With “Gravity” pulling everybody into theaters over the last few weeks, it looks like space movies are making a comeback. I mean, what better setting for a high-tension drama than an infinite void that could suffocate or crush you at a moment’s notice. Space is one bad motha and since we don’t know all that much about it, that makes it even more intimidating. In “Astronaut: The Last Push”, available now on DVD from Vision Films, we join a crew of two looking to explore the vast unknown… and naturally things don’t go as planned.
With the privatization of space exploration, Walter Moffitt (Lance Henriksen) has sunk a huge chunk of his personal fortune into a manned mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Probes have discovered life beneath the icy surface and Moffitt is essentially funding the world’s most expensive whale watching mission. Two astronauts, Michael Forrest (Khary Payton) and Nathan Miller (James Madio) are alone, making the 15 year voyage in suspended animation aboard the Life One space craft. On arrival they’ll observe and record data that will change mankind forever and ever… they think. Early in the mission, the ship is hit with a meteorite killing Nathan and badly damaging the cyro-chamber. Now, having to abort the mission, Michael is trapped in a tiny room for the next three years with just a book of poetry and a ping-pong ball to keep him company. With the aid of Bob Jansen (Brian Baumgartner) back at mission control, with whom he communicates via a video email link, will Michael make it home alive?
To be honest with you, I didn’t really care. The back and forth between Astronauts Forrest and Badio in the beginning of the film works brilliantly. Nathan is happy, humorous and fun whereas Michael is the straight man who seems to have a stick up his rear. As soon as Nathan bites the dust, we’re stuck with the bitter humorless guy. His intensity works during some of the more tense moments, but the only bits of comic relief come from the used car salesman-like jokes of Bob which play like fingernails down a chalk board. To make matters worse, the film never really addresses the effects that living in a cell eating reconstituted poop (don’t worry, it’s flavored) has on Michael’s sanity. It never really phases him. But still, the tedium of the film’s pacing and the feelings of claustrophobia that seep through the screen and into your own brain keep you rooting for his return. That is until an unsatisfying ending that quotes T.S. Elliot (the go-to poet for screenwriters everywhere) in an attempt to justify itself.
I found “Astronaut: The Last Push” to be a really rare bird, indeed. The actors give perfect performances and yet the film is imperfectly cast. For as irritating as Payton and Baumgartner are, they are believable and quite natural in their deliveries – it’s just that the charisma isn’t there. Writer/Director Eric Hayden, however, expertly builds enough tension to keep you hanging in there. This is one of the few movies where I can honestly say the direction is the star of the show. Shot almost entirely in one room, the film is met with the challenge of keeping itself interesting for its 88 minute runtime. It largely succeeds, though the aforementioned pacing makes it feel like a full two hours. As the film lives by Hayden’s directing, it dies by his writing. With all of the pressure we’re put under for the duration of the film, the audience expects and deserves some sort of catharsis. While Hayden surely thought he was being inspirational, he (metaphorically speaking) fails to land the ship.
“Astronaut: The Last Push” scores 1 out of 5 reels. The film succeeds to some degree, given the production’s limited resources, but I came away feeling cheated; I wanted a more realistic psychological reaction to the trauma and an ending to make our journey worthwhile. Instead, all we get is lost in space…