Amid the pressures of the current crisis, we could all use some uplifting, unchallenging, bittersweet sentimentality. That’s exactly what’s on offer from Astronaut, a film with a small budget, a big heart and an A-list Hollywood star blessed with enough twinkly charisma to pull off a potentially preposterous role. More at home on a TV screen than it perhaps would have seemed in cinemas, this wistful drama from Shelagh McLeod (her directorial feature debut) may not be earth-shattering, yet it retains the power to charm, thanks in large part to a central performance by Richard Dreyfuss that ranks among his best work.
Dreyfuss is Angus Stewart, a retired and recently widowed civil engineer who always dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Ailing with age, Angus has moved in with his daughter Molly (Krista Bridges), a development that hardly delights Molly’s husband, Jim (Lyriq Bent). Secretive Jim is dealing with down-to-earth problems of his own and has no time for talk of stars or wishes. But young son Barney (Richie Lawrence) is delighted to have Grandpa around, sharing his sense of wonder at the magical comet that lights up the sky, adding a fairytale element to the drama. “People have been looking up at the stars for ever,” Angus tells Barney, “and I think it’s always for the same reason: to see where we belong”.
Angus clearly doesn’t belong in Molly’s house (“He said he didn’t want to be a burden,” snaps an overheard Jim); nor indeed in the Sundown Valley retirement home, which plays the kind of relaxing music that drove Jack Nicholson to distraction in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Indeed, the only place Angus feels at home is in his dreams of space travel – dreams that could become a reality thanks to a TV lottery organised by billionaire Marcus Brown (Colm Feore) to win a once-in-a-lifetime seat on a commercial spacecraft. Angus may be too old and too infirm to qualify but, in the whimsical, wish-fulfilment world of McLeod’s film, he still has a shot.
We know from the outset that this very modest drama has neither the resources nor the desire to turn into a space-travel extravaganza. Indeed, Angus (who once specialised in fixing roads and runways) soon becomes more concerned with the earthbound safety issues Marcus seems to have ignored than in his own rather foolish attempts to win a seat on the ship. Could it be that Angus’s place is down on the ground after all?
There are plot holes wider than lunar craters. Could Angus really have made it on to the spaceflight shortlist with just a hastily acquired fake ID, even if Barney does insist that he “could look 65”? Would Marcus really be this cavalier about a mission into which he has sunk so much time and money? And how likely is it that Angus’s particular area of expertise would align quite so neatly with a critical plot development?
But to focus on credibility gaps is to miss the point of the story, which (despite the title) has very little to do with space travel. Dreyfuss has compared Angus to Roy Neary, the character he played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, suggesting that this is what might have become of Roy had he not climbed aboard that alien spacecraft all those years ago. It’s an astute observation, not least because it reaffirms that the main journey here is internal rather than external. Spielberg’s movie may have been a jaw-dropping cinematic spectacle but it was the sight of Dreyfuss obsessively building a mountain from mashed potato that became its defining image.
Similarly in Astronaut, it’s not the hokey space-lottery plot that matters but Dreyfuss’s face as he listens to a doctor telling him to “keep up the good fight, Angus, because what’s the alternative?” Later, in a scene filled with verbose small talk, we observe Dreyfuss listening to a chirpy retirement-home manager babbling about fire doors and dinner times while his family attempt to kid themselves that he can be happy here. Dreyfuss doesn’t say a word in the entire scene but his silence is so eloquent that it drowns out everything else. Significant, too, that Angus’s best friend in Sundown Valley is Len (Graham Greene), who doesn’t speak because “no one listens”.
There are moments of sharp humour (a brassy singer telling her OAP audience: “I’ll see some of you next week”) and Virginia Kilbertus’s tinkling score manages to combine childish innocence with world-weary melancholia. But it’s Dreyfuss who carries the movie, pulling us over the cracks in the narrative, drawing us into his world, providing a much-needed element of magic.
Astronaut is available to stream on all major platforms from 27 April
Source: The Guardian