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UFOs, Space Baboons, and Masculinity

Wang Sum Luk on how two very different spacemen tackle masculinity.

Somehow, “Pentagon confirms UFOs may exist” barely registers as news. It’s a shame, since our cultural obsession with the great unknown of outer space makes for fascinating fiction, such as James Gray’s Ad Astra, a film about an obsessive quest to discover alien life that meditates on themes of stoicism and masculinity. But you don’t need to just watch slow-moving (some would say boring) arthouse sci-fi for complex themes. That’s why I’m pairing Ad Astra in this article with Flash Gordon—a gaudy, silly movie about a football player fighting aliens on the planet Mongo—to show how both use space as the backdrop to dissect our assumptions about masculinity.

In Ad Astra, the protagonist Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is a hyper-competent astronaut with a pulse rate that never goes over 80—but the first shot of him is also slowly revealed to be behind a sheet of glass, our first sign that this calm comes at the cost of some essential element of human contact. His unflinching stoicism makes the challenges he faces, from Moon pirates to an antimatter explosion, look minor in comparison. But McBride’s real obstacles are ultimately psychological ones. The film has an infamous and somewhat jarring scene where Roy fights a baboon in zero-gravity; John Axelrad, one of the film’s editors, suggests in an interview that it represents that “primal component of us”, the animal part of our minds that snap in the isolation of space. It’s a reminder that, however machine-like and mission-focused Roy tries to be, there are other facets of his psyche that he’s buried deep down. And in that way, it’s perfect foreshadowing for how Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy’s father and the movie’s antagonist, has lost his mind in space, and how the same begins to happen to Roy.

Roy McBride’s professionalism and poise is a facade, and the film is about peeling back that shell. He’s good at his job, but not even he can do everything right, and Roy racks up a significant body count throughout the film, with the director calling him an “angel of death”. Each of these deaths weigh on him, a reminder that he’s not quite the steely-eyed mission man he wants to be. And as the film continues, we see where he gets it from—James Gray calls Clifford McBride an “ogre father”, a man so caught up in wanting to find alien life that he coldly admits that he never loved his son or wife. Both father and son are so obsessed by their respective missions that they become inhuman, although Roy manages to recognize this error before it destroys him. The film makes the human cost of this obsessive stoicism clear, laying out the danger of confusing these masculine archetypes for reality.

In contrast to the grounded and oh-so-serious Ad Astra, Flash Gordon is a movie that knows how ridiculous it is. The film may be about protecting Earth from destruction, but the brief glimpse of normalcy before the film’s plot kicks in—a grey airfield where the main characters do nothing—is clearly supposed to be less interesting than the garish planets and strange creatures we see later. This rejection of the “normal” is best described as camp, a sensibility which Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Notes on Camp” defines as “a love for the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”. Every part of the movie is over-the-top, but played with complete sincerity. Characters are moved by powerful soap-opera emotions, grand passions of love and honour, and every moment of the movie—especially the ridiculous ones—are performed with total seriousness.

This is perhaps what makes Flash Gordon such an excellent exploration of masculinity. Flash Gordon is a charming all-American jock, a himbo before the word existed to describe men like him. He’s surrounded by other outsize masculine archetypes, from Prince Barin, the Errol Flynn-esque swashbuckler, to Vultan the boisterous warrior, and Ming the Merciless, who is a perfectly flamboyant evil overlord. And yes, this sounds like it’d be a shallow, boring story at odds with a cultural climate reckoning with the flaws in male stereotypes—but the point is exactly that these characters are all stereotypes. We don’t just laugh at what the characters do, we also laugh at who they are. These characters, from the outrageously masculine heroes to the effeminate villains, are all as artificial and campy as the film’s style, impossible to confuse with something that could exist in reality.

Ad Astra takes its time showing us the darkness that the aggrandizement of male competence hides, with the search for alien life ultimately hiding flaws that start closer to home, where words like “competence” and “stoicism” are dangerous barriers to emotional honesty. While it tries to unpack stereotypes, Flash Gordon throws them in your face, a (probably unintentional) portrayal of how artificial and ultimately silly all of these visions of manhood are. These movies might seem to focus on what lies beyond in the far reaches of space, but they also explore how strange these expectations of masculinity really are, and how they’re as alien to real life as extraterrestrial tyrants and space baboons.

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