We Are Living in the Golden Age of Space Weepies
In space, no one can hear you cry. At least, that's the implicit promise of a movie like James Gray's Ad Astra, a stylistically spare and thematically rich science-fiction adventure starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut traveling across the galaxy to the blue unknown of Neptune, where his missing father may or may not be waiting for him. Informed by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and contemporary experimental film, Ad Astra is a challenging and provocative work, the type of deeply personal (and relatively expensive) blockbuster major studios rarely make any more. It's also a first-class space weepie.
Having worked on emotionally complex melodramas like 2007's cop saga We Own the Night, 2008's doomed romance Two Lovers, and 2013's historical character study The Immigrant, Gray is no stranger to films that traffic in heightened vulnerability, unapologetic passion, and fraught inner-struggles that explode into external physical conflicts. Despite its impressive scale and genre elements, including a moon-buggy chase and a zero-gravity shoot-out, Ad Astra shouldn't surprise viewers accustomed to Gray's earnest approach, last seen in 2017's The Lost City of Z. Unquestionably, he's in his wheelhouse here. What's interesting, and perhaps speaks to Gray's savviness as a filmmaker, is that his obsessions also match up with the recent proliferation of auteur-driven outer-space tear-jerkers like First Man, Interstellar, and Gravity.
These movies range in quality, temperament, and box-office success, but they all conceive of the cosmos as a vast expanse to doggedly work through -- or painstakingly repress -- psychological baggage. Think of Ryan Gosling's Neil Armstrong, stoic in the face of incredible risk, mourning the tragic death of his two-year-old daughter by tossing her bracelet into a crater; Sandra Bullock's stranded scientist, overcome with grief from her daughter dying in a random playground accident, soaring back to Earth in a burning capsule; Matthew McConaughey's cowboy NASA pilot, adrift in time as he moves across the universe, sobbing as he discovers the fate of his family on a blurry computer screen. They have one mission: to leave you a blubbering wreck.
The term "space weepie," which has popped up in the occasional review, might sound derogatory or dismissive -- condescending, even. You might feel defensive if someone refers to your favorite movies as "melodramas" or "weepies." Part of that reaction to the concept might come from the gendered history of the terms, particularly the way melodramas starring women are often marketed, evaluated, and discussed as less "serious" than similar stories centered around men. In a 2017 interview, the critic Molly Haskell mentioned the concept of the "male weepie," a topic she's explored in her writing and which she noted is often more celebrated than its female-driven counterpart because it's "supposedly about more important subjects." (Popular male weepies include Saving Private Ryan, Good Will Hunting, The Shawshank Redemption, Rocky, and, of course, Brian's Song.) But while Ad Astra is centered around Pitt, space weepies don't have to feature a male protagonist and aren't necessarily targeted at men.
What are the requirements of a space weepie? As with any micro-genre, the defining criteria is shaky and ever-evolving. Most importantly, the story should be at least partially set in outer space. (Do primarily Earth-bound alien discovery narratives like Arrival, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. count as space weepies? I'm inclined to say no, as I'd consider those to be an adjacent subgenre called alien weepies, but I could be convinced.) Besides the space subject matter, the movie must concern itself with a fractured romantic or familial unit, particularly the way the pressures of the human experience compliment and intensify the rigors of life in the vast, distant loneliness of space. But let's not get confused: Even if you tear up during The Force Awakens or Empire Strikes Back, a space opera like Star Wars does not count as a space weepie.
At this point, it might be helpful to clarify what a space weepie is and isn't by making some (perhaps irresponsible and simplistic) declarations about what counts and what doesn't. Remember: "space weepie" is a value neutral term.
- Contact? Total space weepie.
- Apollo 13? Houston, we've got a space weepie.
- Oblivion? Tom Cruise space weepie.
- Alien? Sorry, not a space weepie.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey? Nope, too many monkeys.
- The Martian? Too many jokes.
- The Right Stuff? Too much stuff.
- Space Cowboys? Giddy up, it's space weepie time.
- Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris? Not really.
- Steven Soderbergh's Solaris? Sure.
- Armageddon? Hell, yeah, try not to well up while watching this clip!
The space weepie has existed for a long time, but there's been a significant uptick in recent years, which can likely be attributed to the continued blockbuster-ification of mainstream studio releases, the technical leaps in special effects, and the fact that so many powerful filmmakers came of age admiring the space movies of the past. (Also, let's not forget: people love to tweet about crying during movies and the planet is dying.) Performers clearly relish the combination of training and diligence the roles demand -- plus, it probably doesn't hurt that your face will inevitably be centered on the poster. For directors like James Gray or Claire Denis, who released her own masterful space film, High Life, earlier this year, space is a canvas to examine cultural taboos and ponder moral transgressions.
Even in the rock-em-sock-em realm of superhero movies, a genre that's full of arch sentimentality but mostly resistant to melodrama, space is often the most difficult, trying crucible that valiant do-gooders must pass through. At the end of 2012's The Avengers, Tony Stark's Iron Man travels up into the atmosphere to deposit a nuclear weapon and save the planet; in this year's Avengers: Endgame, he begins the film floating in a hopeless spaceship and sending messages to loved ones at home. These are space weepie moments tucked into more lumbering movies. If any of the Marvel films come close to earning full-on space weepie status, it has to be Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a movie focused on dying planets and daddy issues.
Will this golden age of space weepies last? The less than stellar box office returns of First Man, which only grossed $105 million worldwide on a $70 million budget, and Ad Astra, which opened with $19 million domestically this weekend, could make studio executives less inclined to make these type of creative bets. First Man failed to score a Best Picture nomination and Ad Astra could also get crowded out during the awards season, which could put the space weepie in danger. It's felt like at least one of these movies comes out every year for the last few years, but that could change. Trends are fickle, subject to the whims of the market, and as technology evolves, space weepies could become smaller-scaled and the genre could continue to shift towards TV and streaming platforms, like it did with Hulu's failed Sean Penn space-weepie series The First and might with the upcoming Apple+ space-weepie-seeming For All Mankind. Still, audiences will continue to dream about reaching for the stars. Just bring some tissues along for the ride.