The Enlightenment mythology usually goes something like this: Humans had been wallowing in darkness and superstition for a long time, then, sometime in the seventeenth century, a few heroic philosophers and proto-scientists broke the chains of religion and freed humanity from the darkness and superstition that had ensnared them since Neolithic times and the more we follow these denizens of “enlightenment” the further we move away from enslavement by superstition, prejudice, and religion. If this narrative were true one would expect the ultimate modernist genre, science fiction, to be free from those dark and primordial prejudices that have supposedly enslaved humanity for much of its existence. However, a close examination of some of the most successful and iconic science fiction films reveals a deeply implanted religious psychology and theo-cosmic foundation to them—namely, the centrality of sacrifice and the role of love in human salvation which stand as a repudiation of the modernist narrative.
Science Fiction and Religious Psychology
Isaac Asimov provided, to my mind, the best and most succinct definition of science fiction, “Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” How have humans, then, dealt with the changes wrought by science and technology? The origin and progression of the science fiction genre, both in book and film form, contain a dialectic pitting two worlds against each other: The old and dying world of naturalism and erotic love against the emergent sterile, mechanical, and technological world of science. Part of the tremendous appeal, allure, of science fiction is that it captures the tensions that we are going through as a species in throes of the changes wrought by science and technology in our own lives. Science fiction realizes the unconscious and subconscious fears and struggles that we humans have since the Industrial Revolution’s severing of our ties with nature and unleashing of the atomic bomb and the specter of scientific armageddon.
But there is another peculiar aspect to science fiction filmography that rejects the heart of the tired and worn out Whig myth of progress. Deep in the pulsating body of science fiction filmography are the Dionysian and Christian religious inheritances of how erotic love and sacrifice, moreover than instrumental machines and technologies of power, will arise to restore balance to the cosmos and give life to the world.
It is now commonplace to recognize the centrality of sacrifice in ancient religion. The mystery cult Mithraism centered on primordial killing of the Bull of Heaven and how from slaying the Bull of Heaven its blood and organs were used to fashion and fertilize the cosmos, thereby bringing life into the world. Even older is Marduk’s slaying of Tiamat which ends with Tiamat’s blood being mixed with the sand of the earth to bring life. Most famous of all are the laws of sacrifice and purification in the Hebrew Bible—from which the sacrificial rites purify the Israelite community and makes life possible under Yahweh’s stewardship.
René Girard famously pioneered the interpretation that Christianity was antithetical to the sacrificial religions of the ancient world. Girard concentrated on the victim of the sacrifice rather than the presider of the sacrifice. This is important to some degree but misses the point of sacrifice in Christianity and how sacrifice in Christianity is simultaneously the fulfillment of the sacrificial religious impulse and its undoing.
The pagan impetus of sacrifice invariably focused on the presider of the sacrificial ritual rather than the victim from which life flows. The hero, in the pagan religious psyche, is the person who does the killing rather than the victim slaughtered. Christianity maintains agreement with the ancient sacrificial religions insofar that it is from the blood of the victim sacrificed that purification and cosmic restoration flows. However, where Christianity suddenly, and violently, breaks with the ancient sacrificial ethos is how the hero is not just the presider of the sacrifice but the victim itself. The savior is the sacrificial victim.
The purpose of religious sacrifice was not to appease the gods, per se, as crass atheistic argumentation crudely portends. While appeasement, propitiation, was an aspect to religious sacrifice, the real reason for sacrifice was to restore cosmic balance or harmony in a world transgressed, disturbed, and fallen into disorder. The sacrifice was the culminating act that restored harmony to the world which permitted life to endure. In this manner pagan religion and Christianity come together—the sacrifice is the only act that saves the disordered and destabilized cosmos from being utterly torn apart and destroyed. Robert Fastiggi succinctly explains the real impetus behind sacrifice in The Sacrament of Reconciliation: An Anthropological and Scriptural Understanding, “Within ancient religions, various sacrifices, therefore, are needed to restore the social and cosmic harmony lost by human transgression.”
I bring this basic cursory introduction to the importance of sacrifice in religion because many of the great science fiction incorporate this religious psychology and theology into their films. Far from being removed from the religious impulse, science fiction embodies the religious impulse of sacrificial salvation and carries it forward into a genre simply devoid of religious ritualism and ceremony but still makes the moment of sacrifice the culminating triumph of the science fiction story—thereby recapitulating the religious drama of sacrifice and salvific cosmic restoration without the garments and prayers that historically accompanied religious sacrificial practices and reenactments. To highlight the reality of sacrificial salvation and how the act of sacrifice restores cosmic harmony and life to the world, I will examine several classic and modern science fiction films and how they incarnate the religious psychology and impulse concerning sacrifice and salvation: Godzilla (1954), Star Wars (the original trilogy), Terminator, Deep Impact, Armageddon, Interstellar, and Ad Astra. I will also examine in conjuncture with the art of sacrifice in these films the role that love, including erotic love, plays in bringing about salvation and restoring cosmic harmony.
We shouldn’t be surprised at the extent of the depth of theology and the religious impulse and psychology in science fiction. That most iconic and famous science fiction film, with its most famous of phrases, The Day the Earth Stood Still, is saturated with religious allegory throughout its narrative. We have the allegory of the incarnation with the arrival of Klaatu from another world and appearing before the world in flesh. We also have Klaatu becoming John Carpenter upon his arrival, assuming a new identity just as the Son of God did, whose very initials allude to Jesus Christ (a not so uncommon trope in science fiction filmography) and that most incredible gospel of the incarnation and visitation in John. The mission of our in situ Christ is to bring peace to the world, as revealed through his interaction with Mrs. Benson (a sort of in situ Mary as adoptive mother and Mary Magdalene who witnesses the “resurrection”) and at the film’s conclusion when he speaks to the scientists and other leaders assembled before the spaceship. We also witness the conspiracy against our in situ Christ in the form of the military’s fear of the man from outer space and Klaatu’s betrayal by Tom who betrays him out of the prospect of fame and wealth. Lastly, we witness the death of Klaatu, his entombment in a cell, resurrection, and ascension into the heavens leaving his knowledge with the earthlings as their choice to obey or reject (to their own effectual damnation).
Love, Sacrificial Salvation, and Cosmic Restoration from “Godzilla” to “Ad Astra”
What The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn’t capture, but what many subsequent science fiction films do portray, is the essential role of sacrifice in restoring cosmic balance and life to a world destabilized and heading toward damnation. While it’s true that Klaatu is killed, his death is not a self-sacrificial act that restores life to a world under threat of extinction. This archetype of the self-sacrificial hero has become one of the great tropes of science fiction, and, arguably, its most poignant and allusively religious.
One of the first great science fiction films to introduce the cosmic imbalance motif and its closure with the act of sacrificial restoration is Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla. Godzilla is a powerful if not otherwise somber and dark film because it is born in the aftermath of the post-Atomic age and comes from a country that experienced the shock and horror of the destructive power of technology firsthand. In fact, the imagery of Tokyo burning after Godzilla’s attack draws on the historical memory of the Second World War—the scenes of an illustrious city ablaze and defenseless would have pierced into the heart and memory of Japanese consciousness.
