The Astronaut


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Astronaut
"The combination of Disney-style chasing the dream narrative and gritty realism at work here is a thing to behold." | Photo: UniFrance

As digital filmmaking technology has democratised the industry, making it increasingly easy for small production teams to take on big stories, one of the most interesting areas of development has been science fiction. For the past four decades, the genre has been explored in cinema primarily through the blockbuster, which looks flashy and exciting but often ditches much of the substance of the stories it draws on. A secondary industry has existed in the straight-to-home-viewing sector, with pulp themes and special effects adding colour to films which often have no original ideas. Now, finally, we’re starting to see a wave of well written, intelligent films which look good on a big screen but don’t need high end gloss to pull it off, and therefore don’t need to make compromises.

Astronaut isn’t science fiction of the space opera and aliens variety. It is, ironically, quite down to earth, its story set in the present day or not-very-distant future and involving no truly fantastical elements. Thematically it might be traced back to Lucian of Samosata, HG Wells or, more pertinently, the William Gibson and Bruce Sterling short story Red Star, Winter Orbit. It hinges on a notion which many astrophysicists take seriously. At present, although we have the technology to get into space, it’s massively expensive and controlled by just a handful of governments and corporations. Sooner or later, that’s going to change. If we really want to expand beyond this planet, it’s small scale projects by passionate amateurs which could make the difference. When Jim (played by director Nicolas Giraud) realises that he’ll never have the chance to travel with the Arianne project which he has made his life’s work, he puts together another project, planning to get into space by himself.

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Is this a realistic idea for a 40-year-old man who lives with his grandmother? Despite his engineering background, Jim is initially met with disbelief from everyone he tells. His rocket is only 12m long. It relies on a new fuel called XB3, a solid propellant described as ‘about as stable as nitroglycerine.’ But his passion ignites similar feelings in others. Astronaut Alexandre (Mathieu Kassovitz), an astronaut whose career is now over for reasons he hesitates to reveal, brings experience of the physical demands of getting into space and surviving there, as well as a good bit of technical know-how. Mathematician Izumi (Ayumi Roux) has the genius required to make the calculations. Even Jim’s grandmother, Odette (Hélène Vincent) is able to make a practical contribution. As for the acquisition of hard-to-manufacture components, well, let’s just say that a few things go walkies from Arianne.

It’s not a smooth ride. Being the most experience, Alexandre wants everything his way. He calls Izumi ‘pushy’ and generally disparages her work in a way which female viewers with a STEM background will find all too familiar. Jim spends much of his time just trying to keep his small team together, along with persuading them that he won’t just be throwing his life away and it really can work. Inevitably, he tries to hide the very real risks from Odette. The line ‘Trust us. Everyone thought Elon Musk was mad and look at him now,’ has not aged well. Inevitably, the powers-that-be find out about the project, and then the race is on as our heroes strive to make the launch happen before they get caught.

The combination of Disney-style chasing the dream narrative and gritty realism at work here is a thing to behold. It echoes the efforts of the production team, who have gone to a great deal of trouble to keep things believable by using real materials wherever possible. This is a world which will be instantly recognisable to people who have worked in small science or tech businesses, and quite distinct from the mad inventor look which the blockbusters go for. The computers used to manage the mission are familiar models – there is no slick fantasy tech. Everyone gets their hands dirty. The small locations and the wealth of close-ups focused on detailed work or worried faces mean that the wide open shots we get at the end are properly breathtaking. This is nothing we haven’t seen before, but context is everything.

A low-fi, high stakes film with some effectively handled thriller elements, Astronaut is a strong contribution to a new movement in cinema, and a film which urges viewers not to wait for governments or corporations to make things happen but to learn and experiment and discover and go out there and try things for themselves.

Astronaut screened as part of the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival.

Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2023
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The Astronaut packshot
An aeronautical engineer at Ariane Espace, Jim has devoted himself for years to a secret project: building his own rocket and accomplishing the first manned space flight as an amateur. But to realise his dream, he must learn to share it.

Director: Nicolas Giraud

Writer: Stéphane Cabel, Nicolas Giraud

Starring: Nicolas Giraud, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hélène Vincent, Bruno Lochet

Year: 2022

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: France


Glasgow 2023

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