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Interplanetary deserts of the real: film heroes and human futures

by Loraine Haywood – adapted from a talk presented at a postgraduate symposium run by the Performance of the Real research theme in March 2021. 

Film is a performance space for heroes, and it has an uncanny ability to map the trajectory, and then reveal the territory, of the Real of human futures. In this piece I use a psychoanalytic lens to unpack the way that the 2019 film, Ad Astra, merges science and mythology in a narrative that remains resonant with the latest era of the space race.

The mythic hero in Ad Astra – an overview

In outer space films the void is filled with the performance of heroes. Ad Astra (Gray 2019) is a film that engages with our future through the journey of Major Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt), who is on a mission to save the world.

In the first scene of the film, Roy is maintaining an antenna on a babel-like tower that reaches from the earth into space, when an anti-matter burst hits the tower causing its destruction. He falls from outer space to earth miraculously surviving. Roy is called to a secret meeting with the leaders of SpaceCom where it is revealed his father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), presumed dead, is thought to be alive. Clifford’s mission, the Lima Project, was to search for distant inhabited worlds. Now the Lima Project station is sending back dangerous energy bursts towards Earth. SpaceCom tasks Roy with attempting to contact his father from a facility on Mars so they can get a fix on the Lima Project station and destroy it before further harm can be done to Earth.

Roy proves himself an exceptional hero. He proves his prowess in combat when he and his escort are attacked by pirates on the moon. He becomes party to secret knowledge, via a file revealing his father’s refusal to allow the Lima Project crew to abandon the station and return home to earth. Roy then leaves for Mars, with four other crew members, but En route they hear a distress call from a laboratory in space. On going to investigate, Roy has to fight a baboon he finds on board, who kills the captain of their own vessel, before Roy can triumph and return with the body.

Roy assists with the landing on Mars proving his competence, focus and skill again. On Mars the SpaceCom officers give him a scripted message to read to his father. There is no response. It is only when Roy goes off-script that a reply is received. He again goes rogue, ignoring his order to return to Earth, after learning his father in fact killed the entire crew for mutiny. When he attempts to stow away but is detected by the crew, another violent conflict leads to the crew perishing in their attempt to subdue Roy – though importantly, none are killed by his hand.

Roy continues to the Lima Project, finding the bodies of the crew as he arrives, and finally confronts has father, Clifford. He downloads all the images and data that his father has collected – proving no evidence of extra terrestrial was ever gained – and sets the nuclear weapon to destroy the Lima Project station. Meanwhile Clifford deliberately sets himself adrift in space rather than return to Earth which preserves his symbolic identity as a hero of the space program. The Lima Project is destroyed, and Roy returns to Earth completing the mission.

In the same vein as 20th century astronauts from the Mercury and Apollo programs, Roy McBride is characterised from our Western traditions of mythical heroes. Through a type of Greek and Roman exceptionalism, he survives an epic journey to the outer reaches of the solar system. In the biblical vein he is a Savior falling to earth and then ascending to his father in heaven. In saving the world  from the apocalypse of antimatter bursts, he then has a second coming, as he returns to earth a hero.

Confronting the Real of human aggression

Roy confronts death and the ‘Real’ of human aggression, on his heroic journey through the deserts of space.

The film explores this on three levels: first it confronts the origins of human evolution in the primate, secondly in the confrontations with the Real of his biological father and his murderous aggressive drives, and then he confronts this same rage and aggressive instincts within himself.

In this way Ad Astra theorises an engagement with the Real of human aggression theorised by Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Charles Darwin. Freud constructed mythologies of the primal father using Darwin’s theories of our animal ancestors. Roy confronts the baboon and his father as his biological origins; the Real father (Evans 2010, p.160) and the Real of human primitive aggression. Roy’s father then becomes a reworking of the primal father, and an expression of aggression.

At the same time, on the moon, various nations continue the same capitalist competitions for dominance and exploitation of resources there. The underlying destructive obsessions and drives, that are a theme of the film, are playing out currently in a renewed space race. In this way the film reveals the inhuman core of humanity (Zizek 2007, 46) at a psychological and biological level, that is also tied to geography.

Roy confronts what Žižek claims as an excess of reality, the events are eruptions of violence, and they end in the Real of death. In Ad Astra, the mysterious antimatter burst is destroying the only Real life in the galaxy, that which is on Earth. Its destructive nature follows a similar theme as the Baboon and Clifford’s destructive rage – a manifestation, in fact,  of Clifford’s aggressive drive.  In Lacanian terms Žižek describes the Real that “erupts in the form of a traumatic return, derailing the balance of our daily lives, but at the same time as a support to that balance” (1991, p.29). This burst of energy is an “answer of the Real” (Žižek 1991, p.21), returning to the only intelligent life in the universe. This is Roy’s call to action. It will support balance and closure in his life but result in a confrontation with the biological or Real father, the aggressive instincts, and the Real of his father’s death.

We could also ask the question why Roy’s father must die twice? At first Clifford McBride is considered as dead due to his absence, leading to the creation of a narrative of some catastrophic accident. Žižek explains a theory from Lacan of a subject placed in a phenomenon as “between two deaths” (1991, p.21). Žižek explains that the figure of Antigone is the sublime example of this ontological state. Antigone, he claims, exists: “between her symbolic death and her actual death… [that] characterizes… her insistence on an unconditional demand on which she is not prepared to give way…” (Žižek 1991, p.21-22). In Ad Astra, Clifford exists between two deaths, he is provided a symbolic death as a hero because the Lima Project vanished years ago, and Roy thinks his father is dead. After Roy finds the Lima Project and the truth that Clifford is a primal father of aggressive drives and instincts who murdered his crew, Clifford commits suicide. He is not willing to give way to what he perceives as a failure of the project.