Godzilla can be understood as a metaphor and allegory of technology, especially destructive technology (specifically the nuclear bomb) as most already know and which most initial critics realized. The conventional weaponry of the Japanese military is incapable of stopping this new beast of destruction just as all of Japan’s military weaponry failed to stop the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At a more psychological level, however, Godzilla is the manifestation of cosmic imbalance; Godzilla is the object or agent of disharmony and destruction making life impossible in the world brought forth by the advent of our post-atomic and technological age. Godzilla, as the incarnate monster of technological destruction, is the very manifestation of the common dialectical motif in science fiction pitting the old world of human emotion, love, and naturalism against the new, destructive, and dark world of technological scientism. Godzilla, then, is the manifestation of the emergent archetype of the destructive monster (or machine) that has arisen in our post-atomic cosmos—a cosmos now destabilized and threatened by the dark danger of technological holocaust.
Tokyo, the film’s in situ human civilization, is threatened by the cosmic disharmony wrought by the advent of atomic power and energy. The very social fabric and harmony of this civilization is disturbed from the discovery of Godzilla and the terror that he unleashes. Godzilla orphans a child from his parents in his first raid where we witness only Godzilla’s feet and tail. Godzilla also threatens the very world of love, exhibited by the characters Emiko and Ogata, whose very presence makes a life of love and family impossible as our lovers are terrified and flee the presence of the monster.
What makes Godzilla a classic film is the fact that it recapitulates the very themes that guide classic literature: love and strife, a love triangle (Serizawa, Emiko, and Ogata), and primordial religious need for restoration. Godzilla also reveals to us the incompetency of politics and modern civilization in dealing with the crisis we find ourselves in (another common trope in science fiction filmography). When debates rage in a closed political meeting over how to handle the discovery and danger of the reptilian monster, the politicians are outspoken that they must keep the public in the dark and not inform the nation of the impending danger. When the women of the meeting protest, and when Godzilla’s reality cannot be concealed, the very efforts of the government and its logistical and industrial apparatus fail to protect Tokyo from terrible destruction. Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo make present our subconscious fears, in this brave new world unleashed by the fire of atomic technology, that the very things we have relied on to reach our present condition—democratic government and (conventional) technology—are incapable of resolving the crisis we find ourselves in.
Daisuke Serizawa, who we earlier met as the ingenious doctor and as Emiko’s fiancé through arranged marriage, is the sacrificial savior of the film through a process of consciously becoming the sacrificial savior needed to restore harmony to the world. Scarred from the Second World War, he has built the oxygen destroyer that is the only thing—so we believe—that can stop Godzilla and restore the cosmic imbalance wrought from Godzilla’s manifestation. However, he is initially hesitant. Something between a recluse and a monk, Serizawa shelters himself from the pride, prejudice, and darkness of the world. His initial refusal to use the oxygen destroyer is because he doesn’t trust humanity with the power the technological object possesses. Fear grips Serizawa and therefore prevents him from acting.
It is only after witnessing the horrible destruction of Godzilla (epitomized most poignantly with a crying mother hugging her three children and telling them that they will soon see daddy again) that Serizawa eventually agrees to use the oxygen destroyer to defeat the monster. But this is where film becomes truly theological. When Serizawa and Ogata descend into Tokyo Bay to locate and kill Godzilla, Serizawa consciously chooses to become the sacrificial savior whose act of sacrifice brings forth the healing of cosmic transgression. Serizawa also knows his act of sacrifice is going to allow love, and therefore life itself which flows from love, to be possible. He tells Ogata that Ogata and Emiko “should be happy together” in their prospective marriage which can finally come to be without the specter of Godzilla haunting them. Serizawa’s actions reveal that he truly does love Emiko and humanity more generally. Serizawa has undergone a metamorphosis from a reclusive and seemingly mad scientist to the sacrificial hero who takes the sins and transgressions of the world, including his own transgressions from his experiments with the oxygen destroyer, onto himself and dies in the ultimate act of life having overcome prior fear through love. For that is the paradox of religious sacrifice—in death there is life; in death the transgressions of the world are overcome and the unstable cosmos is restored to balance which makes life and love possible and meaningful.
The power and emotion of Serizawa’s death, notwithstanding Ogata’s crying out of his name over the radio, is in the fact that Serizawa’s sacrificial act embodies the religious impulse of human nature. Serizawa’s sacrificial act is unforgettable because it taps into the very impulse of human psychology and the need for sacrifice. Godzilla evokes the need for sacrifice to restore cosmic balance lost in the maelstrom of war, technological “progress,” and human dislocation. The only way to counteract the destabilizing spirit that Godzilla represents is through that most ancient and primordial need and wisdom.
One of the most iconic science fiction films, which is also an enduring film despite its age, is saturated with religious and theological psychology and allusion whether intended or not. What we witness portrayed on the screen is the eternal reality of cosmic imbalance (Godzilla) threatening the world and civilization (Tokyo) and how this comic imbalance is overcome through an act of sacrifice (Serizawa’s death) which restores the lost social and cosmic harmony permitting life to go on (the prospective marriage of Emiko and Ogata). Moreover, Serizawa doesn’t sacrifice himself out of a mere moralism of what is right; he sacrifices himself out of love as evidenced by his final words to Ogata. Godzilla portrays—so soberly, powerfully, even sublimely—the very act of sacrifice which is “needed to restore the social and cosmic harmony lost by…transgression.”
Godzilla may have been the earliest science fiction film to capture this reality of sacrificial salvation but Star Wars became the most successful film saga to portray the cosmic drama of love, sacrifice, and technological terror for us and remains the most enduring of all science fiction franchises to have done so.
Part of the endurance of the original three films is because they follow the golden template for narrative with the Hero’s Journey, a love triangle, and sacrificial heroism. Star Wars literally grabs us and pulls us into the story immersion that our human nature so desperately craves.
Star Wars is recognizable as medieval fantasy folklore dressed up in the clothing of science fiction and fantasy—which itself is a genre dependent on science fiction as defined by Asimov since fantasy is a response to the expansion of science and technology in our lives. There is no point in belaboring that point here. Instead, I wish to examine how Star Wars portrays the science fiction themes of cosmic disharmony and the sacrificial act of restoration which brings closure to the story.
Like most other science fiction films from the 1950s and 1960s, Star Wars presents technology as the force of cosmic disharmony and how the terror of our new technological age must be countered by the spiritual reality of “The Force.” The Force described in the original trilogy is not yet the more rationalistic explanation of the midichlorian as recounted in A Phantom Menace (which marks the beginning of the rationalization of Star Wars from its original cosmic mysticism). The Force is entirely mystical and mysterious in the original trilogy which adds to the sense of enchantment in the films. The opening scene depicts two space crafts engaged in a battle, with the smaller rebel ship which Princess Leia is on fleeing from the march larger Imperial Star Destroyer which Darth Vader is commanding. After Leia’s capture and the meeting of the Imperial officers on board the Death Star there is no mistaking this mechanistic and scientific instrument of war is the great “threat to the galaxy.”
