There is no longer a sequel in the works and Michael Keaton, at least as of now, has yet to come down with the Coronavirus (unlike his contemporary Tom Hanks, who always seems to get the part). Hollywood, we are told, is shut down and sheltering in place. But that doesn’t mean we don’t feel like Winona Rider (Lydia) locked in her attic anyway. As though your unrelatable parents have moved you from city to country pulling you straight from your once happening life into complete isolation.
Or maybe you feel like Alec Baldwin and Gina Davis (the Maitlands), and that somehow, though yes there you are present in your own home or apartment, reading this, you are actually trapped within, waiting one quarantine morning to find out, incredibly, that you are dead already.
What is reading the news these days if not a ride into similar realities? Hospitals are not just beyond this world, but becoming netherworlds where treatment is structured according to a complex bureaucracy involving ventilators (vouchers, in the film), whose availability, let alone efficacy, is uncertain at that. Cue the overworked caseworker (Juno) with smoke billowing from a massive hole in her neck, who, recall, informed the Maitlands they must remain in their house for 125 years.
When Alec Baldwin left his front-door it was to a barren landscape where monstrous Tim Burton sandworms roamed free as pathogens. Cue super-wife Gina Davis to the rescue, pulling him back into the house from a suddenly dangerous ‘outside.’ Many marriages today are following suit. Men want to leave, women know better. Food must be made, kids must be watched, entertained, and while they’re at it, home-schooled. Not unlike Gina Davis in her desperation, many quarantined mothers right now would resort to, well, anything. Enter Betelgeuse. Say it three times.
Betelgeuse Betelgeuse Betelgeuse
What if you were to take some chalk and draw a door on one of your quarantined walls? Anything? Do you happen to have a tiny model of your town up in your attic? And where the hell is Michael Keaton? Certainly Hanx would show up for these times, the end of days. Daniel Day Lewis wouldn’t even break character. Of course Keaton is nowhere to be found. Should Tom Cruise have been cast? But wait, wait…Perhaps Betelgeuse is already here, already sending us a message. And perhaps that message is something so obvious that even our ancestors, and every generation before them, in every culture around the world, even they would have seen it in plain sight.
We are transfixed to our screens. Televisions, phones, computers, what is the point of looking anywhere else? News. More news. The sky is falling. The actual sky? Yes, screams Mike Keaton, that’s exactly it. Look up. And had you even noticed (face down in your screen) that Otho stole your one and only quarantined copy of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, you may have been looking there already. Betelgeuse. Not Michael Keaton but one of the brightest stars in the sky. Distinctly reddish, Betelgeuse is the imagined shoulder in the constellation Orion.
It is a red supergiant, radiant, glimmering, enormous. It is around 10 million years old, and because of its age and size is expected to burn out within the next 100,000 years in an incredible supernova explosion.
Great, you say. These facts are interesting. But what the hell are you talking about? Well, smart Alec, starting in October 2019, Betelgeuse began to dim noticeably, even to the naked eye. [click here for why Betelgeuse is getting dimmer]
Noticeable even to me and my kids observing it in Southern California. By January 2020 its brightness had dropped by a factor of approximately 2.5, from magnitude 0.5 to 1.5. This is remarkable. Unheard of really. For instance, infrared observations have found no significant change in the brightness of Betelgeuse over the last 50 years.
Okay, that is the science. But is that it? What would every shaman and spiritual leader from the Lakota to the Mayans to the Samurai say about this? In the previous 5 to 10 thousand years, what would human beings around the globe make of such an obvious dimming of Betelgeuse? That it is bad, very bad. Portentously bad.
In the northern hemisphere Orion rises every November and sets around May. In late 2019 he rose with bright blue star Rigel steady at his foot, with his famous string of pearls belt perfectly aligned, his impossibly bad-ass sword hanging below, which we know is in fact a nebula, the Great Nebula M-42, visible to the naked eye, incredible in a telescope, and unimaginably beautiful thanks to Hubble. Away from city lights, in mountain or desert (minus the Sandworms), Orion is too human-like to even believe. There he is arched perfectly above us, his dog Canis Major and dog star Sirius giving watchful eye as Orion draws his shield and hunts Taurus the Bull before him. It is astronomical magic.
But in late 2019 something was off. Orion’s brilliant red Betelgeuse was beleaguered. The one clear strong man of our sky looked, well, ill.
Baffled, scientists and astronomers have spent the last five months trying to explain it. First, the common thought was Betelgeuse’s dimming might be the precursor to it going full supernova (which would make it visible day and night, and brighter than the full moon), but recent science suggests that occluding “large-grain circumstellar dust” may be the most likely explanation for the dimming. As of now, that’s the answer. Dust, we are told. [Click here for Betelgeuse Isn’t Going Supernova-At Least Not Yet]
Large-grain circumstellar dust
Hmmm, my sons and I have a different theory. Betelgeuse has a virus. A terrible, portentous virus has plagued our great Orion. And he is our Orion. Mankind’s. Only ours to observe, uniquely earth’s and uniquely organized on the chess board of the night sky to show us back ourselves, reflecting our humanity with stunning symmetry among a thousand randomly spilled sparkler-dims. On any clear night, to any child, point to Orion and they can see him. And since his infection in October 2019 (more or less, as he’s 642 light years away), life as we know it on earth has ominously changed as the days have mounted. No?
So what are we to do? Go full Gina Davis 1988 and ride a Sandworm through the house to devour the Coronavirus? It seems impossible when most of us feel like Betelgeuse himself in the final scene of the film. Michael Keaton trying to cut in front of a witch-doctor in the waiting room, a witch- doctor who then shrinks his head in retaliation. And while Keaton quips “this might be a good look for me“- none of us are laughing. The thought of contracting the virus seems as mysterious and terrible as having our head’s actually shrunk. Or worse.
But what is laughter but the byproduct of hope? And perhaps our hope should be real because the great red supergiant Betelgeuse is coming back. The “large-grain circumstellar dust,” aka the virus, is beginning to clear from Orion’s beloved Betelgeuse. My sons and I noticed the same last night.
It’s worth remembering that well before the invention of telescopes, events such as these that were visible to the naked eye, from within or near the Milky Way Galaxy, were very rare, and sometimes hundreds of years apart. But these events were recorded, such as the supernova in 1054 observed by Chinese, Japanese and Arab astronomers, where a nearby star exploded so fantastically that it was visible day and night around the world.
What those portended, or resulted in, are for the YouTube and Twitter-verse conspiracy theorists to unpack. But Orion is different. He is ours, our Hunter, distinctly human and grand. And while I may be reaching (dare I say men are falling more ill than women? dare I say many, if not all religions believe things more incomprehensible? dare I say there is nothing closer to any interpretation of God than the stars?) I have been looking at the night sky my entire life, mesmerized first and most by Orion, by his humanity. As have billions before me. Orion so dominates the night sky that I even named my seven-year-old son after him, Hunter Ryan, who came into the world on November 11, rising like his namesake into our world.
So it goes that the dimming of Betelgeuse seems a simple enough answer to me and him, at least in our aggregate of two. When Orion is sick, so are we. And we take hope in the astronomy at hand, and what is visible to our own naked eye, our beloved Betelgeuse is on the mend.