Clifford McBride is shown in the role of God “as destroyer” (Campbell 1991, p.278). He is destroying the earth; he kills all the crew on the Lima Station: the believers and the unbelievers alike. Like God, he displays indiscriminate power. But in a biblical vein, Roy is “The Son”, he is the Savior, saving us from the traumatic Real in the mastering gaze of “The Father” (McGowan 2003, p.39).

The interplanetary deserts of the Real

The themes explored in Ad Astra are ancient entanglements with heroic myth, science, and philosophy. Catullus considered that Jason’s ship the Argo was a confrontation with technology and its unnatural use of earthly resources (pines swimming). In his 64th poem, the consequences of Jason’s mission to rob the Colchians of the Golden Fleece resulted in human suffering, as did other adventures of heroes.

As we move further into the 21st century the Real of outer space is at an intersection with these imaginaries. Outer space has also become a performance space for CEO’s that are the new players in the narratives of the journey of heroes, and “seeing” cosmological visions as revelations of precious geography. Space travel has become the new playground of the wealthy in a competitive pursuit that is also part recreation. In human futures with nations of the world looking to the moon and Mars, the engagement with the Real will consign human beings to the void of space and planetary “deserts of the real” (Baudrillard 2017, p.1).

In the movie, as well as Company CEO’s, there are the territorial, political, and geographical contests of nations that is now projected on to outer space. In real human futures Space-X, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, NASA, UAE and CNSA are performance-based agencies that are looking to commercialise space travel, or to prove exceptionalism by colonising Mars. Space must be traversed, like the desert, the ocean, the dark forest and tall mountains, it must be filled with heroic performance, simply because it is there. But Mars is essentially a desert, requiring a performance of the Real to stay alive.

In a race to Mars, Elon Musk for example is a techno-god and capitalist icon directing and presiding over epic journeys into outer space. And these journeys have been provided with a Reel map that is the filmic imaginary in their connection to Hollywood texts (Lukinbeal 2004, p.247) and mythological stories. As the new Jason and his argonauts, these ‘heroes’ undertaking technological performances that map interplanetary geographies (Haywood 2021, p.109n).

Conclusion: psychoanalytic adventures in space

Space programme ventures provide heroes an opportunity for exceptionalism, in an epic journey into outer space where they will confront the Real of death. A psychoanalytic reading shows that the Moon and Mars are now ‘the deserts of the real’ (Baudrillard 2017, p.1) – planetary voids, with no existing life, that exemplify Freud’s claim that science is a type of mythology (1950, p.283). The new mythology that surrounds Mars is an engagement with creation myth through the actions of terraforming. But just getting there is a challenge. What happens to human reality in the claustrophobia of outer space travel, and then life in a dome on a dead planet?

In psychoanalytic geography, trauma can be located in geographical spaces. Paul Kingsbury considered that “According to psychoanalysis, the clamorous and delicate dramas of the world are inescapably psychical, and people’s psychical torments and jitters are inescapably worldly” (2009, p.489). Meaning these traumas are essentially worldly, tied to geography[1], taken from earth spaces following human beings into space. As human beings look to the stars, or Ad Astra, it’s time to expand on these foundational theories. In this analysis I have expanded on psychoanalytic geography, adding a new subfield that will study outer space human futures by using Freud’s approach. Greek mythology provided him with foundational understanding or a text for new theories. The introduction of this new subfield will create language for ontology in new futures and new realms.

[1] Reminiscent of Freud’s First World War battlefields.

Reference List

Baudrillard, J. (2017). Simulacra and Simulation (S. F. Glaser, Trans.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; Campbell, J. (1991). The Power of Myth (1st ed.). New York: Anchor Books; Catullus, G. V. (1991). Catullus: The Complete Poems (G. Lee, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press; Evans, D. (2010). An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge; Freud, S. (1950). Why War? (1932). In J. Strachey (Ed.), Collected Papers Vol. V Sigmund Freud (Vol. 5, pp. 273-287). London: Hogarth Press; Gray, J. (Director). (2019). Ad Astra [Film]. 20th Century Fox; Haywood, L. (2021). Baudrillard and the Prophetic: Reimagining the Twin Towers in Avengers: Infinity War. MAST: The Journal for Media Art Study and Theory, 2(1), 94-112; Kingsbury, P. T. (2009). Psychoanalytic Theory/Psychoanalytic Geographies. In R. Kitchin & N. Thrift (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (Vol. 8, pp. 487-494). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science; Kosinski, J. (Director). (2013). Oblivion [Film]. Universal Pictures; Lukinbeal, C. (2004). The Map that Precedes the Territory: An Introduction to Essays in Cinematic Geography. GeoJournal, 59(4), 247-251; McGowan, T. (2003). Looking for the Gaze: Lacanian Film Theory and Its Vicissitudes. Society for Cinema & Media Studies 42(3), 27-47; Zemeckis, R. (2015). The Walk [Film]. Sony Pictures; Žižek, S. (1991). Looking Awry: an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular culture. Cambridge: MIT Press; Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the Desert of the Real. New York Verso; Žižek, S. (2007). How to Read Lacan. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

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