The Earth is full of weird, intriguing people and sometimes those people end up making films. I don't know Cory McAbee personally, but based on The American Astronaut, his first feature film, I think it's probably safe to say he is one of them. The first time I watched The American Astronaut I had a really hard time placing the film, but it stuck with me throughout the years and it became one of those seemingly accidental favorites. That was years ago though, so time to give it another whirl and check if it was able stand the test of time.
Trying to categorize The American Astronaut is a near impossible task. Genre-wise, the film serves an interesting mix between sci-fi and fantasy, though it's hardly Star Wars. Stylistically it feels more like an Eraserhead offspring and atmospherically it's like the cinematic equivalent of a Johnny Cash song. If that makes little sense, don't worry, the film itself doesn't either. It's one of those films you simply have to accept and experience, so you can figure out at the end whether you actually liked it or not.
Ultimately though, it's that gritty, grizzly and smokey American bar feel that defines the dna of the film. Think cowboys, cigarettes and bourbon in some kind of extremely lo-fi version of the future, where humanity has found its way off of Earth, but is still flying around in barns. Yups ... barns. And if all of that wasn't weird enough, the film also fancies itself a musical, with some country and rock music thrown in for good measure. So yeah, The American Astronaut has everything to be a very divisive film.
The plot is rather nonsensical, little more than an excuse to get from scene to scene, which is were the actual magic happens. There is a backstory of course, about a pilot who has to deliver a young boy to Venus, a planet governed by women. The boy functions as a means of pleasure and reproduction for the women, who never actively switch around males. Rather they wait until their male boy toy finally dies before getting a new one. While entertaining in a silly kind of way, it doesn't seem like there's much of a point to it all.
One of the film's most striking features is the stark black and white photography. I always love a black and white film with sharp contrasts and The American Astronaut surely delivers. There are some amazing visual tour de forces here, the scene in the rogue barn in particular sticks out as pure genius. It's a little reminiscent of Charlie Deaux' Zoetrope, though I'm sure that (short) film is equally obscure. A better transfer may do the film some good, but as the DVD is pretty much impossible to find, I wouldn't hold my breath for a Blu-ray release in the near future.
The soundtrack too has a tremendous impact. I'm really not a fan of either rock or country music, but it integrates and fits so well here that it's just impossible to see it separate from the film. You really can't say The American Astronaut would've been better with a different soundtrack, because it just would've been a completely different film. I like it when directors put so much weight on the music, it shows that the quality of a soundtrack goes well beyond the mere musical taste of the viewer.
The acting is probably one of the film's weaker points. McAbee himself stars in the lead role and does a good job, but Cook, Sisto and Golden seem to have trouble finding the right balance. Fair enough, it's not an easy task bringing gravity to roles that are basically just farcical, but it's not exactly impossible either. Do keep your eyes open for a nice cameo of Tom Aldredge, people with perfect sight may also recognize James Ransone as the boy in the bodysuit.
The American Astronaut is a crazy film. Some interludes seem to exist entirely on their own, others are there to further along the story. The film can be extremely dry, but it can also switch to an almost slapstick-like absurdity in a heartbeat. One scene can be dark, eerie and even freaky, while the next one can just as well feature the silhouette of a singing cowboy. The finale gets a bit more narrative compared to the rest of the film, but even then there's still plenty of craziness to keep you occupied.
Cory McAbee's film is a marvel. It's something completely unique, incredibly tricky to describe and pretty much impossible to forget. There are some technical hiccups and the film can feel a little disjointed in places, but that never hampers the unadulterated fun that lies at the core of The American Astronaut. Impeccably styled and a hoot from start to finish, it's a film that needs to be seen and experienced to be believed. Somehow I lost track of McAbee (who directored two more films since), I'm putting him right back on my list of priorities.