As the film sets itself up, the galaxy—the naturalistic cosmos with its plurality of life—is now threatened by this sterile machine built for destruction. With the introduction of the Death Star and its destruction of Alderaan, cosmic harmony has been eviscerated. The sudden disharmony of the cosmos is visually represented when Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise sage and mentor to the young Luke Skywalker, feels “a great disturbance in the Force” when on board the Millennium Falcon en route to Alderaan.
At the subconscious level, the Force (as defined and promoted by Obi-Wan) is the mystic harmonious power of love and cosmic balance which permits life to flourish. I shall return to the role of the Force as Lucas’ unitive cosmic spirit later (especially in the context of The Empire Strikes Back) but the reality of the Force as representing the harmony of the cosmos is plainly stated by Obi-Wan when he feels the “great disturbance” after the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star. The “Dark Side,” though nominally attached with the same “ancient ways” and “religion” mocked by the Imperial officers in the presence of Darth Vader, is really the technological monstrosity that are the scientific weapons of war which the Empire utilizes for their regime of terror: the Star Destroyer, TIE fighters, and, above all, the Death Star (and we mustn’t forget that Darth Vader is “more machine now than man”).
Thus, Star Wars recapitulates a very ancient theme of cosmic imbalance and the confrontation with this cosmic imbalance which threatens to exterminate life from world. This shouldn’t be surprising given Lucas’ study of religion and mythology, especially eastern religions, during the preceding years before writing and directing the film. But it is from this rich double inheritance that we have the dual story line with its two principal heroes: Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker.
Obi-Wan is the hero of the religious inheritance that runs through the film while Luke Skywalker is the hero of the mythological inheritance that moves through the film. In fact, there is a rich reversal of the order of supersession in Lucas’ first film. Where the conventional story of religion and mythology (and, indeed, science) is that mythology is superseded by religion (and religion eventually superseded by science), Lucas’ film turns this narrative on its head to also combat the hubris of scientific modernism. Instead of mythology being superseded by religion, mythology supersedes religion and the mythological archetypes become the reality strong enough to counter the technological and scientific terror that is threatening to consume the galaxy.
This inversion of the standard mythological-religion narrative, first seen in Giambattista Vico’s La Scienza Nuova, is manifested through the supersession of heroes in the film. As our heroes descend into the cave to confront the monster that lives there (metaphorically represented by the Death Star and Darth Vader respectively), Obi-Wan freely chooses to sacrifice himself in order to help Luke mature into the hero he needs to be to overcome the Death Star and Darth Vader. Obi-Wan’s sacrifice is the culmination of the religious story line in the film and also marks the supersession of religion by mythology because with Obi-Wan’s sacrifice our hero of the mythological inheritance takes over and drives the story to its finale.
Luke Skywalker is the mythological hero of the film because he follows the Mythological archetypal pattern of the “Hero’s Journey” which Joseph Campbell charted out in his famous work The Hero With a Thousand Faces and which George Lucas publicly acknowledged as a major influence over the composition of Star Wars. Luke, who is a young hero called to adventure like Siegfried, receives mentorship through his “threshold guardian” in Obi-Wan Kenobi who must depart after making Luke aware of the danger that he must face and overcome. Luke, who is now fully aware of the danger the Death Star, reaches the Abyss (quite literally when he goes down the garbage chute) and ascends (escapes) knowing what he must do to save the cosmos—destroy the Death Star.
But Luke’s ability to defeat the Death Star is integrally intertwined with Obi-Wan’s sacrificial act on the Death Star. For at the moment of triumph it is Obi-Wan, having become entirely united with the Force in his sacrificial martyrdom, who aids Luke in overcoming the dark side and man’s reliance on technology (by turning off the targeting computer). Obi-Wan’s sacrificial death allows him to live on and empower his pupils and disciples to overcome the evils of the cosmos. So while religion is superseded by mythology in Lucas’ inversion, religion is still integrally related to mythology’s empowerment to defeat the totalizing encroachment of science over the cosmos—it is as if an undercurrent of Star Wars is how religion has failed to stop the threat of science and how mythology is our new hope but religion, in this inversion, helps to make mythology strong enough to confront the totalitarianism of technology. Thus it is necessary for a preceding sacrificial event to empower the in situ hero of the new mythological reality to slay the mechanical monster threatening to devour the lovely princess and unleash its fire over the whole of the cosmos.
Cosmic harmony is restored only after an act of sacrifice (Obi-Wan) and a hero’s slaying of the monster (Luke destroying the Death Star) which culminates in the ultimate life-giving event of a man and woman united in this “new hope” (Luke and Leia).
The Empire Strikes Back carries the story into a new epoch where mythological and religious archetypes and allusions remain the predominate spirit of governing the film. This entry in the Star Wars canon is most romantic precisely because the mythological cornerstone to the saga’s construction had been exhausted in A New Hope and therefore forces Empire to draw on the romanticism of love trying to find refuge in a dark and hostile cosmos chasing love away from the world because love is the great threat to political totalitarianism and bureaucracy. (These themes are not uncommon in literature and poetry and are very much present in the political plays of William Shakespeare.)
That The Empire Strikes Back retreats into this timeless theme of love against politics shouldn’t be surprising given where A New Hope ended. The grandest and most emotional of the original space operas, The Empire Strikes Back is also the most mythological precisely because the mythological narrative is what we were left with at the conclusion of A New Hope. Nevertheless, we also see the slow reemergence of the religious storyline which blossoms fully and comes to supersede the more mythological pillars that drove The Empire Strikes Back to its conclusion. Ironically, The Empire Strikes Back begins to question whether mythology is the source strong enough to counter the strangling totalitarianism of bureaucratic politics and technological despotism.
There are two concurrent storylines in Empire. The first deals with a refined telling of the “Hero’s Journey” of Luke Skywalker. In some ways this is both a recapitulation and continuation of his mythological narrative in A New Hope. Luke must meet and train with Master Yoda (his new threshold guardian) to learn the mysterious ways of the Force. In doing so, he becomes more aware of the dangers that Darth Vader, the Dark Side, and the Empire present. Archetypally, he also “descends into the cave” to confront the great evil: himself, when he decapitates the hallucinogenic Darth Vader. This prefigures his descent into the cave—the lower levels—of Bespin to duel Darth Vader and learn the identity of the Skywalker family. (In Luke’s story we also begin to see the emergence of the theological anthropological dilemma of mihi quaestio factus sum: who am I?)
