tear meant more than the entire exquisite array of cosmic techno-fantasy.” – beautiful, Duo – thank you

  3. Kahlil Glenn says:

    It seems to me it’s a mix of fathers suck and evil white male explorers suck. Another anti male propaganda film

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