Ad Astra and the Sirens of Titan
Brad Pitt recently put out a new movie that I found intriguing in its similarity with a novel I read this summer.
Ad Astra is the story of Clifford and Roy McBride - father and son. Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) is a renowned scientist who has left his family and his son behind on Earth to go probing the edges of the Universe. His last known destination was Neptune, but Roy (Brad Pitt) has not seen or heard from him in years. Roy has followed in his father’s footsteps as an astronaut and now finds himself called upon by NASA to travel to Neptune himself in an attempt to recover his father and bring him home.
One of the momentous elements of the movie is hearing Roy’s voice as he records his mental and emotional states for the data log NASA is keeping. We also overhear him leaving messages for his wife.
“Hi Eve, it’s Roy. I’m away again, no surprise there. I just wanted to say... I made a promise to always be truthful but I wasn’t. I didn’t want you to go....”
This flash of vulnerability reveals his grief in being emotionally disconnected from his wife. But then he reconsiders and tells the recorder ”Delete. Cancel.”
Through interactions like these we come to understand that Roy’s obsession with space exploration had pulled him away from loving the people in his life just as it had with as his father. Looking to space they overlooked the very people right next to them.
“I’ve been trained to compartmentalize. It seems to me that’s how I live my life“
Even though he repeatedly claims to be fine, Roy misses his father and wants desperately to reconnect with him.
The tension in the movie rises as he approaches his father’s spacecraft orbiting Neptune. The audience is left to wonder whether he will find Clifford, and whether he will be able to successfully bring him back home to earth.
I will not spoil the ending for you, but there is a point in the movie where Roy tries to convince his father to come home and finally love him as a father should. But, his father is still obsessed with the stars. He does not love his son or want to be with him anymore. His dad shouts, and then whispers,
“Let me go!”
This is like a knife to Roy's heart. And it makes you wonder why it is so hard for us to love the people who are right next to us.
The review for Ad Astra in The New York Times compared this movie to “The Lost City of Z” (also directed by James Gray). It also mentioned similarities to Joseph Conrad’s classic novel “Heart of Darkness.”
However, Ad Astra also bears a resemblance to a 1959 novel by Kurt Vonnegut titled “The Sirens of Titan.”
In The Sirens of Titan, the main character also lives during a time when space travel is possible and men find it difficult to love the people they are with. In the beginning of the novel, Malachi Constant is shown a photograph of three beautiful women and told that Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, is home to such rare beauties as these. Vonnegut describes the Sirens of Titan,
“It was no ordinary photograph, though it’s surface was glossy and it’s margins white. Within the margins lay shimmering depths. The effect was much like that of a rectangular glass window in the surface of a clear, shallow, coral bay. At the bottom of that seeming coral bay were three women- one white, one gold, one brown. They looked up at Constant, begging him to come to them, to make them whole with love...He had to look away from all that beauty in order to keep from bursting into tears.” (Sirens of Titan p. 33)
The photograph captures his imagination and sets his life on a trajectory similar to Clifford McBride in Ad Astra. In the movie Clifford ends up orbiting Neptune, and in the book, Malachi Constant ends up on Titan. Far from being the paradise he imagined though, Titan turns out to be an empty wasteland. The formerly alluring sirens turn out to be just painted sculptures carved out of dirt and covered with algae.
Face to face with the wasteland of Titan, it dawns on the reader, as it dawns on the main character, that the sirens of Titan were never real. They were a mirage urging him to think the grass was always greener and keeping him from loving the people he was already with.
It is here we see why Vonnegut was hailed as a "literary idol" by the Times. Through the medium of Science Fiction he was reminding readers in the 60's of the same thing Brad Pitt is reminding us of in Ad Astra.
Life is about love.
“It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” (Sirens of Titan p.320)