Friday, July 26, 2019

Astronaut: Sending Richard Dreyfuss Into Space

This private space entrepreneur and his contest to win a free trip into outer space is sort of like an interstellar Willie Wonka and his golden tickets. To enter, Angus Stewart must lie about his age, but not his idealism. However, he is still more of an engineer than a spaceman. Perhaps it is therefore fitting when his quest for the stars takes a Feynmanesque turn in Shelagh McLeod’s Astronaut, which opens today in New Jersey, following its North American premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

“Angus,” as he insists he be called, even by his daughter Molly and grandson Barney, generally had a good life, but the last few years have been a little rocky. Now in his 70s, he has been forced to move in with Molly and her husband, due to the debt his late wife incurred when she purchased a donkey farm while in the throes of dementia. On the plus side, he can teach Barney about astronomy and try to pass along some of his passion for space exploration.

Unfortunately, for health and financial reasons, Angus’s son-in-law successfully forces him to move into an assisted living facility with especially annoying staff. Out of frustration with his new circumstances, Angus enters the lottery for a spot on the first private space tourism flight, offering by a transparently Musk-like entrepreneur. Obviously, he lies about his age and health.

Of course, he is chosen as one of the twelve space idol finalists, because that is the whole premise of the film. However, Angus will not stay in contention for long. Instead, most of his efforts will be spent raising questions about the mineral erosion potential going on beneath the super-long runway.

In a way, Astronaut represents a return to the galactic curiosity and optimism of Close Encounter, which made Richard Dreyfuss’s career, but this film cannot hold a candle to the quality and entertainment value of the Spielberg classic. Still, it offers plenty of warm fuzzies and a few nice PSA’s for greater investment in STEM education.

Dreyfuss really seems to enjoy playing Angus and the film definitely respects everything he represents. Still, the cranky codger with a heart of gold act gets more than a little cliched. Arguably, the best aspect of the character is his complicated but affectionate relationship with his son-in-law. Yet, perhaps the biggest surprise is Graham Greene’s risky but ultimately quite poignant performance as a stroke victim in the senior home. It is also fun to watch frequent big-screen villain Colm Feore play against type as the driven but decent space capitalist.

Astronaut is a nice little film that pushes a lot of nostalgia buttons for the time when our nation actually had a space program, but it is definitely small film that won’t take up too much space in anyone’s memory. Weirdly, it opens theatrically today, the week after the fiftieth anniversary of the Moon Landing, but maybe that was a strategic decision to avoid last week’s tanker hull’s worth of space programming. Recommended as a spot of chicken soup for the space nerd’s soul, Astronaut opens today (7/26) in NJ, at the AMC Jersey Gardens.