*This post contains some spoilers for the films: Ad Astra, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“Deep within every man lies the dread of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the tremendous household of millions and millions. That fear is kept away by looking upon all those about one who are bound to one as friends or family, but the dread is nevertheless there and one hardly dares think of what would happen to one of us if all the rest were taken away.” – Kierkegaard
Even a journey into the depths of space cannot bear the anxieties of our origins and identities.
This last decade has been filled with existential space films, and it makes sense given that endless space is the perfect setting for finite man’s eternal and familial questions. Many of these films—like the recent Ad Astra and the latest Star Wars trilogy—take us to some of the deepest reaches of the galaxy simply to ask questions about where we come from.
Human progress would have it that for us to go forward into the unknown we must untether ourselves—to advance we must go as those independent and unrestrained from anything that might hold us back.
Kylo Ren and Rey, the two protagonists of the latest Star Wars films, demonstrate a helpful tension. One is obsessed with finding out where she came from, the other is possessed with removing himself from the family and tradition in which he came. Without space, we would perhaps never have been given the inspiration for something as imaginative in scope as the Star Wars universe, yet it is in the scope of these cosmos that these characters are still haunted by their own origins. Both Rey and Kylo are desperate to discover who they are despite the enormous power they contain and the worlds in which they inhabit. Rey assumes she will discover herself by discovering the identity of her parents. Kylo assumes he will discover himself only by removing himself from his parents and everything they represent.
At the core of a lot of recent Sci-Fi films is an existential angst of determining who we are in the midst of an infinite cosmos.
The existential and slow-burn of a film, Ad Astra, notably sought to answer this question. Brad Pitt stars as the lonely and depressed astronaut, Roy McBride, who embarks on a mission to find his father who had previously set out to the planet Neptune. This film contains plenty of internal monologues and defies much of what we have come to expect of the science fiction genre. This is partly because this film is less interested in providing cheap human answers like human ingenuity, reason, or force-of-will to solve existential questions (cf. The Martian, Interstellar) and more about the loneliness and ennui that accompany us in the dark night of space.
Clifford, Roy’s narcissistic and belligerent father, is intent on discovering non-human life out among the stars even at the expense of all humanity. The one human at the farthest reaches of space is in no surprise the one whose antipathy towards humanity proves to be the strongest. Roy is willing to embark to this far off place primarily, it seems, because of this paternal gravitational pull. And it is not until after his eventual confrontation with his estranged father, that he concludes that life and meaning are only to be found back from where he came. It takes a journey into the unknown to settle for what was already known to him. But this quest for meaning and identity has existed far before space-travel.
The oft told story of the Prodigal Son is a fine example. The younger brother takes what is his, untethers himself from his father, and journeys deep into unknown territory only to come up short-changed and longing to come home. Roy McBride acts as an inverse Prodigal Son who attempts to find his father in far off places only to be radically disappointed by him but who realizes what is significant is what he left behind on Earth. He returns from the far-off place with the final admission, “I am looking forward to the day my solitude ends. And I’m home.”
Kylo Ren, also like the Prodigal Son, takes the gift of Force inherent to his bloodline and uses it for his own ends. In a way, both had blood on their hands for what they did to their fathers. Both wanted autonomy. Both wanted a life of their own removed from the security and seeming monotony of their own destiny. Both wanted an identity formed for themselves rather than inherited by another. But, as Rey notes regarding Kylo, “there is still a tension within him.” His umbilical severing has not left him without an internal conflict to return.
This innate longing is wrapped up in a return to relationship. And perhaps that is what is so fundamentally wrong with the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story. He is right near his father in proximity but is in his own far off place in spirit. He is in his own way hurdling through space untethered and alone but somehow convinced he is going somewhere. The primacy of our identity lies in being embraced by the father rather than just being near to him in formality. Unlike Clifford, this prodigal father goes out in search for his son and runs to embrace him—unlike Roy’s desperate and forced embrace of his father who simply demands he let him go. And like Han Solo meeting his son, he is not afraid of potential harm or disgrace.
Sometimes it is in the context of being alone and removed from what we love that we come to notice something missing. The vacuum of space can help reveal to us what we are not, but it can not in its own right tell us who we are. Rather, it is only by embrace that we can see most clearly where we have come from, where we are ultimately going, and who we truly are.