Furthermore, when Yoda says the Force is “around you: here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere!” to Luke, this is the most revelatory moment of the Force as the mystical unitive spirit of love reminiscent of the scholastic theologians mixed with New Age vibes. “Love is the unitive force,” as St. Thomas Aquinas said in the Summa. Moreover, the communicative power of the Force we witness toward the end of the film with Luke dangling near death at the bottom of Bespin as if he had just finished traversing the lowest rungs of Dante’s inferno is love. The love of Luke for Leia and Leia for Luke binds them together which allows for Luke’s rescue. The Empire Strikes Back, befitting its mythological blood, ends with the triumph of love in a dark and cold cosmos. But it also begins to shed its mythological skin and pivots toward a more religiously driven storyline that The Return of the Jedi will complete.
The other story in Empire is the romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia. Their pilgrimage across the cosmos to the beautiful city of Bespin, all while being pursued by the Imperial Navy, is the quintessentially romantic myth reimagined in the Star Wars universe. Their growing in love, and especially trust, is what allows them to persevere through all the danger and turmoil that confront them in their flight from tyrannical politics which attempts to exterminate love from the cosmos because love is the great threat to the empty machinations of politics which is premised on the pursuit of power and the use of power which turns humans into mere cogs for scientific and political ends. Han’s sacrificial act allows Leia, Chewbacca, and even Lando, to escape the tyrannical clutches of Darth Vader and gives hope that love will still triumph in the end.
The Return of the Jedi is the finale of the mytho-theological world of Star Wars which fittingly ends with the sacrificial redemption of Darth Vader which restores harmony to the cosmos. A new Death Star threatens life in the galaxy. Once more we see the return of technological horror and tyranny and the threat it poses to love and life instead of the militaristic and bureaucratic politics of tyranny the Empire primarily symbolized in The Empire Strikes Back. The reality of technological terror has returned in full force.
The heart of the Return of the Jedi is the attempt of the son, Luke, to rekindle the spark of goodness in his father. What is the good that Luke feels in his father? It is love. Again, this helps reveal to us the more mystical and religious conceptualization of the Force in the original trilogy. Furthermore, in this relational tug of war it is important to remember that until the end of the film Luke never sees the face of his father. Like the pilgrim seeking the face of God, the face of God—Vader—remains hidden until the pilgrimage is complete. The Return of the Jedi brings closure to the Star Wars universe through the completion of its now religiously grounded storyline.
We see the final supersession of myth with religion onboard Death Star II in the duel between Darth Vader and Luke and through Darth Vader’s sacrificial redemption in killing the emperor (barring what has transpired in the new films produced for purely consumeristic purposes). Darth Vader’s redemption is in finding his love for his son. Love triumphs once more but this time, appropriately, the triumph of love demands a sacrificial death.
So Darth Vader dies from his sacrificial act but not without seeing the face of his son with his own eyes which also permits Luke to see the face of his father for the first and only time. The end of the Return of Jedi is perfect because it wraps up all the ends we had witnessed over the course of the trilogy. The romance of Han and Leia is consummated. Luke’s search for his father and ultimate identity is completed. Darth Vader’s redemption is completed. The cosmos threatened by technological terror—the true “dark side” in the original three films—is restored through an act of sacrifice brought forth by love. Politics didn’t defeat the ostentatiously political Galactic Empire. An act of sacrificial love, that most interior and religious reality, did. Darth Vader gives up power, which can only be acquired by forsaking love, by embracing love. His embrace of love ultimately leads him down the path of sacrificial redemption and restoration which poetically, perfectly, closes the original trilogy. He was the “chosen one” to bring balance to the Force, the cosmos, after all.
Among the most religiously allusive sci-fi films is James Cameron’s Terminator. At a cursory glance there seems to be nothing particularly theological about this classic science fiction film. A closer inspection, however, reveals the intensely religious and theological symbolism that flows – unconsciously, subconsciously, consciously – through it.
While Terminator manifests our worst fears of technological and atomic annihilation, the film offers us hope through the retelling of the incarnational drama with our in-situ Mary, Sarah Connor, as the lead heroine. After all, Reese transcends dimensions to appear in our world because—as he later reveals—he loves Sarah Connor. The loneliness and bloodshed of the post-apocalyptic world has driven eros, unbounded passionate love, away, but it is Reese’s erotic love for Sarah that allows him to transcend space and time and appear in flesh and blood in 1980s Los Angeles. Here we witness the recapitulation and romanticization of the Christian theme of love governing the cosmos and love being the one force that ties the whole universe together and transcends space and time. We therefore have an eroticized re-articulation of what Aquinas aptly summarized in the Summa, “love is the unitive force.” And love unites Reese and Sarah in this cinematic drama of cosmic salvation.
Sarah is the mother of our deliverance, deliverance in the form of the hero child (John Connor) who will destroy the great evil that threatens to exterminate human life. But this crypto-theological love drama of salvation is complicated by the schemes of a robotic demon, the Terminator (T-800), who tries to thwart humanity’s prospective deliverance from the chains of mechanistic sin and slavery. Terminator dramatizes the intense collision between the cosmos of love (manifested by Sarah and Reese) and the cosmos of sterile death (manifested by the Terminator and also through 1980s Los Angeles with its dark, gloomy, consumeristic atmosphere drowned out by stereo music and techno-lights).
Amid this dramatic battle of love (good) and death (evil), the authorities are incapable of protecting Sarah and our massacred by Death incarnate. The attack on the police station is shocking, or at least was shocking to a 1980s audience where such acts of terrorism on law enforcement and pillars of institutional civilization were not yet a commonplace fear or worry. But the attack and destruction of the police station reveals the limits of our political order to deal with the problem of technological annihilation and how technological darkness can only be confronted by that most human and interior reality of erotic love. The destruction of the police station, the expected “good guys” of film, makes real our subconscious fear that the institutions and pillars of our civilization will not be able to save us in this brave new world we are entering (just as we witnessed in Godzilla).
With Sarah and Reese on the run, almost akin to Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, trust and love grow between them which consummates in the ultimate erotic act: sexual intercourse. It is the love that Sarah and Reese share for each other, made manifest in the sexual act as they hide in a hotel room, that brings forth the conception of the savior child (as the film reveals at the end). Prior to this moment, Sarah and Reese had not built the trust necessary for love to flourish in the life-giving act of love.
The erotic love of Sarah and Reese is the antidote to the sterile and mechanical new world we are entering. As we have witnessed through the progression of the film, all the expected heroes fail to deliver our damsel in distress from harm’s way. Her best friend whom she calls out to first is killed (in part, because she is distracted by technology as she listens to blaring music in her headset). The police fail to protect her and mock the story that Reese tells them, thereby dismissing the very threat of technological annihilation that awaits them by not heeding the warnings. While there is a final confrontation with the machine of death, the real act of salvation is the consummation of eros in the sexual act of love that conceives life and therefore brings life into the world.
In a dazzling science fiction reimagination, what the Terminator visibly portrays on screen for us is that very ancient story of how love transcends space and time and unites souls in this dark world of death and how that love brings forth our salvation. More concretely, Terminator retells—in a technologized world—the story of the incarnation in a purely humanistic (and romanticized) lens. Indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of Cameron’s films, the humanistic and erotically romantic aspect of his films from Terminator and Titanic to Avatar.
