Sad Astra: the rise of moody, depressed spaceman films

From Ad Astra to High Life to First Man, Sad Men In Space™ are having a moment.

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A man in a spacesuit mournfully gazes out into the abyss. Breathing raggedly in his helmet, he manoeuvres his way through the dark unknown: morose, calm, determined. Welcome to the contemporary space movie – a parade of Sad Space Men, emotionally repressed and lonely, hurtling further and further away from the familiar as they embark on their noble voyage.

In the last twelve months alone we’ve seen this phenomenon recur in a bleak triptych; Brad Pitt as Roy McBride in Ad Astra, Robert Pattinson as Monte in High Life and Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man. All three of these characters struggle with the pressures and anxieties of masculinity and patriarchal family dynamics whilst suspended in space. Scrubbing the Hollywood sheen off exulting space films of yore, filmmakers like James Gray to Claire Denis are increasingly interested in the human effects of space travel, asking protagonists to interrogate relationships with their families and grapple with grief and abandonment.

These are all future-facing stories: while First Man is not a sci-fi film, it explores the moon landings as an event that felt, at the time, an impossible scientific feat – while in Ad Astra and High Life we’re in a near future, a speculative and rather conceivable form of science fiction. These films suggest that when anything is scientifically possible, the exertion and toll must be paid somehow – and the price is psychological.

In James Gray’s sci-fi rescue mission Ad Astra, astronaut Roy McBride is recruited to locate his missing father, famed astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who has not been heard from since his rocket stopped communicating with U.S. Space Command sixteen years ago. In other words, Roy is emotionally repressed with a serious case of daddy issues. “I’ve been trained to compartmentalize,” he tells us in a one of many monotonous voiceovers, a jarring directorial choice that becomes an ersatz communication tool in a sci-fi universe that has tampered with all recognisably human forms of emoting.

In Ad Astra astronauts must self-regulate their emotions: they undergo recurrent and invasive therapeutic tests, administered by an Alexa-esque machine that measures each astronaut’s capabilities to deal with the difficult psychological demands of space travel. When Roy is asked to verbally contact his father, he is given a piece of paper to read from – yet when he decides to go off-script and appeal directly to his father by recalling past memories, he is deemed “psychologically unsuitable” for the mission. When he finally reunites with his father, who coldly restates his lack of remorse for abandoning his family, all Roy can do is let out a single tear: a huge, weighty, untellable overload of emotion, condensed down into a lonely droplet. After years of musing about this paternal absence only to find out that his father regrets nothing, Roy’s emotional anti-climax has parallels with his father’s mission: spending years in space, only to realise that there is nothing to find. Like father, like son.

In Claire Denis’ High Life, we also have a male protagonist struggling with family burdens in space. Monte (Robert Pattinson) is a celibate, sad, unwilling participant in a scheme where convicted criminals are sent into space for clinical research. It also becomes apparent that he is an unknowing father, having been sedated and raped by Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who harvested his sperm and implanted it inside another participant’s womb. Dr Dibs – rendered as a monstrous, new-age Medea - is seemingly in charge in this dire dystopia, but everything about this very female brand of space leadership is depicted as unnatural, from her witchy mad-scientist black mane to her ferocious, unbridled sexuality (she masturbates furiously in the spaceship’s “Fuck Box”) to her obsession with creating a child through artificial insemination. High Life’s preoccupation with the continuation of life on this one-way mission creates a heavy sense of existential dread; and, as in Ad Astra, it is heavily implied that there is no salvation to be found in the emptiness of deep space – this is merely another stage on which troubled family dynamics play out. Space travel is often posited as a new frontier to be populated, a trailblazing feat done in the name of lineage: the lack of stable, perpetuating family units in these films are even more disconcerting against this backdrop.

The family unit also weighs heavily on Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, which contains possibly the most concrete iteration of the Sad Space Man. Much of the film is refracted through the concerned, isolated perspective of Armstrong’s wife Janet (Claire Foy), and the audience are reminded continuously of Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, who died from a brain tumour aged two. The story always orbits this trauma: the climactic moment comes when Armstrong lands on the moon and throws Karen’s bracelet into the abyss of the moon’s crater, deep and black and unknowing – this is one of the only moments in the entire film that cannot be proved to have actually happened. What is meant to be the most jubilant mission in space history is played against Ryan Gosling’s grimly set, emotionally opaque depiction of a man clinging blindly to the memory of his daughter as he hurtles through space. Chazelle’s controversial choice to omit the moment when the US flag was planted on the moon’s surface further removes any sort of patriotic redemption arc; the focus here is strictly human. There’s no joy in Armstrong’s successful mission; it simply allows him to close a chapter.

While masculinity - sad and lonely though it may be - is allowed to wax and wane in space, women mostly remain rooted firmly on the ground; when a woman does take helm, as in High Life, it’s unnatural and violent. The women married to these apparently brilliant men are demoted to the role of the Weepy Space Wife who holds her husband back from greatness, wanting too much attention, crying too much, and failing to grasp the importance of his mission. Natasha Lyonne, in a 30-second cameo as a sort of peppy space receptionist, seems to have more lines in Ad Astra than Roy McBride’s long-suffering wife Eve (Liv Tyler). “I worry about you,” she pines in blurry flashbacks and video-calls with her absent husband, offering sympathetic smiles and womanly warmth but no real understanding of why Roy has his head in the skies.

Claire Foy’s role as Neil Armstrong’s wife Janet in First Man is similarly weepy and moping: Janet is unsupportive of her husband, forcing Armstrong to tell their children he may die in space and instilling fear into her children and guilt into her husband, while Gosling is given space for nuance, depth and dignified silence. In Ad Astra, Roy’s story can only end, and he can only return to earth and reconcile with his wife, when he is reassured that there is nothing in deep space to be explored. “I'm unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned,” he says. “I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and love.” Man has reached the final frontier, and thus a wife can satiate his curiosities, for now.

Grief and apathy, lost fathers and lost children, lineage and its limits: this is what powers these gloomy narratives, with its stoic, staid men and concerned, confused women. In these sprawling lunar odysseys about masculinity, women are still waiting for their turn.