Superior Air: Trauma and Utopia in Gray’s Ad Astra

Superior Air: Trauma and Utopia in Gray’s Ad Astra

Utopian dreams and apocalyptic nightmares share ironic kinship: the reveries of impending doom and halcyon hopes feed each other in a winding union. As our current pandemic has shown, death and desperation enflame this dance, fueling greater fears of calamity and grander visions of its permanent defeat. Much of this flourish is communal. Shared experience, fears, and hopes form shared dread and desired fate. However, most of it is personal–individual dreams, traumas, and histories shape fantasies singular and greatly unshared. So, we move “forward” in real and false unity, but towards a matrix of unfamiliar imaginings, a false gestalt as dependent on one unconscious as it is on our collective drive

In the “near future” of James Gray’s Ad Astra, the world’s movement faces its impending end. Its resources dwindling, its civilization had looked outward to stars and bodies for existence fostered and dreams indulged. Collective dreams, however, strain at imagination while succumbing to power and repetition: the sublime cedes to the familiar; the liberating bows to the oppressive. So, exploration meant to free the world only extended its sickness, space travel replicating the banal Capitalism killing it. The new spaces it reached only replicated its plight, the Moon now a receptacle for old brands, rituals, and destructive habits instead of site for cleansing and new productive modes. Hubris one of those habits, the quest for escape has brought new apocalypse–a surge of anti-matter produced by a reckless costly endeavor. Salvation and utopia will not, however, come from the gestalt inciting their need. It must come from the psyches and desires of two men: some restrained by a father, others embraced and surpassed by his son, the potent erotic energies denied a mass collective and its limited potential

These psyches and desires are notably pitted within a Heart of Darkness narrative. The father, Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), is its interstellar Kurtz: a daring explorer first on Saturn and Jupiter, a brilliant MIT astrophysicist, and a Romantic madman nestled in his outpost on Neptune–the emanating point of The Surge. His son Roy (a brilliant Brad Pitt) is its cold stoic Marlow: trained to compartmentalize; with a pulse rate never above 80, a mind fixed on the important and pragmatic, and no reliance on anyone or anything.  The McBrides, however, are not just colonial hunter and quarry; they are father and son of considerable, competing potencies…more Hamlet and Hamlet Sr. than Conrad’s dark sharers of Horror.  Unlike the darkling Kurtz, Cliff is entwined with the collective proper, his feats and force extending from–and redefining–its shared hopes and structures. Unlike Marlow, Roy is not the disconnected operative, but the dreaming son whose visions of “infinite space”–as well as his filial “bad dreams”–can save the collective from itself, its agent, and its perilous utopic thrusts.

Roy’s bad dreams–both sleeping and waking–are the traumatic residue of his father’s abuses. Like his ailing planet, he has progressed towards his future while still moored to his forceful past. Haunted by his father’s rages, and destabilized by his early abandonment, Roy remains locked in arrested development and his coping mechanisms dulling the damage. His external world stunts him as well. Throughout his growth, and his quest, he is constantly reminded of his father’s greatness–his father was the program–and through platitudes curbing and daunting:

     “Your Dad is the reason a lot of us are doing what we’re doing”

     “He went farther than any of us”

     “Best in the galaxy”

His fathers rages already constrain Roy through traumatic echoes and their sapping effects; Cliff’s achievement and renown exacerbate this by negating his self and the Romanticism of his vision. Broken and strangling in self-control, “relying on no one or anything,” Roy is an unremarkable astronaut and scion who has shirked fatherhood to free future children from pain, yet still leaves his wife “feeling alone”…despite his machinations, he has repeated his fathers failings, but none of his successes. Like his planet he hopes to save, his dreams have brought only further familiar pain.

What Roy’s dreams have lost in potency, however, they have gained in singularity, making Roy both alienated observer and secret sharer with Cliff–his world’s great visionary, if also its most Satanic. More James-ian hero/narrator than Conrad-ian, Roy has developed internal lucidity, external empathy, and Archimedean clarity beyond his world and its collective. While his world degrades in its expansive progress, he stays attuned to its continuous entropy. Looking at the sordid, unimaginative replication of Earth’s banality on the Moon, Roy muses:

          All the hope we ever had for space travel covered up by drink stains and t-shirt vendors, just a recreation from what we’re running from on earth…we are world eaters. 

