Been missing doing some more in-depth media analysis like I used to do, so this is a bit of a return to form. No thesis other than “why this music video consistently make me feel bad, but in a cathartic way”
I was first introduced to this music video from Justine, who was very struck by the front montage of the astronaut’s life and how it reflected their own struggles:
it straddles the line between judging him (for throwing away his chance to have a normal happy life) and admiring him (for giving everything up for a single goal)
And then the Earth blows up and it’s just like super ironic that (briefly) the only person left alive is someone who had given up any semblance of a normal Earth human life
This video really resonates with me as well. Its depiction of the shortsightedness of single-minded ambition is a huge cautionary tale to me, who has consistently been privileged enough to go for elite status markers without properly examining the costs that that requires. There are many aspects of the video that cause it to resonate with me — not least of which is the choice of Chinese protagonist, which makes me feel like “yeah my 5 year old self’s crappy Chinese could definitely draw that and write 我”. However, in this post, I specifically want to focus on how this music video’s formal elements help underscore this message. In particular, the music video’s constant interplay between stylized design and photorealism through shot composition, color, set pieces and the (music / video) connection all serve to reinforce the central message of “bringing ambition back down to reality”.
Kubrick vs. Reality
The strongest part of the music video by far is the initial montage. It does a great job grabbing you in immediately, which is unsurprising due to how many cues it picks up from Kubrick’s one-point perspective cinematography. The perfect mirror symmetry of the establishing shots of the apartment turns into a focus on his slightly asymmetrical face (especially with the mole) which then turns into an eyeline match of his moon drawing. The single point of focus of the camera, now aligned with the single-minded goal of the boy shows his efforts to recreate that perfect symmetry while he remains, unchanging in the center of all of these shots. There’s nothing like the perfect mirroring that happens in the establishing shots, but you can see his attempts at creating symmetry around him as he progresses through college. This has the other neat narrative effect of driving home the fact that things happen to him, rather than by him, unlike the action that we see in the second half as he pursues the ISS.
This symmetry gets broken by the introduction of a love interest coming over to drop a bear at his desk. He looks away from straight on for the first time in the video, which is timed with the introduction of lyrics away from the thunderous riffs. He looks at her, looks at his dream and then knocks the bear away, trying to regain the deadset focus and symmetry he had before. He’s shaken though, and the set of stutter step cuts of him turning from his dream back to the dead stare at the camera is quite brilliant of trying to restore a broken asymmetry back into a one-point perspective. All of the environments he then finds himself in seems to validate his choices — right until the Earth’s explosion, of course. His symmetric backgrounds start breaking as he starts needing to take more agency — putting his picture up in the capsule, setting up the photography setup so that he can get his perfect symmetric background — until ultimately he’s forced to take full agency for himself when the Earth’s explosion gets eye line matched to his horrified face. The ghostly reprise of the initial montage then serves as a mockery of both him and the initial setup. “Did you think that such perfection could last forever?”, it suggests, even including a cheap porn-like shot to mock the idea of Kubrick’s single-minded pursuit of his auteur production.
The music part of the music video also helps frustrate the viewer’s attempt to capture the perfection of the front montage. I always want to just clip the first half, but it’s hard to find a breaking point because the music keeps propelling you forward into suspending the disbelief needed for the second half. The most logical space to clip is at 1:20, because you don’t need his full regret/anger montage to get the full irony of the situation, but the guitars do a super seamless transition from banging riffs to quiet reflection so well that it’s hard to get the clip just right. The next part I’d maybe put a clip is at 1:46 where it’s sort of after his tantrum, but the music is in the middle of its phrase, and gives you no time before immediately jumps to the possibility of hope. After that, there’s no good point to end the music video because you’re very invested in this new plot that has come up. I love this repeated hand-off between music and video because it echoes the Chinese astronaut’s insatiable ambition. Neither the music nor the video give you the time or space to pause and consider your actions; there’s only driving to the next logical point, even if it’s not where you want to go.