Over the course of the film, love also metamorphosizes Sarah from a meek and frightened young girl into a strong and powerful woman. The film’s message concerning woman’s role in our salvation is profound in a deeply intimate way that most shallow feminist films are not, for what the Terminator includes in its dramatic Manichean battle is a story of coming of age wherein the female protagonist becomes the protagonist and the undeniable subject of our salvation. Additionally, Sarah’s becoming mother of our salvation through an act of love is not a rejection of her femininity but the fulfillment of it. It is after the sexual act of love in the film that Sarah is transformed from a frightened girl in flight to a strong woman willing to confront the mechanical dragon of death after Reese dies. Her strength is in her motherhood. This is the subtle, but much more intense, feminism at the heart of the film—we do not witness an overburdensome and powerful Sarah from the start as the flanderized series has now become; we witness her transformation primarily through the act of love and intimacy which brings her to fruition: motherhood.
Terminator eschews the possibility of political salvation and is, therefore, a quintessentially anti-Enlightenment film because the Enlightenment fantasy places all its stock in the possibility of political salvation (from Bacon, Hobbes, and Spinoza, to Locke, Mill, and Marx). Moreover, Cameron’s masterpiece is governed by the spirit of erotic romanticism mixed with an adapted Christian gloss as we witness a Schellingean drama of humanistic eroticism mingled with religious allusions to the incarnation and salvation through the birth of a child (all things the Enlightenment fundamentally rejects as superstition and belonging to our dark and prejudicial animal past). Terminator is the manifestation of our fear of Laputa, romantic need for love and religious impulse, all in one in a captivating and unforgettable cinematic drama with the hopeful message of a mother bearing the child of salvation as she drives off under the sun. In fact, the ending of the Terminator is in a naturalistic environment with natural light unlike the cramped, dark, and mechanical places which had dominated the film from beginning until the end; the darkness has literally given way to light as the film ends.
While Terminator may represent the great synthesis of romantic eroticism and traditional religion with its emphasis on the salvific power of erotic love, the 1990s began the shift toward technological détente with a return to the religious need for the sacrificial hero. Independence Day, Deep Impact, and Armageddon, films all released in short order of each other, are the best manifestations of this reality. Moreover, all three films include a political and technological component to our salvation which, however, remain subordinate to the overriding principle of sacrificial salvation.
Where many of the sci-fi films set during the Cold War depict technology coldly, ambivalently, or malevolently, the science fiction films in the 1990s and early 2000s depict technology as an essential component to our salvation. The reason for this positive reappraisal of technology is rather obvious in my view. The specter of nuclear holocaust which had hung over the world’s head since the advent of the Cold War had suddenly vanished.
Unsurprisingly, Independence Day, Deep Impact, and Armageddon all include the nuclear bomb as an instrument of our deliverance (as does the cult 1990 Japanese film Solar Crisis). Once considered the ultimate dark tool of our reckoning, the bomb is now the defining piece of our deliverance. While I will now shift to examine the religiously allusive aspects of these films, in particular Deep Impact and Armageddon, I do wish to flag the reality of this technological détente within the movement of the science fiction genre as I consider it important in the overall arc of science fiction filmography. The machine is no longer necessarily, and entirely, evil.
Deep Impact and Armageddon are the most explicit in portraying for us cosmic imbalance which threatens life on earth. Intergalactic rocks, a comet and asteroid respectively in both films, serve as the great threat which is destabilizing the cosmos. With the reality of cosmic disharmony established, humanity must unite in a collective effort to stop our impending extinction. The possibility of cosmic annihilation is not merely scientific fact, it is the essential cornerstone of all religions. For all religions assert the reality of cosmic transgression wrought by sin which threatens to wipe out life. Thus, as we introduced at the beginning of this essay, the need for the sacrificial hero to heal cosmic imbalance and restore harmony to the world which makes life possible becomes a factual necessity. This reality is portrayed for us in both films.
But why are our heroes in Deep Impact and Armageddon braving the coldness of space and cramped metallic spaces built “by the lowest bidder?” The superficial reading is that they are heroically defying the odds to save the earth in action/adventure films. The deeper, and more explicit, reason is that they are braving the forces of nature, time, and technology to save the world of love and human relations—the world of lebenswelt.
In Deep Impact, this reality brings itself to the fore in the love relationship between Leo Biederman and Sarah Hotchner. Leo was the teenage half alongside Dr. Wolf who discovered the comet heading toward Earth. While the U.S. Government launches a space team to destroy the comets on board a starship named Messiah (with its name signifying an obvious religious overture), the American bureaucracy also launches a failsafe program to store away hundreds of thousands of its best citizens underground in the event of impact. Leo’s family is chosen but Sarah and her family are not.
Things are made worse when the Messiah fails to destroy the comet and only splits it into two smaller, and still deadly, comets and Commander Oren Monash is blinded by the disastrous events. Leo subsequently marries Sarah hoping to save her and her family, but this plan fails. Leo refuses to hide underground and returns to be with Sarah and her family in the moment of crisis—revealing the power of marriage in opposition to utilitarianism. Leo’s love for Sarah is not merely a utilitarian contract but a willingness to sacrifice, and even die, with her.
In this chaos Captain Tanner and the crew of the Messiah decide to become the sacrificial saviors at the film’s conclusion which ends with a touching emotional scene between the blind Oren and his newborn son. In the final crisis when the smaller comet, Biederman crashes off Cape Hatteras, and the crew of the Messiah sacrifice themselves by flying into Wolf to prevent global extinction, the intertwining of Leo and Sarah’s arcs and Oren with his infant son in tearful goodbye reveal the reality of sacrifice out of love instead of mere sacrifice to avoid extinction. Fighting to avoid extinction is abstract. Fighting to preserve love is intimate and concrete—as we witness with Leo fleeing with Sarah and her baby brother and Oren’s goodbye to his newborn son.
The crew of the Messiah do sacrifice themselves to save the planet, human race, and all other lifeforms on earth. But, more importantly, their sacrifice is done out of an act of self-giving love. The crew of the Messiah die on the behalf of the world which permits love, symbolized most explicitly by Leo and Sarah, and Oren’s infant son and wife saying their goodbyes, to endure.
Armageddon also presents the same narrative and use of religious allusions and archetypes in the culmination of its movement to sacrificial salvation. The reality of embarking on the mission to save the planet for the sake of love is more cheesily made manifest to us when A.J. and Grace romantically flirt and frolic with each other before the launch. A.J. plays with an animal cracker on Grace’s stomach in a simulated act of sexual attraction and love. When Grace asks A.J. whether anyone else in the world is doing what they are doing, A.J. responds, “I hope so, otherwise what the hell are we trying to save.”
A.J.’s line, cheesy as it is, is revealing. What is Harry, A.J. and the crews of Freedom and Independence trying to save? Again, the cursory and superficial reading is that they are merely trying to prevent the extinction of the human race from cataclysm. More specifically, as A.J.’s line reveals, they are trying to save love from extinction. Love is what the mission is truly trying to save as A.J.’s brief but revealing statement signifies.
