A lonely widower battles his family, ill health and time to win a competition for a golden ticket to space.
One of the reasons I love films about older people fulfilling their desires is that they make me feel, at 49, like I still have time to achieve something – anything! – before my time is up.
A Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for adults, Astronaut has billionaire philanthropist Marcus Brown (Colm Feore) offering 12 people between 18 and 65 the chance to win the last seat on the first commercial plane flight into space. 65, Billionaire Brown? My road is full of women in their 70s, who pre-lockdown could be seen twice a week heading into town, yoga mats under their arms.
At 75 and beset by the health problems of old age, Angus Stewart – retired engineer, accidental donkey owner and thwarted spaceman – sees this lottery is his last chance to fulfil his lifelong dream of being an astronaut, even if it means lying about his age. After his last-minute entry, against the odds his name is picked. From there, one of the 12 will be chosen by the public to go into space.
Still, Astronaut isn’t really about space, despite plenty of looking to the stars, as a comet moves slowly across the night sky. We do see a lot of runway though, and I’ve learnt loads about rocks, particularly oolite.
First-time feature director Sheila McLeod also wrote the script, which – along with Richard Dreyfuss’s winning portrayal of Angus, with a pocket full of pebbles where too many would expect him to have Werther’s Originals – makes rocks seem like the most interesting thing on (and in) the planet.
Angus’s mix of enthusiasm and knowledge is a captivating combination, and anyway I’ve always loved hearing knowledgable, unstuffy people talk about their obsessions.
When he’s irascible and short it’s because he knows exactly how his body is failing him, but it’s also because he doesn’t suffer fools – or worse, clever people cutting corners. Dreyfuss’s performance, portraying the frustrating limitations of an old man’s physicality while his brain works as it always did, draws you in; I’ll admit to a good cry at the end.
Astronaut is about continuing to reach for the stars even when your legs might give way at any moment. Despite its ungainly mix of the realistic and the implausible, and a budget sometimes stretched thinner than the upper atmosphere, I loved it from the first scene.
It’s also as much a reminder, and a warning, to the rest of us not to write off older people: their experience, their knowledge, and also their distance. Angus can see clearly problems that other engineers, too closely involved, ignore because everyone else is.
Angus lives with his daughter Molly (Krista Bridges) and son-in-law Jim (Lyriq Bent), who have already begun the process of infantilising him, even if it’s because they only want the best for him. In one overheard conversation Molly announces to her husband that she will decide when Angus should go into a care home. She means instead of Jim, but it’s an unconscious removal of her dad’s autonomy.
His wife Rose is dead and their own home is being sold. With his life being dismantled around him, and always a guest in his new home, Angus takes refuge in his old hobby of astronomy with his tween grandson Barney. Night after night they follow the comet, which looks rather like a giant sparkly cotton bud in a sheet of stars.
Unsurprisingly the person who understands him most is Barney (a delightful and thoroughly engaging Richie Lawrence). Don’t family members separated by a generation often get on best, without the familiar behaviour patterns that parents and their children often revert to, as they rehash the same old arguments?
In the end Angus removes himself to the care home, which is something of a benevolent Hotel California in that you can check out any time you want but you can never leave.
Luckily Angus turns out to be the grain of sand in the oyster for the residents, who have been slowly drowning under the waves of patronising guff from the well-meaning staff. It’s a community of older people whose bodies are weakening faster than their minds.
The runtime means they’re more of a group than individuals, apart from Len (Graham Greene), in a wheelchair and barely able to speak, presumably from a stroke. Angus’s immediate friendship with him, and refusal to talk over or speak for him, is reflected throughout the film.
Visiting HQ as one of the chosen 12, Angus is shocked by the state of the runway. Brown, it transpires, has put everything into launching the first commercial space plane flight on time regardless of any problems. Much of the film is about Angus desperately trying to get people to listen to an experienced engineer’s concerns instead of dismissing him as an interfering old man.
Realistically, not everyone treats Angus like a doddery fool. I liked head of communications Elisa (Karen LeBlanc). A space nut herself, she’s a true pragmatist in that she recognises Angus’s undimmed brain and depth of knowledge as well as his physical limitations.
The low budget does show. “Billionaire philanthropist” Marcus Brown has an HQ like a TARDIS in reverse, huge and glossy on the outside and inside full of plastic desk divides and boasting only about two security guards. One has to presume all the money has gone on the commercial space plane he’s built, which we don’t properly see. The winners’ visit there looks small scale. Only two of the 12 finalists are interviewed, the others just silent, grinning extras.
Astronaut did the rounds of the film festivals last year, though just as from 2016-2019 every film I watched seemed to have somehow acquired a Brexit subtext, now I keep finding lockdown-related issues. When Jim suggested Angus go on a cruise I almost shouted at the TV.
“Keep up the good fight Angus, because what’s the alternative” says a doctor to him after a check up at the beginning, implying that staying alive is the goal, rather than doing so to continue to follow your dreams. Something Angus says near the end of the film is his riposte: “A life well-lived is long enough”.
Watch the Astronaut trailer now (or scroll down for the ending):
THAT ENDING! (Spoilers… so stop reading if you don’t want to know)
Unsurprisingly, Angus does get to go up on the first launch. He has finally been taken seriously, and the launch delayed for safety changes to be made. We see him in the space plane during take-off, then it cuts to Molly’s house at a later date. Angus has died, though it’s not clear if this was after his trip or on it. (I’m telling myself it was after the trip, though a couple of times in the film we hear someone joke he’d probably not survive take-off.) The film finishes with Molly, Jim and Barney watching a comet together, wishing on it and thanking Angus. I wondered if maybe they’d sent Angus’s ashes up into space, and that’s what they were tracking in the sky, though the radio programme they are listening to is talking about comets. Still, it’s nice that a film that in some ways is easy to predict also has some mystery too.