Time has a way of putting things into perspective. In our youth, we think it a limitless resource. In old age, we think it precious. Often, the older we become, the less concerned we are for how things look or how we’re perceived. Rather, we become focused on whether or not we achieved what we believed we would as children, when the world seemed filled with possibilities and endless opportunities. To a degree, this is what Shelagh McLeod examines in her upcoming family drama Astronaut. Here, Richard Dreyfuss (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) portrays a man of ill-health resisting the march of time, challenging the odds to take a once-in-a-lifetime journey to the stars. Though predictable in its narrative, Astronaut excels through strong performances, managing to hit the emotional beats with accuracy.
Angus Stewart (Dreyfuss) suffers from transient ischemic attacks (similar in symptoms to a stroke): irregular heartbeat, angina, dizziness, breathlessness, fainting, and slightly overweight. Due to the dangerous nature of his health, he moves in with his daughter Molly (Krista Bridges), son-in-law Jim (Lyriq Bent), and grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence). Soon after, Angus moves to Sundown Valley Manor, an assisted-living facility which offers him more support than what his family could provide, yet whose operators seem to expect the inhabitants to be at the end of their run. Frustrated and feeling like he’s not done yet, Angus, under Barney’s insistence, submits himself to a lottery run by Ventura owner Marcus Brown (Colm Feore) to join the first commercial space flight, despite being too old and of ill-health. The closer Angus gets to his dream of space flight, however, the more dangerous it becomes in ways completely unexpected.
It’s no coincidence that Astronaut is releasing now as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission which set astronauts on the moon for the first time. Then, as now, the United States was rife with social strife, racism as flagrant as ever, and proclamations that citizens should “go back home,” a popular response to focuses of political dissent. But then Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, July 20th, 1969, and, for a time, America was united with all the countries of the world as we looked up at the sky, imagining the possibilities. McLeod taps into that sense of wonder and magic, using that as fuel to propel the narrative forward even as the outcomes appear inevitable. The first thing audiences experience is the sound of a pilot in a cockpit before meeting Angus. We don’t know yet how this sound connects to him, but as Angus repeatedly stares at the night sky, tracking the movement of a comet, sharing his excitement with his grandson, it becomes clear there’s a direct connection between the two concepts. No matter the litany of health issues Angus possesses, that connection creates a persistent pull, without which there would be no story to tell. So many stories are about people reacting to events, but McLeod crafted a tale of action; one which, through proactivity, pulls together the characters in an authentic, heart-warming way.
It’s also a tale of recognizing that just because one grows old, their value does not disappear. There’s a “one of us” vibe emanating from Sundown Valley as the staff heavily imply Angus will conform to the norms of the community and also from the visiting entertainer who comments, “I’ll see some of you next week.” This is a place that McLeod wants the audience to see as where people go to die, not live. This comes out more as Angus makes friends with Len (Graham Greene), Joe, (Art Hindle), and others, inciting within them a notion that there’s more than singing songs, watching tv, and waiting to die. Too often the elderly are seen as only viable up to a point before their lives should stop in an effort to prolong their existence. But what kind of life does that create? Where does the value end? To create contrast while also giving Astronaut some external drama, Marcus’s story is of a dream about to be realized, one which is inspired as much by his personal dreams to go to space as the desire to prove to his recently-deceased father that his dream could be realized. Though McLeod purposefully doesn’t inject Marcus, the owner, into areas of the story where he would unnaturally fit, the character’s presence is immeasurably felt through television interviews and broadcasts which Angus ingests or through individual scenes which assist in keeping his parallel story on track with Angus’s. As their characters engage and interact, McLeod pushes the audience to consider how they themselves view and value their loved ones and their own contributions to society.
As sweetly charming as Astronaut is, it is, in many ways, predictable. This does not detract from the emotional experience, but it does reduce narrative surprises. Angus’s quest to go to space ends up creating a connection to everyone he engages with which means that it heals the rifts in his daughter’s family, it begins to change the perception of the people at Sundown Valley, and it encourages Marcus to reconsider his pride. From the moment the film begins, we know that Angus is destined to hear the pilot’s voice, we just don’t know how he gets to. In that inevitability, the audience can also expect the conflicts introduced early on to come to a healthy resolution. Is it often trite? Yes. Will it still rouse tears to swell? Indeed, though this is mostly in part to the performances from Dreyfuss, Bent, Bridges, Lawrence, and Feore who each present the humanity of their characters over caricature.
On the whole, we don’t look to the skies for inspiration as often as we used to. It’s as though getting to the moon in ’69 was the furthest we could go and we’ve collectively completed the task, leading to a reduction in funding for NASA and similar programs. In a strange way, the story in Astronaut, it’s focus on not letting your dreams burn-out in old age, of an individual’s value persisting into retirement, is analogous to the current state of space exploration, that the dream of space travel persists as long as we allow it to persist. In a way, McLeod seems to suggest that the most humane thing we can do is keep our eyes up and our hearts open. Even if the journey to get there in Astronaut runs on a foreseeable track, the message is timeless and universal. Perhaps it’ll inspire new conversations among its audience and, in doing so, stir a new generation of astronomers.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital beginning July 26th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.