The culmination of Armageddon’s soteriological narrative is in Harry’s sacrificial act where he swaps places with “[his] son” (A.J.) so that he can marry and “take care” (i.e., love) Grace (whose name is religiously symbolic) in the renewed world shown to be intimate in relational love with the union of A.J. and Grace in marriage. Harry’s act of substitutionary sacrifice ought to remind us of the Protestant doctrine of substitutionary atonement where Christ takes the place of the sinner on the cross. Harry takes the place of A.J. even though A.J. drew the short straw to stay on the asteroid and detonate the nuclear bomb to save the world (and, more specifically, save the world of love).
In Deep Impact and Armageddon we witness the primordial religious impulse and psychology portrayed for us in the brave new world we were entering after the end of the Cold War. Cosmic transgression in the form of intergalactic rocks threaten to destroy the world, thereby making social (and cosmic) life impossible. Given the reality of transgression which threaten to destroy humanity only an act of sacrifice can ultimately restore the cosmos and allow life, which is born through love, to endure.
What makes both films unique in the evolution of the science fiction genre is how the optimism of politics and technology are incorporated into their respective stories. Technology, which had previously been shown to be the great force of cosmic disharmony in sci-fi films from the 1960s through 1980s, is now an integral instrument in our salvation. The atomic bomb, once considered the great threat to our existence and bringer of our holocaust (especially in Terminator), is now the tool of our deliverance. Government takes an active role in trying to thwart our demise. Nonetheless, it still takes the religiously allusive act of sacrifice in both films to procure our salvation. Moreover, the reason for the sacrificial missions in Deep Impact and Armageddon are to save the world of love, Grace, and incarnate relationships which give birth to new life all symbolized and manifested on our screens through certain characters.
Both films not only play with religiously allusive narratives and themes, they also have religiously symbolic names interwoven into their scripts. The ship to save the world in Deep Impact is named Messiah. The daughter, woman, at the center of Armageddon is named Grace. Concern over scientific accuracy completely misses the point in both films. Neither Deep Impact nor Armageddon are meant to be scientifically accurate films. Only deracinated utilitarian critics care themselves with such petty concerns. Both films are dramas depicting the religious impulse and psychology in a new era and age. Despite the progress of technology and euphoria over the end of the Cold War, salvation is still only brought about by an act of sacrifice in both films. (Not to mention an act of sacrifice bringing salvation in Independence Day.)
The most explicitly religious science fiction since the end of the Cold War is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Although promoted as one of the more scientifically accurate sci-fi films of recent memory, scientific accuracy and the Enlightenment mythos is not what the film is concerned with. In fact, the general arc and narrative of the film is an explicit repudiation of the scientism of the Enlightenment and its embodied characters: Dr. Brand and Dr. Mann. Instead of a scientifically accurate science fiction film, Interstellar is a poetic theological love drama concerned with how love, not science, is the salvific spirit of mankind.
As with most science fiction films, Interstellar establishes the reality of cosmic disharmony and coming destruction due to, in this case, explicitly human transgressions. Human overpopulation, industrialism, and excessive consumerism have destroyed much of the planet which is now being consumed by the mysterious pathogenic disease called “Blight.” As Dr. Brand informs Cooper upon his discovery of NASA alongside his daughter, Murph, the next generation (Murph’s generation) will be the final generation of humans who will simultaneously starve and suffocate into oblivion.
From its onset, Interstellar presents the religious outlook of cosmic disharmony threatening to wipe out humanity and the remnants of human civilization. Cooper is persuaded by NASA to pilot a final mission to save the planet. In dramatic and emotional pain, Cooper says goodbye to his beloved daughter with the promise of return. (A common religious motif.)
Cooper’s name is significant. His initials are J.C., a direct allusion to Jesus Christ. He is also depicted as a loving and devoted father not dissimilar to the God of Christian Scripture. Moreover, he is attached to the “Lazarus Mission”—the previous NASA mission to send 12 good men and women into space to find a new home for humanity. J.C., and J.C. alone, is the only man capable of saving the world and “resurrecting” the dead. In fact, Dr. Mann says as much when they arrive on his planet and Cooper is the individual who raises Mann from his technological tomb, “You have literally raised me from the dead.”
Throughout the film, a dialectic emerges between the force of love and the force of science. Cooper, along with Murph and later Amelia through trial, failure, and eventual revelation of her love for Edmunds, represent the spirit of love with its intensity of emotion and passion. Tears, heartbreak, and poetic declarations fill their soul. Against the force and world of love is the world of science—that sterile, mechanical, and mathematical spirit. The force of science is represented by Dr. Brand and Dr. Mann most prominently in the film. They are, in many ways, cold humans devoid of the intense pathos that Cooper, Murph, and Amelia exhibit.
Cooper’s decisions are derided as emotional and irrational because love is emotional and supra-rational. Cooper intends to finish his part of the mission, piloting, then return to earth to be with his daughter and help the rest of the stranded pilgrims in waiting to the promised land of new life. Despite the condemnation of Cooper’s sentimental irrational love, it is the scientific mentality of the crew brings them into danger and not Cooper’s loving sentimentality. The decisions made in the interest and dictates of science have disastrous consequences throughout the film. Miller’s Planet has all the stuff that life is made of, namely water (H2O). Yet the planet is actually hostile to life; it is planet ensnared by super waves which make life impossible despite the promise of possibility through its water. Doyle dies during the expedition to Miller’s planet which costs the crew 23 years of earth time. After recovering themselves, our astronauts determine what to do next. They decide to travel to Dr. Mann’s planet because it is closer to their location and because Dr. Mann’s data (forged but unknown to the crew at the time) is promising. The dictates of science, from conserving fuel to embracing the prospects of high probability, brings them to Dr. Mann’s planet with near fatal consequences
Dr. Mann is aptly named. For his name is “man.” But Dr. Mann is a specific type of man. He is the Enlightenment man par excellence. He is a scientist and a man driven not by love but by self-preservation—the great discovery of the Enlightenment theorists from Hobbes and Locke to Charles Darwin. Through Dr. Mann, the film critiques the naïve belief in the supremacy of science. Science, as revealed by Dr. Mann on his planet, can be forged. Scientific data can be manipulated for self-serving purposes.
The confrontation between J.C. and Dr. Mann is a battle between the man of love and grace and the man of emptiness and self-centeredness (self-preservation). Dr. Mann intends to commandeer the Endurance to complete the mission. What mission?
