‘Astronaut’ review: Richard Dreyfuss’ masterful turn keeps this sentimental space drama in orbit

Willy Wonka meets 'Apollo 13' as one ageing dreamer shoots for the moon

In writer-director Shelagh McLeod’s debut feature Astronaut, there’s a sort of reverse Charlie and the Chocolate Factory set-up. Angus Stewart (Jaws‘ Richard Dreyfuss) is a lonely widower who enters a competition to win a seat on the first commercial flight to space.

It’s a once in a lifetime golden ticket – one that seems wildly unlikely for Angus. He’s 10 years older than the allowed limit of 65 and has just been moved to a care home by his nervous daughter. But, after encouragement from his son to follow his dreams – and with no more than 45 seconds left before applications close, Angus hits “submit”.

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Angus’ story is told with a light touch, which helps to keep the plot grounded in reality. In fact, there’s little complex science-speak or tedious exposition here. For the most part, McLeod keeps her script pretty straightforward. It’s clear what Angus dreams of, what he’s lost, what he loves, and where his life is at now.

Elsewhere, there’s a wistfulness in the film’s design, paired with a twinkly lullaby-type score that fits well with the on-screen action. It sometimes veers into clichéd tearjerker territory – as Angus and his daughter remember his late wife, or when emotional goodbyes go on for a few seconds too long – but these are kept to a minimum. The plot moves forward in smart ways, subverting happy endings that are too predictable, and giving Angus what he deserves in ways that make sense for the character.

With his background as a civil engineer, Angus adds weight and reason to his application. When meeting the team behind the expedition, he asks them a string of questions. How much does the ship weigh? How sturdy is the limestone? What about the runways? This offers helpful framing to the viewer so that they can understand the mechanics of space travel. If anything, these explanations grow too simplistic at times, such as when Angus’ grandson telling a security guard: “People. Could. Die.”

Astronaut
Richard Dreyfuss as Angus Stewart in ‘Astronaut’. Credit: Alamy

Compared to other sci-fi movies, Astronaut is far more practical than fans might be used to. It’s more grounded than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and certainly more optimistic than Alex Garland’s Sunshine. McLeod can be poetic, but what is most prominent is Angus’ level-headed intelligence, conveyed in a whip-smart performance by Dreyfuss. He very much leads the show, which makes the film focus more on the man than the mission.

Astronaut works, largely, because of the strength of its subject’s character. But if the team in charge of bringing his story to screen had a bit more faith in their audience – it’s only rocket science! – the film could really lift off.

Details

  • Director: Shelagh McLeod
  • Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Lyriq Bent, Krista Bridges
  • Release date: April 27 (Digital)
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