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Ad Astra and the Sirens of Titan

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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.

Roy logs,

“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)




Posted by Rich McCaskill with


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There was an interesting article in the LA Times about a loneliness crisis on University campuses. It was written by Varun Soni who is dean of religious life at USC.

He writes, "When I arrived at USC 11 years ago as dean of religious life, my pastoral conversations with students mostly focused on their quests for meaning and purpose. They were striving to translate values into action, cultivate joy and gratitude, live extraordinary lives."

"But over the last several years, these conversations have taken a devastating turn. Whereas students used to ask “How should I live?” they are now more likely to ask “Why should I live?” Where they used to talk about hope and meaning; now they grapple with hopelessness and meaninglessness. Every year, it seems, I encounter more stress, anxiety, and depression, and more students in crisis on campus."

This crisis is not limited to college campuses. It is all around us.

Thankfully in the Christian faith, gospel mission has been mercifully woven into our life by Jesus’ example and command. As we see in John 20, two of the gifts Jesus came back from the grave to give us were:

1) A sense of mission in the world
2) The power to do the mission


“Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit”


(John 20:21-22).


This is a great promise from Jesus of what he will transform us into: Spirit-empowered sent-ones moving out into a lonely world to spread the love of God.


Whether we find ourselves at cafeteria tables, or in conference rooms, standing over BBQ grills, or sitting in lawn chairs, all of us are sent out in faith, to befriend the people he puts in our path and to build bridges of love.


Summer makes this task both easier and harder.


It is easier because the weather is so beautiful and schedules are more relaxed.

It is harder because traveling out of town is at an all-time high.

Just when your evenings become free, the person you want to connect with takes off on vacation. And chances are, they will return the day after you leave on yours.


Nevertheless we don’t give up. We have the promise of 1 Corinthians 15 to remind us “Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”


Getting together and sharing life with our friends and colleagues is a practical way we can live out the second greatest commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).


As I was considering these verses I found this dense quote about eternity and the reality of heaven and hell from C.S. Lewis. These words are from his 1942 Oxford talk titled “The Weight of Glory”


His words inspire us to keep investing in relationships with others and to overcome the loneliness crisis.


“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit –immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously–no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner–no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”





Posted by Rich McCaskill with
Tags: love, neighbor