Ad Astra, Lucy In The Sky, And The Rise Of The Lonely Space Movie
Every cinematic trip to the darkest depths of outer space is different—whether that’s because of the crew, the mission, or, sometimes, Matt Damon’s inherent goodness. But there’s always one constant, and that’s the Astronaut Money Shot.
No director can resist it. You’ve got a beautiful movie star mug, a naturally gleaming filter, and a perfect pitch-black backdrop. How could you not stick your camera right up against the protective polycarbonate sphere and snag a closeup of your hero taking it all in?
Beyond just showing off a film’s dashing lead, the Astronaut Money Shot wordlessly expresses the overpowering swell of feelings that us Earth-dwellers can only imagine: the pure awe of seeing our planet reduced to a marble, the sublime mystery of the endless expanse, the utter aloneness of hovering weightlessly in the great black unknown. Half the time, the shot is a turning point. Once the astronaut has seen it all from way up there, there’s no going back. The minutiae of daily life could never measure up. Anyone who hasn’t experienced it—space—could never understand. There’s an added weight to the return to gravity; suddenly, the astronaut is isolated, stumbling, lost.
At least, that’s what happens to Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) in Noah Hawley’s (Fargo, Legion) forthcoming film debut, Lucy in the Sky (out Oct. 4). Lucy, a fiery Southern alpha woman with an overdone accent, goes up at the beginning of the film, experiences that profound rush, and is transformed. Like a John Cheever character, she grows bored with her cozy suburban life and her Ned Flanders husband (Dan Stevens), and becomes desperate to return. She trains harder than her doctors advise, kisses a coworker (Jon Hamm, but still), and can’t so much as go for a run without muttering to herself like she’s Rainman. At one point, her therapist (Nick Offerman with a ZZ Top beard) rattles off her accomplishments, and rhetorically asks her, “Can you stop?” You don’t need a degree in psychology to know the deal: Lucy’s not chasing the view from up there so much as she’s running from the congestion down here.
Which is usually how it goes. Almost all of this decade’s marquee space movies have been marketed as flashy, futuristic adventures. More than any other genre, space flicks have benefited from advances in cinematic technology (CGI, 4K, 3-D, freaking light boxes!). From Gravity to Interstellar to this week’s Ad Astra, these are breathtaking trips, the rare remaining mandatory theater-going experience. That’s what we’re told, and it’s true—but space movies are also by and large stifling. With First Man, Damien Chazzelle went above and beyond to portray just how claustrophobic America’s first spaceships were. The premise of this spring’s superbly phantasmagoric High Life is that a group of convicts is sentenced to an eternity in exile; Claire Denis has said she approached it like a prison movie. And even when a trip to space is an honor rather than a punishment, our astronaut protagonists almost always seem to find themselves stranded in space, left to perish, or more likely, persevere (see: Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian).
There’s both some perishing and persevering in James Gray’s gorgeous new aforementioned space epic, Ad Astra. The movie, which Gray reportedly conceived “while thinking about the loneliness inherent in American ambition,” sends the decorated celebrity astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, superb and zen) on a mission to find his maybe-actually-not-dead father (Tommy Lee Jones) somewhere near Neptune. The stakes are supposedly the future of life on Earth and all that jazz. But the film doesn’t want you to get caught up on the how and why (got it, Neil Degrasse Tyson?); the metaphors are more important than the specifics. McBride’s journey is about untethering himself from his father, and, in so doing, untethering us from our fathers’ mistakes; it’s about accepting that “we’re all we’ve got.” McBride, a stoic introvert, at one point says of his father, through voice-over, “He could only see what was not there and missed what was right in front of him.” What begins as a solitary mission to save our planet becomes a mission to better appreciate our planet and fellow people. To some extent, it’s a rebuke of the American ambition Gray was pondering.
Despite Ad Astra and Lucy coming within one moon cycle of each other, space movies are still being produced at a modest rate. They tend to do good business, but unless they feature lightsabers and Sith Lords, they’re not the box office draw of superhero movies or Disney remakes. If a filmmaker is looking to bring home a visual effects Oscar, rocketing into the solar system is a good tack (as Gravity, Interstellar, and First Man can attest); if they’re looking to win Best Picture, they’d be better off making literally anything else (a space movie has never won). And yet, while other genres remain more popular, with their themes of disconnection and impending planetary destruction, no genre better represents this age.
And that’s even the case when they take place in other times. Where Ad Astra imagines an unspecified future world, Hawley’s film was inspired by a real-life escapade. In 2007, the astronaut Lisa Nowak allegedly kidnapped a U.S. Air Force Captain because they were involved with the same man. The movie, for some reason, takes place sometime in the 1990s. Portman’s Scout Finch haircut is out of a much earlier period still. But Lucy is the victim of a timeless sort of insidious sexism: Despite outperforming her male colleagues, her boss tells her she’s “too emotional” for the next mission—a diagnosis that turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Lucy’s emotional issues are very modern, too: She’s disconnected, addicted to work, and filled with unquenchable longing. A recent study by the global health service company Cigna found that loneliness has reached “epidemic levels” (“46% of U.S. adults report sometimes or always feeling lonely”). Other studies have shown that millenials think about work more than any other age group. And this generation practically invented FOMO. A trip to space, it turns out, has the same effect as a smartphone.
It’s ironic, really. The same advances in technology that have made recent space movies look so stunning are making their themes depressingly relevant. The question that remains is whether or not these movies can simulate the Astronaut Money Shot for us. Can the experience of looking at Earth through a screen from a 200,000 foot remove actually make us appreciate what’s right in front of us? I’d rather not be cynical, but truth be told, Portman’s accent was distracting.