With a fully-armed and operational Star Wars franchise in play, cinematic portrayals of the great unknown which don’t belong to a galaxy far, far away have truly had their work cut out. Financially and in terms of sheer screen space, the Skywalker saga (and its various spin-offs) has dominated the sci-fi landscape.
But as this franchise doubles-down on themes of familial reconciliation (with some fans nearing fever-pitch in their anticipation of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo’s possible redemption), a new breed of sci-fi has stuck to its guns and concerned itself with tearing apart the family unit, and the desolation that outer space renders between parent and child.
The latest in this continuing series is James Gray’s Ad Astra, which sees astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) depart on a mission into deep space in search of his father (Tommy Lee Jones). From the director of The Lost City of Z, one expects this new odyssey to come laden with portent and astonishing imagery, but the key element is that very specific relationship between father and son.
Gray’s film follows in the footsteps of similarly-minded space odysseys such as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in which a young girl crying out for her spacefaring father is central thematically as well as narratively. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper and his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain), are torn apart not only by light years of distance, but the devastating effects of relative time – she ages before her father’s very eyes. In one of the few examples which specifically centres maternal anguish (alongside Alice Winocour’s upcoming Proxima), Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) finds a new strength to survive her isolation beyond the bounds of Earth in the memory of her daughter.
Occasionally, the child takes centre stage. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) seeks solace in the depths of space by revisiting memories and dreams of her father in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, despite being – in a cruel twist of fate – unable to procreate herself. To a lesser extent, one could count Scott’s more widely-acclaimed The Martian among this collection: Mark Watney (Matt Damon) records a monologue specifically for his parents, should he perish in the lifeless wastelands of Mars (though, unlike the Andy Weir source novel, Mark’s relationship with his parents is addressed fairly late in the game).
In a subversion of the usual formula, Claire Denis’ High Life brings parent and child together, as Monte (Robert Pattinson, further wedding himself to the A24-verse) sires Willow (Jessie Ross) aboard their prison-like spacecraft, heading towards a black hole. Rather than a desperate attempt to reconcile over vast distances, this story sees father and daughter reach out into the universe together; the film closing ambiguously as they speed towards infinity.
This trope can even be found in representations of actual space travel: see Damien Chazelle’s First Man, in which Neil Armonstrong’s personal drive to succeed in the Apollo mission is rooted in the tragic death of his daughter, Karen.
So what can we surmise from this emerging trend? Well, in its simplest form, this trope is a surefire way to smash those all-important emotional buttons. What better way to generate empathy from an audience than present a relationship crucial to all our lives and splash it across cinema’s broadest possible canvas?
That endless void has been used as a metaphor for emotional detachment in everything from Tarkovsky’s 1971 classic Solaris to Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1997 sci-fi horror feature Event Horizon, but the concept of absent parental (usually father) figures has never been so directly centred. As previously mentioned, Star Wars and daddy issues are as inseparable as space travel is from cinema itself, and so the same applies to sci-fi as a whole. It must be admitted that the anxieties of male characters are usually placed ahead of women, with even Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity afforded an androgynous haircut and the first name Ryan; a traditionally male moniker.
Perhaps this specific focus on male angst and regret speaks less to the standard “bad father figure” archetype than to the ever-growing divide between generations. With technological advances constantly reported to drive children away from their parents and a climate crisis that only entrenches mistrust between those who’ve left the planet in ruin and those left to deal with the aftermath, there’s every reason for those parents to be fearful.
What cuts especially deep is that those responsible for the state of the Earth – like the leads of many of these films – are men who have forgone the needs of their children’s generation in the pursuit of success, whether purposefully or by accident. A second, fictional chance to change the fate of the world allows them to prove themselves worthy of their child’s love and explore emotions that traditional masculinity rejects: take Cooper’s repeated outpourings of anguish for his distant daughter’s dire straits in Interstellar, or Neil Armstrong’s reclusive episodes of depression and anxiety in First Man.
Ad Astra takes makes the next logical leap. With the father figure adrift somewhere amongst the cosmos, it is now for the child to step up and save not just their own father but the wider human race from a natural phenomenon known as ‘The Surge’. As we see the younger generation now leading the charge when it comes to tackling social and environmental injustice, so too are the cinematic offspring of sad space dads following suit. But the fates of Roy and Clifford McBride are already sealed in an immutable screenplay: those of their real-life counterparts remain perilously unwritten.