Before being sent off into space as a sort of prophet pioneer to chart out a new home for humanity, Cooper was told by Dr. Brand of two plans for the future of the human race. As I’ve previously written concerning the exposure of this dialectic at the heart of Interstellar:
Plan A is also the hope of a father devoted to honoring a promise made to his daughter.) Plan B is about the birth of man on a new habitable planet through the power of science. Plan B has hundreds, if not thousands, of cryogenically frozen eggs in a vat that will eventually be enculturated to life by controlling scientists playing God. Plan A is the salvation of organic life with all its pathological realities—represented by Cooper’s love for Murph and his actions as a pilot which include this reality of devotedness to his daughter. Plan B is the birth of a new species in a brave new world through instruments and needles. Plan A salvages family and love and carries it forward into a new horizon. Plan B is the consummation of mathematics, science, and industry—it is, in a word, the triumph of science and not of man.
Unbeknownst to Cooper at the time, Plan A is a “sham” (as hauntingly revealed by Murph in her televised communication as the crew descends onto Mann’s planet). Plan B has been the predetermined plan all along (appropriately fitting given the deterministic nature of modern science). Dr. Mann hauntingly and hubristically says “we are the future” after denouncing the pettiness of family and other intimate attachments as the last “barrier” that evolution has yet to “transcend.” Furthermore, when Dr. Mann says that Dr. Brand was willing to “sacrifice his humanity” for the success of Plan B—the statement is ironically powerful and haunting. Humanity is sacrificed for the triumph of the scientistic vision to become a reality.
When Dr. Mann betrays Cooper, he extols the supremacy of evolution and self-preservation as the driving force behind all life. As he tells Cooper, after having beaten him in a brief struggle, self-preservation and the will to live is what will propel humanity into the great new horizon that awaits them. He leaves Cooper for dead.
In the dialogue exchange between Dr. Mann and Cooper we witness the arrogance of the scientific outlook and the fragility of the love and how love depends on relationships (thus Cooper calls out for help and Amelia responds). Dr. Mann, as we have already mentioned, pessimistically and hauntingly tells Cooper that evolution has yet to overcome parochial and self-centered attachments, which is somewhat ironic given Dr. Mann’s self-centeredness and drive for self-preservation. The world and relations of love are antagonistic to the hubristic faux altruism of evolution which Dr. Mann claims to represent. In order for humanity to survive, humanity must forsake the prejudicial attachments of love and family. Of course, the film presents the opposite in its conclusion. It is the prejudicial attachments of love and family that save humanity.
After Dr. Mann leaves Cooper for dead he attempts to commandeer the Endurance and ends up destroying a section of the ship—in the name and dictates of science and “for all mankind.” Science, as Interstellar portrays for us repeatedly, fails. Moreover, it threatens our very existence. What defines humanity and human nature is not technology, power, or mathematical equations (the things that define the scientific outlook), but love, emotion, and sentimental attachment.
Cooper and Amelia salvage the Endurance and then Cooper undertakes the sacrificial act necessary to bring forth cosmic restoration which is the highest act of love which also permits him to communicate with his daughter in the tesseract. Cooper’s act of sacrifice permits Amelia to live and allows her love for Edmunds to guide her to the eventual planet that humanity will travel to in a ship reminiscent an ark for new life. Cooper’s ability to transcend dimensions and communicate with Murph back on earth realizes what Amelia had previously said as she became a converted disciple of love instead of science, “love is the one thing we are capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.”
What makes Interstellar so powerful is how it interweaves religious and theological allusions with the intense reality of the human passions moved by love. Moreover, we witness the recapitulation of ancient religious themes and psychology over the course of the film. A cosmic disharmony threatens life. Love is what binds the cosmos together and allows humanity to transcend the petty dimensions of materialistic science. An act of sacrifice restores hope and love and brings forth the journey to a new land. That journey to a new land is undertaken on a ship, an ark, traversing the hostile world of space to a land that will one day flow with milk and honey.
In Interstellar we witness the reality of the religious psychology that we are so instinctively used to and exposed to. Indeed, love transcends dimensions. An act of sacrifice brings forth cosmic restoration which saves life. An act of sacrifice is superseded by an act of resurrection (which is what is represented in the tesseract with Cooper communicating with Amelia back on earth). In the battle between love and science, sacrifice and self-preservation, we see Interstellar retrench the theological affirmation that love and sacrifice bring forth salvation and not science and self-preservation as the Enlightenment mythos proclaims.
But what is the love that Interstellar promotes? It is not the erotic love we witnessed as salvific in Terminator. It is the love to be drawn to others in relationship and, most visibly revealed by Cooper, the willingness to sacrifice for others. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The love at the center of Interstellar is essentially Christian in conception.
Ad Astra is the most complex science fiction film that plays with the theological and religious inheritance in science fiction while also wanting to free itself from that same theological and religious inheritance. As such, Ad Astra is simultaneously the most theological and anti-theological film in the science fiction genre. It is theological because it still contains all the archetypes and narrative tropes we have been dissecting. It is anti-theological in its message of lonely humanism yet cannot escape the religious (explicitly, Christian) anthropology of love and incarnate relationships which it ends up endorsing at its conclusion.
The Neoplatonic quest for God, as St. Augustine showed in the Confessions, ultimately fails. The Neoplatonic theological theoria, vision, is man’s ascent to the heavens to find God (the Father). The name of the film even invokes this reality, for ad astra means “ascent to the stars” in Latin. The Christian revelation, however, is the opposite. God descends to man and brings man up to the heavens with him in relationship. Ad Astra brilliantly portrays the Neoplatonic quest, its failure, and its retreat into the deracinated theology of mere Christian anthropology infused with the modernist defeatism of a disenchanted and lonely universe.
The film opens with the forceful introduction of cosmic disharmony. We eventually become aware that Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride, was the leader of the Lima Project sent into deep space to find extraterrestrial life. The mission, however, went awry. The power surges that threaten to destabilize the solar system, and therefore annihilate life, are coming from the Lima Project. Roy has a chance to meet his father once again and the quest to ascend to the stars to see the face of our Father commences.
Roy is a man with few emotions, at least as initially depicted in the film. He has, through the disappearance of his father, been deprived of love. But as the film progresses, we realize that Roy is an intensely emotional man who has been inwardly ruined by the absence of his father. His stoic mask is simply a false veil to cope with his internal struggles. Archetypally, Roy embodies the failed philosophy of Stoicism—the attempt to suppress our emotions and passions as if emotions and passions are bad.
At the center of Ad Astra is an identity crisis. Who are we, as a collective species? This entails the question where do we come from and who else might be “out there?” This is the crisis that consumes Roy’s father as he “courageously” ventured into the depths of space to possibly discover extraterrestrial life. But the loss of his father causes an identity crisis in Roy which destabilizes him as much as the power surges from the damaged Lima Project do. Who is Roy? Is he a son? Is he a husband? Roy’s marriage with Eve (another religiously symbolic name) is also faltering just as his internal passions are suppressed by the loss of his father. Roy is wreck though he hides this fact with his stoic demeaner. Moreover, what is his relationship to the United States—the country which he serves and has already given so much?