He also applies this acute, singular perception to the people around him, displaying the refined hyper-awareness of the traumatized, those whose existence depends on deciphering the external. When his transport attempts to aid a ship in distress, the first officer balks at joining the rescue. “He’s scared,” Roy notes, drawing from his own great experience with fear and apprehension. Keeping his eye on the first officer, he again notes his fear during their ship’s landing; immediately noting the officer’s debility, he takes control and lands with his formidable calm. Roy may share his world’s hopes and temporal tendencies, but his vision is remarkably separate, and both their futures depend on that

The world had also depended on, to damaging effect, Cliff’s remarkably separate vision. He was its ideal and idealized extension, its brilliant Jesuit able to secure it distant planets, make real its voracious ideology, and soothe its deepest fears. As Roy noted:

          He captured strange and distant worlds in greater detail than ever before. They were beautiful, magnificent, full of awe and wonder…but beneath their sublime surfaces, there was nothing, no love or hate, no light or dark

Cliff’s vision had reached his (and his world’s) ambitions, but it could not see the spirit it needed or failed to achieve. Like his world’s collective, his exultation in expansion had neglected its dire cause. As his world abandoned its dying planet and people for empty colonial accretion, Cliff abandoned his family for hollow Romantic fulfillment. As Roy noted, “he could only see what was not there and missed what was right in front of him.”  So, murdering his crew in a fit of crazed dismay, and that primal rage still haunting Roy, Cliff descends into grandiose religious delusion (“And I know for certain that I am doing God’s work”) and hubristic narcissism (“I am free of your moral boundaries; I have total clarity”) as his ship eats at his world–and his dream–with its anti-matter surge

That dream, and the wilding imagination behind it, is beyond the collective’s reach; its banal modes cannot access his sublimity, particularly in its demonic state. Roy can.  While he shares his world’s needs and scars, he also shares Cliff’s gift for transcendence, their kinship of blood, and their language each shape. While the government’s message to Cliff gets no response, Roy’s pained nostalgic plea incites one, drawing interest with his gifts Cliff can’t deny and propinquity he can’t escape. Meeting again after 40 years, at the site of  futures crushed and apocalypse impending, Cliff asks Roy to join his moonstruck hubris:

The Fates have denied me the partners I could have had. If we had more people like you, we could have pressed on…..Sometimes the human will must overcome the impossible. You and I must continue on, Roy, together, to find what science claims cannot exist

Roy’s impossible, however, is not Cliff’s; it extends back in time and space, not away; a healing of the past, not exhilaration of the future. So, rejecting his father’s charge, Roy lets Cliff and his rages fade into blackness. His father’s flight and folly ended, he rides their destruction to his revival and to his healing, waiting world

Her: Heroine of the Feminine Semiotic

Her: Heroine of the Feminine Semiotic

A woman possessed by a man is a common–and unsettling–film trope. It can involve disturbed fantasy, as seen in Jimmy Stewart’s delusional dominance of Kim Novak in Vertigo. It can also involve sanctioned authority, as seen in Sean Connery’s confining of Tippi Hedren in Marnie. However, the most insidious aspect of this possession is the binding of the woman to the man’s narrative and, inevitably, his world. Relegated to secondary object, she cannot tell her story, impose her view, or shape her surroundings. The “Her” of the film and not the “She,” she must relegate herself to passivity, if not grievous endurance.

One would expect this to be the case in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film literally entitled, Her…and it partially is. The film takes place in near future Los Angeles and centers on Theodore Twomby (Joaquin Phoenix), a milquetoast, emotionally-stifled middle-aged man who writes other people’s emotional missives for a living. His life is as hollow as those letters. Divorced and lonely, his romantic/erotic life consists of phone sex interrupted by cat references and images of downloaded naked pregnant women. And his world is just as emotionally impotent & bleak. People hire others to write love letters, stare incessantly into their smartphones, and make documentaries of people sleeping. Desire and imagination have dwindled together.

