In the recent science fiction film Ad Astra, Brad Pitt plays an astronaut, and the only surprising thing about it is that he hasn’t played one before. His Ocean’s Eleven ringleader George Clooney already went to space on film in Gravity and Solaris, and their co-star Matt Damon did in The Martian. Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Robert Pattison, Juliette Binoche, and Ryan Gosling have all gone into some form of make-believe orbit, too. Now, a few weeks after Pitt charted a course for Neptune in Ad Astra, Natalie Portman is playing a more earthbound (but still active) NASA star in Lucy in the Sky.
That’s a lot of movie stars in the stars, and most of them have made the journey fairly recently. Hanks and Willis did their astronaut movies in the 1990s, but most of the others blasted off in the past five years or so. Though the Moon landing recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, movie astronauts were mostly featured in science fiction, horror, and / or shlock for much of the 1970s and 1980s, give or take the occasional Right Stuff. There were a few classic space-set movies and characters, but astronaut wasn’t a go-to role like cop, crook, or lawyer. (Most telling is the list of big-name actors from this period who never went to fictional space: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Barbra Streisand, Sylvester Stallone, and so forth. Jack Nicholson only played one post-orbit, in Terms of Endearment, and Clint Eastwood waited until 2000 to suit up for Space Cowboys.)
But in the 2010s, playing an astronaut has become a major actor’s showcase. Pitt hasn’t played a cop in ages, and neither he nor Portman have ever logged time as cinematic lawyers. Some of the space-movie boom is probably the usual Hollywood slow-motion trending; Gravity and The Martian were big hits, making it easier for other space movies to get greenlit. But few genre trends attract this many A-listers.
At least one other trend has, though: the ubiquitous superhero movie. Space pictures have emerged as an alternate route into big-budget studio territory for stars who don’t want to commit to time-consuming franchises or log time striking poses in spandex. A few of the recent A-list astronauts have appeared in Marvel or DC projects, but usually not in titular roles. (So far, Damon and Pitt have limited themselves to tiny cameos, in Thor: Ragnarok and Deadpool 2, respectively.) Plenty of actors have made nuanced, dimensional roles out of superheroes, but even the most sensitive renderings of Batman, Captain America, or Spider-Man don’t tend to offer the same level of introspection and dignity that actors get from floating in space, contemplating the cosmos.
Ryan Gosling has movie star charisma in plenty of films, but he’s at his most roiling and inward playing a quietly grieving Neil Armstrong in First Man. Brad Pitt is a picture of laconic cool of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but in Ad Astra, he gets to interrogate that same brand of laconic cool even further, playing a taciturn, work-obsessed spaceman who’s still processing (and apparently sometimes perpetuating) the ache of his abandonment by his astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones).
Ad Astra isn’t an outlier, either. Almost all of these recent astronaut star vehicles are domestic dramas in disguise. By including expensive visual effects and putting famous people in spacesuits, they put a big-budget gloss on a type of movie that most studios are hesitant to make even on a shoestring. As much as newer space movies may claim to take inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, that movie’s human relationships, especially familial ones, are largely marginalized; the little girl who wants a bushbaby doll for her birthday is a memorable detail, not a full character.
Kubrick’s film is more about mankind’s collective relationship with the universe, something these newer movies don’t always foreground in their narratives. Ad Astra is a father-son drama to match Interstellar’s father-daughter dynamic. Lucy in the Sky centers on an extramarital affair and a disintegrating marriage. Gravity and First Man are about parents’ grief. Despite all of the on-screen technology, not to mention the behind-the-scenes technology needed to mount a convincing space mission, there’s something elemental about scenes where actors are allowed to think and react by themselves, often in close-quarters close-ups.
But this fall’s entries to the space canon add another element that might attract movie stars to astronaut roles: they can be read as analogies for the isolation of movie stardom. That’s particularly true of Lucy in the Sky. Portman’s character returns to Earth feeling alienated from the normal, grounded people around her because few of them can fully understand what she’s experienced. Her husband, played by Dan Stevens, even works for NASA, but he’s in publicity, so far removed from her experience that he might as well be working for a paper company or at a grocery store. He understands the physical and temporal sacrifices her job requires, but not the mental toll. Their marriage more or less fits the description of a superstar marrying a regular guy, and the fleeting bond she shares with a fellow astronaut (Jon Hamm) brings to mind movie stars who realize they can only really share their lives with other famous people.
Ad Astra also addresses the disparity between an astronaut’s dedication to his job and his ability to connect with his loved ones, with its shots of Liv Tyler, as Pitt’s estranged wife, looking sad and eventually leaving him. Writer-director James Gray may not have cast Tyler specifically in her capacity as a moderately famous semi-star opposite a certified megastar, but their respective status levels help convey their relationship’s imbalance. Their brief scenes of domestic strife have empathy for Tyler’s character and sadness over Pitt’s closed-off masculinity, while Lucy in the Sky can’t help but portray the husband as kind of a dope. On the other hand, Astra also can’t be bothered to give Tyler an actual character to play, so both movies indulge some degree of unproductive solipsism about their protagonists’ loneliness.
Ad Astra and Lucy in the Sky are both perceptive about that loneliness, to a point. Both lead characters have difficulty communicating the enormity of their experiences in space, and in a weird meta touch (or maybe just an imitative fallacy), their movies have communication failures as well, especially in their scripting. Astra has some terribly on-the-nose narration that explains, laboriously, that sons often suffer for their fathers’ sins. Lucy has some terribly expositional dialogue that it delivers semi-regularly in place of actually developing its relationships. Both movies depend on their stars to do substantial work bridging the gap between what their movies are intended to say about our place in the universe and what the filmmakers are actually capable of saying.
That’s often a movie star’s job, unspoken or not, to communicate simply and directly and to be easily understood because of their on-screen history, natural charisma, or some combination of the two. Given that, it can be a little disconcerting to think of stars as de facto aliens struggling with basic human interactions, which is how Pitt and Portman sometimes come across in their new films. (The problem is only exacerbated by the way both movies have excellent supporting casts that drift through the stories without purchase or purpose.)
The thematic and creative struggles of Ad Astra and Lucy in the Sky suggest that the increase in astronaut roles has a sort of symbiosis with the box office dominance of superheroes, beyond stars’ reasonable desire to avoid playing them. As brand names square off with big names at the box office, maybe more superstars are trying to reassert their humanity — and grappling with what that experience means to them.