The recently widowed retiree Angus (Richard Dreyfuss) might be in the gutter, but he looks at the stars. Indeed, despite his flailing health and tricky family situation, the hopeful septuagenarian lives by that famous Oscar Wilde quote in “Astronaut,” actress-turned-filmmaker Shelagh McLeod’s caringly observed debut feature. It’s a modestly scoped, visually amateurish film, but limited resources don’t stop McLeod from reaching for galactic emotions with the story of a fantasist chasing his lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut. In the end, only a fraction of McLeod’s ambitions sticks a landing. But “Astronaut” stays afloat with sweetness, thanks to a measured performance from Dreyfuss.
And that might just be intriguing enough for Dreyfuss loyalists (in other words, all of us), as well as aging viewers starved for original stories centered on their own demographics — after all, it’s not only the below-60 crowd that deserves to have an outer space adventure. But even the core audiences here are gonna need a bigger spaceship (as well as a vastly charitable mindset) to navigate the Spielberg-lite beats of this unconvincing tale set amid haphazardly outlined characters.
Still, McLeod sets her gears in motion believably enough in an indistinct American town, when Angus moves in with his sophisticated suburban daughter Molly (Krista Bridges), her disapproving husband Jim (Lyriq Bent) and their young precocious son Barney (Richie Lawrence), who simply adores his grandfather. The gentle scenes in which Barney and Angus bond studying the night sky through a telescope and watching a passing comet (that unfortunately looks like a laughable image from a children’s book without the proper special effects) are among the film’s tonally sturdiest segments. To her credit, McLeod utilizes them well toward setting up the shifting dynamics of a family in crisis. Tensions especially heighten when Jim quietly loses his lucrative job and decides to place an unwilling Angus into a retirement home.
McLeod regrettably miscalculates the timbre of the retirement community sequences, going for darling whimsy instead of something dramatically grounded that avoids the clichéd depictions of old age. And when space travel becomes an actual prospect for Angus, “Astronaut” particularly starts to lose crucial oxygen. Without any sort of credible world building, a fairy tale-like contemporary reality gets thrown at us, in which planet earth is apparently ready to launch its first commercial spaceship. Sponsored by the science-minded industrialist Marcus (Colm Feore) — who appears to be a fusion of Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, real-life billionaires with a pronounced interest in the space program — a national TV contest promises to send one lucky winner beyond the atmosphere for the journey of a lifetime. With the help of his over-enthusiastic grandson, Angus enters the contest, his heart condition and disqualifying age be damned. (Turns out, all you need to sell your lie is a fake ID.)
Be sure to significantly lower your expectations if you are anticipating a conclusive space travel set piece that feels like an event. “Astronaut” somehow never manages to lift that excitement off the ground cinematically, spending most of its running time on earth, focused on a feud between Angus and Marcus. With his wealth of experience and knowledge as a civil engineer, Angus unearths grave safety concerns about the runway designed for the spacecraft, which Marcus ignores. When the latter becomes a stubborn Captain Quint against his opponent’s inner Matt Hooper, Richard Dreyfuss’ knowingly playful performance keeps the rivalry mildly engaging. Still, boring masculine anxieties as well as shallow childhood issues come into play, cheapening the film’s sentimental integrity. And that still doesn’t take into account the dubiousness of the entire conflict: How likely is it that a team of the nation’s top engineers has overlooked something that frankly sounds so plainly obvious?
Miraculously, McLeod delivers in the inspiration department even when Scott McClellan’s flat cinematography works against the film’s aspirations to strike a sense of awe and wonder. And that might just be thanks to the serendipitous timing of “Astronaut,” coming on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and Todd Douglas Miller’s astonishing documentary “Apollo 11,” commemorating one of mankind’s most rousing achievements. Almost accidentally, “Astronaut” retroactively hops on a vintage, decades-in-the-making momentum shooting for worlds far from our own. While its launch doesn’t really get anywhere, it still reminds one the possibilities of our next pursuit, however obliquely.