'Astronaut' Review: Richard Dreyfuss Barely Saves This Wistful Indie Drama [Fantasia Film Festival]
Aside from their exorbitant wealth, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk also share a passion for space travel. They’ve faced much criticism for spending billions of dollars on their space ventures, and one could argue that they’re indulging in childish wish fulfillment that ignores the very real problems on this planet. That’s not to disregard the importance of astro-research, nor the appeal of space travel, but sentimentalizing the journey into space feels more escapist than romantic.
Shelagh McLeod’s debut feature Astronaut puts some of that romance back in the stars, but mostly makes a safe landing after an uneventful ride. Richard Dreyfuss plays Angus, a 79-year-old retired civil engineer and recent widower who has dreamt all his life of going into space. Struggling to stay financially afloat ever since his wife, who had dementia, was conned into buying a donkey sanctuary, Angus sells his house. His daughter and grandson want him to move in with them for fear of him getting lonely or falling ill, but his son-in-law would rather put him in a retirement home. Not much of this conflict is shown, because a few minutes into the film, he’s being driven up to his new home at Sundown Valley (if there ever was a euphemism for death…).
While hanging out with his grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence), Angus sees an interview with tech tycoon Marcus (Colm Feore) on TV. Marcus’ company is launching the first commercial flight to space. To promote the (soon revealed to be reckless) mission, they’re running a contest that will give the winner a (hopefully roundtrip) ride on the spaceship. The only problem is that Angus is above the age requirement and not exactly in peak physical condition. But he still applies because…dreams? The nagging, uncompromising pull of a lifelong dream is what Astronaut speaks to in every scene. Though the film’s ideas are genuine and hopeful, they verge on the saccharine in their execution. A scene in which the camera pans to reveal a captive audience of seniors listening to Angus tells them why he wants to go to space fails to inspire.
There’s nothing interesting or new about Angus’ dream to go to space – he fantasizes about being above the atmosphere and looking back at our floating Earth. What isn’t clear is that his dream is essentially a suicide mission. What could’ve been an opportunity to explore grief in depth (rather than heavy-handed shots of picture frames) is more of an ego trip. It’s hinted at, but never quite captured: towards the beginning, we learn that traveling to space would mean Angus being reunited with his wife’s spirit in the stars. There are no anecdotes or flashbacks that reveal what his wife was like, thus making his grief feel more personal to him; that works well to counterbalance the sad clichés of old age, but the film unfortunately finds itself often teetering back into that territory.
Angus makes a fast friend in his new home. Len (veteran indigenous actor Graham Greene) appears to suffer from a condition that interferes with his speech ability. This works out well for the McLeod, who writes a measly 2-3 full sentences for Len. It’s hard not to cringe at the “wise and mute Indian” trope at play here. Len is granted no backstory, and no defining character traits – he exists solely to support Angus’ dream. I found it hard not to laugh when, having collapsed on the floor, Len urges Angus to follow his dreams as he stares up at the sky. Apparently, there’s only room for one dream in the retirement home.
What is unique about the film’s approach to space travel is its emphasis on Angus’ background as a civil engineer. Suspecting that the runway is unsafe for a spacecraft of such enormous weight, he raises his concern with Marcus and his team, only to be dismissed. They want to launch on schedule, at any cost. (Eventually, they realize the truth in his claims and put the mission on hold.)
Unlike recent releases set in space, Astronaut is less interested in space travel or the toll it takes on the astronaut (the film hardly has the budget to depict a comet in space) than in the people who dream of it. Dreyfuss is the saving grace of the film, managing to turn a thin script and ill-defined character into someone worth watching. He avoids sentimentality and brings a familial richness to his portrayal. It’s a shame he’s not given more to work with.
Astronaut is a pleasant, facile film that takes no risks in its telling. It may well reach for the stars, but no stardust comes down.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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