Ad Astra, then, recapitulates the oldest philosophical and theological dilemma: Who am I (or what am I)? To resolve this inner existential and identity crisis, along with restoring cosmic balance by destroying the Lima Project and saving the solar system from its deadly power surges, Roy ascends into the heavens to “meet [his] Redeemer face to face and enjoy the vision of God forever.” When that line is spoken there can be no denying the religious and theological allusions are now fully revealed to us and how we’re supposed to understand Clifford McBride: Clifford McBride is the “Father God” figure.
Yet the film’s narrative is about a son in search of his father and the disappearance of the father and how it negatively impacts the son. Taken at the psycho-theological level which the story entails, the disappearance of Roy’s father is the disappearance of God the Father and the futile search for God in the heavens. After extensive labors and struggles reminiscent of Odysseus where all of Roy’s companions die off, Roy finally meets his “Redeemer face to face” but does not “enjoy the vision of God forever.”
The horrifying realities of the Lima Project are now fully exposed to us. The crew mutinied but McBride managed to keep control of the ship and search for extraterrestrial life. The mutiny and ensuing struggle caused extensive damage to the ship’s antimatter power core that it is emitting dangerous pulse blasts that have caused the cosmic imbalance we witnessed earlier in the film which Roy had been sent to find and destroy. This entails, allegorically, destroying his own father who is directly involved and responsible for the threat consuming the solar system.
Here we see Ad Astra attempt to turn the theological and religious symbolism, allusions, and archetypes on their head. For life and the solar system to be saved we must kill God the Father—symbolized by Roy’s father. This is a steep price, but this course of action is what will allow humanistic love and relationships to flourish. The “search” for “life” beyond our world, the search for a Divine Source, is something destabilizing and dangerous.
There is irony, then, in the message of Ad Astra. As much as it wants to reject the theological and religious inheritance and psychology, it is still indelibly tied to it. Even in the film’s hopeful message of reconciled incarnate relationships of love—seen in Roy’s reconciled relationship with Eve—the film cannot escape its acceptance and promotion of a deracinated form of the Christian anthology of love and need for relationships. Ad Astra doesn’t end by promoting by the Enlightenment anthropology of atomized individuals engaged in self-preservation and evolutionary ascent through competition but doubles down on the Christian anthropology of relational love just without God. Nonetheless, the film ends by promoting otherwise Christian theological virtues: love and reconciliation in marital relations.
But to have this world of relational humanism we find Ad Astra following the sacrificial hero and cosmic restoration narrative arc. Roy and Clifford have their reconciling reunion which is rather depressing—Clifford honestly admits he didn’t care about Roy and his family which is why he abandoned them in his pursuit of life out in the darkness and depths of space. Clifford then pleads with Roy to untether him and allow him to drift into the emptiness of space. Roy obliges. Here we have a spectacular inversion of the act of sacrificial salvation and return to the more pagan impetus of sacrifice. The presider of the sacrifice, Roy, is the hero while Clifford is like the Bull of Heaven needed to be killed so that life can flourish.
The dark beauty of Ad Astra is found in its Neoplatonic tale of man’s ascent into heavens and man’s presiding over the cosmic sacrifice that brings life. Man, and man alone, is the measure of all things. However, the humanism that the film promotes is a Christian humanism—the fruitful and hopeful optimism of relational love and fulfillment in marriage. Ad Astra manages to blend the Neoplatonic and Christian religious traditions while also wanting to reject the theology of the Divine and promoting the exceptionalism of humans—yet other Neoplatonic and Christian inheritances which rejects the reductionist Darwinian anthropology of the Enlightenment (that humans aren’t so special after all).
The complicated nature of Ad Astra is because of the zeitgeist which the film finds itself in. In an age when traditional religion and identity is failing, which we see play allegorized in the film, we still cannot escape that religious and theological impulse and psychology—seen in the film’s extensive use of religious archetypes, allusions, and narrative arcs. In the end we still have an act of presiding sacrifice (Roy’s sacrifice of his father, Clifford) which brings forth cosmic restoration (the end of the danger of the Lima Project) which allows love, specifically the love shared between humans and more specifically between husband and wife (Roy and Eve), to flourish and endure.
While Ad Astra attempts to reject the theological answer to humanity’s existential problems, it ultimately cannot escape theology entirely and still gives us a truncated theological answer brought forth by a religiously significant act: the triumph of love through an act of (primordial) cosmic sacrifice. Ad Astra is the attempt at the ultimate synthesis of past and present since we find in it the pagan act of presiding sacrifice (Roy’s sacrifice of his father), the promotion of a Christian anthropology of relational love (Roy’s reunion and reconciliation with Eve), and the modernist rejection of The Father and the Divine Source of life in the heavens (the lonely and disenchanted cosmos). We might perhaps go as far as paradoxically saying that Ad Astra is an enchantingly disenchanted film.
The Hidden Theology and Religious Psychology of Science Fiction
While there are many other subgenres of science fiction, perhaps most prominent being the cold evolutionary tales exemplified by 2001: A Space Odyssey, and biological or environmental apocalypse (becoming more popular with the growing alarm over global warming and bio-eco terrorism), we find as the cornerstone genre of science fiction a deep theological and religious heart that moves science fiction filmography. So intrusive and powerful is this reality that most science fiction films reject the Enlightenment mythos and promote through their stories—as we’ve witnessed in the sampling of the films in this essay—deeply religious, theological, and mythological allegories under the veil of science, technology, space exploration, and all the superficial glossing of “science fiction.”
When one analyzes science fiction with an awareness of theology and religion, one is suddenly amazed by the depth and extensive appropriation of theological and religious archetypes, narratives, and ideals that permeate science fiction films. As we’ve now witnessed, there is no stronger force in science fiction than the affirmation that love transcends dimensions, and that sacrifice brings cosmic restoration to our world threaten by an all-consuming darkness which would destroy the cosmos of love and life. There is no more deeply religious archetypal reality than the “sacrifices…needed to restore the social and cosmic harmony lost by…transgression.” This sacrificial reality, as we’ve seen, is now an essential aspect of so much science fiction filmography. Moreover, the sacrificial savior in science fiction filmography consciously become, or freely choose, sacrifice as the restoring act. This conscious act makes the sacrificial moment all the more powerful.
The further we move away from those dark superstitions the more we crave, indeed need, and depend on that most darkly sublime desire for sacrifice. From Serizawa to Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, from the crew of the Messiah to Harry Stamper and Joseph Cooper, to other famous characters like the Iron Giant, the sacrificial savior is now an unmistakable archetype of science fiction that is an essential sacrament of any enduring science fiction film.
This returns us to Asimov’s definition of science fiction. How have human beings generally reacted the intrusion and influence of technology, science, in their lives? They have responded, especially as seen in film, with a new mythos which—upon closer inspection—is very much like our primordial and ancient religious heart. What science fiction has wrought is the transformation and transmigration of theology and religious needs into the science fiction genre. Perhaps part of the power and allure of the science fiction genre is the fact that it portrays for us these deep psycho-religious impulses and needs that have been suppressed by science and technology. Deep down, there is something darkly and divinely attractive of the idea of love saving us and sacrifice bringing cosmic restoration which permits love and life to flourish.