What is it about the awe-inspiring infinity of space that makes movie characters feel so sad? Seriously, there sure are a lot of films about moping-around-the-stars. Take for instance the space exploration drama “Ad Astra,” where Brad Pitt searches the solar system for his missing father while having an existential crisis. More like “SAD Astra.” Get it? “Sad” instead of “Ad”? You get it. Anyway, enjoy this breakdown of films that use the stars as a backdrop for stories about depression and grief.
“Ad Astra” (2019)
The astronaut Brad Pitt plays in James Gray’s “Ad Astra” has to get a psychological exam each morning from a robotic prompter. He’s famous for never having a heart rate that rises above 90 beats per minute. He scoffs when he sees that there’s now a Subway on the moon. Who doesn’t like low-g sandwiches? Even a trip to Neptune of all places can’t help cure his serious daddy issues.
In Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning film, Sandra Bullock’s astronaut hates pretty much everything about space, a feeling well justified when the Russians blow up one of their satellites, filling Earth’s orbit with debris that kills all of her crew members. Stranded in space and thinking about her recently-deceased daughter, she considers shutting off her oxygen supply and drifting into oblivion. Luckily, she hallucinates a pep talk from George Clooney’s very dead astronaut, and manages to crash somewhat safely to earth.
Even the robots in this Christopher Nolan sci-fi tearjerker are sad! Well sort of. Robots TARS and CASE are programmed to be jokey snarkers, which helps them bond with their human crew members. But even TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) ends up depressed and lonely after being abandoned on a remote planet. (Luckily Matthew McConaughey comes back to rescue it and they presumably live happily ever after but still, very sad!)
“First Man” (2018)
Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” is notable for avoiding patriotic cliches in favor of the human reality — accidents, failures, tragedies and tireless hours — it took to finally send Apollo 11 to the moon. And part of that comes from Ryan Gosling’s performance which emphasizes Armstrong’s stoic grief over his young daughter’s death from brain cancer 7 years before the moon landing.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
The weird as hell beginning and profound, yet ambiguous ending are what most people remember about Stanley Kubrick’s and Arthur C. Clarke’s groundbreaking masterpiece. But never forget that sandwiched between murderous apes and the Star Child is what amounts to a slasher movie in space, where an insane super computer slowly murders the crew of a scientific mission, then begs for mercy as he’s lobotomized.
The original Andrei Tarkovsky film on which Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris” is based is no barrel of laughs either, but George Clooney’s character in “Solaris” is already messed up and depressed before he starts hallucinating and going crazy aboard the isolated, remote space station.
Sam Rockwell plays a man who mining helium 3 on the moon, his only companion a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey, whose two-year contract is about to end and he can finally return home. But then he learns the horrible truth: he’s not “himself,” he a clone illegally created by the mining company; instead of being sent home, he’s going to be murdered and replaced by a brand new clone; and it’s happened dozens of times before. Bummer!
“Lucy in the Sky” (2019)
In Noah Hawley’s upcoming drama “Lucy in the Sky,” Natalie Portman’s character loved being in space, but slowly loses her grip on reality as her personal life falls apart back on earth. Her story is loosely inspired by astronaut Lisa Nowak, about whom you can read about here.
In this underrated Swedish-Danish drama a massive ship full of people fleeing a ruined Earth find themselves adrift and watching their resources slowly deteriorate. It’s an uplifting a heartwarming environmental parable about the inevitability that humanity will destroy whatever home they’re stuck on.