Why Love and Marriage are the Anchors of Every Space Film, From The Midnight Sky to Interstellar
This article contains spoilers for The Midnight Sky
In The Midnight Sky, the new Netflix film starring and directed by George Clooney, life on a post-apocalyptic planet looks every bit as miserable as life on a planet weathering a pandemic. Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist attempting to travel through the Arctic Circle with a wide-eyed young girl at his side, all in order to stop a spaceship returning to earth after a global catastrophe.
There are turbulent sequences through blizzards, shiny spaceship doors swooshing open and unappetising space meals of brown mush and peas. There is also, as has become almost a pre-requisite for sci-fi movies, a lot of forlorn gazing into space (quite literally) for a lost love.
The Wife Guy in Space, or the Astral Family Man, has become a recurrent feature in films as a kind of shorthand way of telling audiences that a scientist still has a heart. Clooney's character, who looks wretched after flashbacks of his girlfriend who left him, is not even the number one Wife Guy in The Midnight Sky, a title which goes to Kyle Chandler's character Mitchell, who watches classic romance movies while convulsing in horror at his lonely fate.
The dramatic crescendo of the film sees Mitchell receive a farewell message from his wife which inspires him to dramatically voyage back to earth on a doomed mission. "It's my job to keep a promise I made to my family," he says in a moment of soppy heroism. His mission is one which feels rooted in human sentiment, unlike the voyage of the other members of his crew who are headed to a strange planet to start a new civilisation. When their decision is relayed to Lofthouse he asks, "They have family down there?", before adding, "I understand."
That Lofthouse, a bearded old man who regrets losing the love of his life, would see someone hurtling toward certain death to honour his wife and understand it is clearly an emotional response, but it is one we have come to expect of the genre. Science fiction requires us to comprehend complicated quantum physics and extreme catastrophes, but it rarely asks us to imagine that the people entrusted to blast off into space are so cold and unfeeling that they wouldn't risk it all for their loved ones.
In 2019 film Ad Astra, Brad Pitt plays Roy, an astronaut on a voyage to find his father while being haunted by flashbacks of his estranged wife, Eve. The flashback clips either play in his mind or via video clips which he miserably watches on his phone. The same themes show up in 2009 film Moon, where Sam Rockwell sees recordings from his pregnant wife Tess, and later tries to contact her back on earth.
The space wife in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is not even alive, and yet still she is a haunting figure for the lead character Cooper, the widower played by Matthew McConaughey. Nolan uses the same idea in Inception, in which Leonardo DiCaprio's character Cobb is a haunted by projections of his late wife Mal, the manifestations of her in the dream world serving as a reminder of his guilt over her suicide.
The sci-fi widower brings a whole new dimension to the Wife Guy character, allowing us to imagine a damaged man who has a deeper understanding of life and death while facing meteors hurtling towards earth, or in a dreamworld which feels something like the afterlife. This trope gets somewhat inverted (ahem) in Nolan's most recent film Tenet, where Elizabeth Debicki's cold character Kat is motivated to get involved with global espionage because of the threat of having her son taken away. While Kat's love for her son is intended to reveal her humanity, it underscores the problem much of science fiction has with giving women any agency of their own. The wife in question always seems to be less about the woman and more there to tell us something about the guy who loves her.
Much of this reliance on wives and children is perhaps because science fiction wants love and romance to add some human drama to all of the floating around without gravity and complicated pressing of buttons. Yet it is worth wondering whether the sort of men who are forlornly ruminating on their wives, dead or alive, would be the kind likely to be operating spaceships. Writing about First Man, Damien Chazelle's film about Neil Armstrong's moon mission, The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane argued that: "If Neil Armstrong had been the sort of fellow who was likely to cry on the moon, he wouldn’t have been the first man chosen to go there. He would have been the last."
The kind of people who would have made it into space are on-board in Alfonso Cuarón's 2013 film Gravity, a thriller of a space movie which barely gives you pause to think about the world outside the ship as the tragedy unfolds. The dynamic between Clooney and fellow astronaut Sandra Bullock gives genuine human drama without needing to insert in a dead wife or sad son to make the stakes feel high.
So much of storytelling about space is really about what is back on earth, as though the more extraordinary the discovery is, the more it makes the ordinary feel remarkable. The Wife Guy in Space feels like a particular product of recent sci-fi blockbusters turning films about space into meditative sermons on existence and humanity, meanwhile classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien merely marvelled at the science and had fun on the adventure.
In Claire Denis's 2018 sci-fi horror film High Life, she creates the ultimate Anti-Wife Guy in Space in Robert Pattinson's prisoner Monte. Eschewing the sentimentality of roaming through the galaxies, Denis dares to create a child from a place, not of wonder or awe, but abuse and murder. The resulting relationship formed between man and child is something which feels frighteningly otherworldly yet movingly earthbound, a little like the voyage of space exploration itself.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.