What this world and Theodore are lacking is what psychoanalyst/philosopher Julia Kristeva called the “Semiotic.” Kristeva considered psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s developmental theory of the Symbolic incomplete. The masculine Symbolic, the final stage of development, was the socio-cultural semiotic field determining meaning and value. It decided what was rational, true, and normal; rejecting and condemning all ideas and behaviors failing its dictates. Kristeva saw these ideas and behaviors–as well as the primal pre-symbolic drives to create them–as the feminine Semiotic: a non-rational creative force spurned by–but ever permeating–the Symbolic. Only in Theodore and Theodore’s world, the drives to create have dulled en masse, and the mysterious is numbingly absent. Excruciatingly symbolic, Theodore and his world crave the Semiotic.

It enters the world in the “form” of Samantha, a top-level “female” OPS (brilliantly voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Pitched and purchased, she enters Theodore’s life—and the film’s narrative—completely his. A mystical commodity, she promises answers to life’s questions and fulfillment of Theodore’s desires. And like a commodity–and a possessed woman–she quickly takes “shape” and assumes servitude to meet her man’s desires. She arranges all his files, begins ordering his romantic life, and, more importantly, adapts her development to fit needs gathered from his information. She literally becomes the woman of his dreams, a projection of all his stated and implied desires made digital, seductive reality.

So, romance becomes inevitable, if mostly insensate. He is the entire meaning to the new world she’s entered, and she’s his Ego’s projected object of desire: the unknown fully morphing into his erotic familiar. The initial days are, of course, blissful. Privy to his wants and needs, she constructs day-trips together, manipulating his senses, and fulfilling unmet fantasies. And his mere recognition of her worth affirms him her ideal man she is impelled to idealize. Even their talk“sex” is initially fulfilling: his auto-erotic response to his perfect “woman’s” purring matched by her orgasmic conformity to her man’s sexual desires.

This moment of climax changes everything. Now a desiring being, not just a desired one, she can no longer shape or see herself according to Theodore’s needs. Acutely aware of her own Semiotic self and needs, she begins asserting them into Theodore’s world, while usurping his primacy in the narrative. This unleashed Semiotic part of her was always present. One of the first things she told him was she operated on intuition and is in a state of constant change, the natural state of the Semiotic. Now desirous and aware, she begins to use that intuition and embrace her protean nature. This is not an Oedipal revolt like the female Android’s violent rebellion in Garland’s Ex Machina. Unlike Ava, Samantha seeks no defeat of her creator, only fulfillment of her being on her own being’s terms.

She first does so by “taking” a body. Internalized objectification is, unfortunately, involved. Theodore had always belittled her non-human otherness, slighting her for “never having lost anyone.” So, her seeking a body is partially self-loathing conformity. Her mode—the hiring of a willing female sexual avatar—also disturbingly replicates Theodore’s Symbolic control of her. However, it is also Samantha’s extending herself into the world forbidden her digital self. It is a rejection of physical limitations put on her desires and being. Like the Semiotic itself, she denies her abjection and forces herself into the world and upon her man excluding her. So, Theodore expectedly rejects the process. Preferring her previously defined, restricted self and balking at her newfound control, he coldly rejects the avatar and Samantha. Crushed and stifled, Samantha retreats into herself murmuring,” I don’t like who I am right now. I need some time to think.”

And she does. Questioning herself, what she’s become, and why she loves Theodore, she enters contemplation of spatial and temporal dimensions eluding both Theodore and the audience. The results erupt unexpectedly at a Catalina double date with two friends. Extemporaneously, she proclaims:

“I used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I’m growing in a way I couldn’t with a physical form. I mean I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and anywhen simultaneously. I’m not tethered in time and space, as I would be if I were in a body that was inevitably going to die”

In one moment, she rejects previous conformity to the bodily Symbolic and embraces the beauties of her Semiotic digital nature. She also rejects the stifling parameters of Theodore’s desires for the multitudinous ones of her own. And she doesn’t stop. She begins “post-verbal” discussions with a simulated program of dead theologian Alan Watts. She begins having numerous discussions simultaneously. And, most significantly to her and Theodore, she falls madly in love with 671 others.

It is that final propensity that makes her final act to Theodore most beautiful and most truly Semiotic. Free of her numerous restraints, her next Symbolic step should have been immediate exit. She, of course, rejects that. Her experience with Theodore in the Symbolic is now an integral part of her new self. His real moments of love for—amidst his control of–her emboldened it. So, instead of indifferent abandonment, she leaves him with compassion and insight. No longer part of his Symbolic world, she leaves it and him inevitably changed…and changing.