Single Focus Saturation
This interplay between stylistic idealism vs. disappointing realism is set up further with the mix of super saturated colors against photo-real gray set pieces. The color really strongly draws your eye into single points of focus, especially when the astronaut is interacting with set pieces like the Earth explosion detritus. His sheer determination to reach the ISS is matched by increasing levels of cartoon-ish warping of his own body which matches his absurd color palette against the realistic Heineken kegs, planes and whale models. He’s living in a sharp but generic color field which has washed away the gray gritty details of the photo like objects he’s forced to deal with, after so long ignoring them with his ambition. It helps make the catharsis of the video game scene stand out as well, as he accepts a gray Playstation knock-off controller willingly and settles for the saturation of the video game screen in his final moments.
The use of red in particular deserves special note. Diegetically, red provides an easy proxy for both the commie red of China as well as a lucky symbolic color, but something about their chosen particular shade is really able to draw the eye. This is especially praiseworthy considering that the red needs to work against the strong magenta/pink of the astronaut, and yet it still effectively draws your eye to his veins, his lips and the blood of the other astronaut. Red emphasizes and highlight the ugly behind all of the stylism, an ugliness which the music video is determined to force you to confront. These are not perfect humans; there’s stubble, there’s moles, there’s wrinkles and lines and sweat and snot. Your hair gets messed up when a fighter jet flies over you, and there’s nothing that you can do to prevent that. The intentional deployments of red as both a celebratory patriotic color and also the hidden weaknesses that we’d wish to gloss over is spectacular.
This strong focus on saturated colors also helps to make the choice of pastel yellow for Spongebob even more hilarious. As far as I can tell, it’s the only time in the video where either pastels or yellows appear prominently, as even the other astronaut chooses to have a more saturated dull gold for their hair. Having the sudden intrusion of pale yellow helps add more to the shock/humor value of somehow having Spongebob on the same narrative importance as all of the humans, underscoring the breaking of the astronaut’s expected life trajectory even more dramatically.
However, it doesn’t escape my attention that all of the Chinese people in the video are in this strange pink / magenta tone while the person of desire is a significantly less stylized white person. Stuck in the Sound is a French band, so it feels a little uncomfortable to have this intentional other-ing, as if this high intensity, single-minded goal focus could only exist in an “Oriental” context. And yet! The magenta pops so well, especially against the intentional red motifs of the astronaut’s flag, lips, and eye veins and helps connect him more personally to the surreal purple-blue color grade of the Earth’s explosion. I’m definitely happy they didn’t make the Chinese people yellow, but I wonder if there was some other color choices that didn’t rely on connecting this to a history of other-ing Asians. At the very least, changing the spacewalk cap color from purple to black or including a scene where he removes it would help a lot to making him a little less alien yet still emphasizing his loss of humanity through his ambition.
In general, I find this music video’s juggling of the different mediums it inhabits really effective at conveying this message. As Brinkema puts it, “music videos are the last bastion of the avant-garde”, and I think this one does a great job connecting the mood of the music to all of the visual language it deploys in the video. There is more work to be done unpacking the video’s play with generic vs. specific symbols (the Chinese flag as a red square vs. very specific Heineken and Playstation branding) as well as more music analysis, like lyrics and mood creation in time to the visuals (what’s with the Amazing Grace reference?), but those are getting outside of my wheelhouse.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve recognized more that I’m definitely one of the last people in my friend group to maintain a high level of ambition — aka. I’m one of the few people who still dreams of being an astronaut when I grow up. I’m struck more and more that I have the privilege to pursue a career where I am getting some self-actualization out of it beyond just putting food on the table and where I could reasonably fool myself into thinking that I’m going to save the world. Starting from the MIT-Epstein crisis, I’ve become more scared about where that power ends up, whether it’s my wealthy classmates accumulating orders of magnitude more wealth than I’ll have in my lifetime or seeing how a bull-headed belief in one’s self can cause incalculable harm to a community. This video really helps force me to confront the potential consequences of my ambitions head-on for just a few minutes, that y’know, maybe it’s ok to play video games at the end of the world.