From Tomb Raider to A Wrinkle in Time: why Hollywood has daddy issues

Whether it’s a traumatic childhood that spurs on a hero or the drive for adventure, the trope of the absent father has long been a catalyst for cinema

While Hollywood has been smashing its own patriarchy off-screen, we’ve also been seeing a curious absence of fathers on it lately. Especially in family movies. Dead parents have long been a reliable source of sympathy for young heroes, but it’s dads who seem to be dying or disappearing right now. Coincidence or conspiracy?

This week it’s the rebooted Tomb Raider – the quarry of Lara Croft’s intrepid adventure is not some priceless artefact but her missing-presumed-dead father, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Once Lara gets an inkling of where he went, it’s anchors aweigh.

Next week we’ve got another missing dad: Chris Pine, playing a scientist who got lost somewhere in the fifth dimension while mucking about with quantum entanglement, or something. Again, his daughter Meg’s mission to find him sets in motion A Wrinkle in Time, Disney’s expensive sci-fi extravaganza. Like Lara Croft, Meg is not a sweet, innocent girl. She’s stubborn, angry, and resentful – all principally as a result of her absent father, who others assume has abandoned his family. The story’s original author, Madeleine L’Engle, was shipped off to a Swiss boarding school aged 12, ostensibly on account of her father’s ill health. Her fiction is full of searches for fathers.

Anyone who saw last year’s amazing documentary The Work, in which tearful prisoners in an intense therapy workshop all blamed their fathers for their criminality, will know how deep this issue runs. In family movies, absent fathers are often the root of problems. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s dad dies in a mining accident when she’s 11; her mum is virtually catatonic with depression. Chris Pratt spends the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie haunted by his father’s mysterious absence, and the second one haunted by his presence. Star Wars has built a whole universe on daddy issues.

And let’s not forget the daddy of all dad-issue film-makers: Steven Spielberg. Absent or distant fathers are a running theme throughout his work, from Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters and Roy Scheider in Jaws (who abandon their families to go hunting aliens and sharks, respectively), to the orphaned heroine of The BFG (who finds a BF father figure). Then there’s Indiana Jones who, like Lara Croft, goes on a quest to rescue his long-disappeared father in The Last Crusade. Indy then becomes an absent father himself in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (his son grows up to be Shia LaBeouf, which kind of explains things). No surprise that Spielberg’s next movie, Ready Player One, centres on a teenage hero who lives with his aunt and is drawn into a virtual world created by a wise old man.

But nowhere did Spielberg play out his father fixation as magnificently as in ET. Poor Elliott is in yet another single-parent family, with a working mum just about holding it together. When they ridicule his alien sighting, Elliott glumly says, “Dad would believe me,” and everybody stops laughing. Sure enough, ET becomes the stand-in man of the house. He unites the family, offers Elliott companionship and advice, and then, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the movies, abandons him again. Spielberg once described ET as “my story about my parents who got divorced when I was a teenager … and the effect it had on me … that picture was about looking for a surrogate father, looking for someone to fill the void of the missing parent.”

These stories often spring from that void, but they can help fill it, too.

Tomb Raider is in cinemas now


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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