Mini Object Lesson: The New Starman

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In a video that has been praised as “breathtaking” and “sweet,” Audi advertised its 205-mph Audi R8 V10 Plus during Super Bowl 50.

The commercial depicts a resigned, aging astronaut deep in the funk of nostalgia: namely, for the golden era of manned spacecraft, moon-bound in all their glory. He seems destined to chronic melancholia, until a younger man—his son, most likely—decides to jar him out of his stupor, interpellating: “Okay commander; come with me.”

Walking out the front door, the younger man holds up a car key, offering the latter-day astronaut the driver’s seat. Yet this is a purely symbolic gesture of control—the automobile key has of late been castrated, turned into a “keyless entry remote.” The curvaceous gray car bolts away from the home and careens around an ocean-abutted, moonlit highway, and the forlorn astronaut’s face at last creases into a restrained grin.

As a GQ article helpfully explains, the vehicle is “rekindling his love for sustained acceleration which he picked up from Apollo rocket launches.” A montage of spacecraft memories—boarding capsule, firing engines, shaking cockpit—is intercut between the primary scene of the two men, basically night driving.

As David Bowie’s 1972 tune “Starman” bursts into its familiar chorus, the screen goes black, and we read these bold words: “Choosing the moon brings out the best in us.”

This commercial is curious to consider in light of Bowie’s very recent and final music video, “Blackstar,” which opens with an eerie image of a tattered astronaut reposed in a rocky landscape, whose sun-shielded helmet is opened only to reveal a blackened skull. In the bizarre world of the music video, this starman’s journey has ended hauntingly in strange ritual and uncanny fetishism.

It’s clear that the Audi R8 commercial is tugging on predictable heart chords: aging 20th-century heroes, parent-child bonding, and the old standby of a really fast car. But what else is going on here? There is the not-so-subtle correspondence drawn between aerial velocity and road speed. This equation is a well-worn trope, but in this case, acceleration obliterates both space in front of us and time behind us: Our astronaut is returned back to another (better?) time. In regarding the lost age of space exploration, we see the aging starman relegated to the ground. In his gas guzzling coupé, the aged astronaut hurtles into a future that he seems utterly uninterested in.

We may have the $175,000 Audi sports car, but we no longer have the old promises or futuristic fantasies of space travel. Deep space may still hold mysteries and opportunities for discovery, but they are more likely to be deeply humbling and existentially unsettling—more like Bowie’s Blackstar than Audi’s Starman.

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