Ground control to potential audiences of the The American Astronaut: be prepared for a series of impenetrable in-jokes, ridiculous special effects, and grating outbreaks into song. The film, written and directed by musician Cory McAbee, with a soundtrack by his band, The Billy Nayer Show, is low-budget sci-fi that filters the known universe through a psychedelic black and white dreamscape. While The American Astronaut has the outlines of a potential cult favorite, it’s too idiotic to sustain interest (or maybe I just wasn’t stoned enough).
Samuel Curtis (McAbee) is the titular astronaut, a loner who roams through space while being chased by his nemesis, Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto). Sam is involved in a form of slave trade: first he exchanges a cat for a human girl, then the girl for a 16-year-old boy whom he plans to deliver to the all-female planet of Venus. While Sam ferries between the sexually segregated planets, delivering hope in the form of his human cargo, Hess follows, killing everyone Sam leaves behind. Sam and Hess’s intimately twisted relationship suggests that the film is attempting to be a meditation on masculinity, fatherhood and an Oedipal mix of jealousy, love and violence that takes place in a male dominated universe. Space is realized in the film as an old west frontier of dusty bars and mining camps that are filled exclusively by men. The film repeatedly apes the conventions of the typical Western but goes beyond this influence by imagining the homoerotic possibilities of sexual segregation. In the intergalactic outpost of Ceres Crossroads, Sam and the “Blueberry Pirate” (Joshua Taylor) win a dance contest by waltzing together. Later, Sam encounters a floating barn inhabited by two ex-cowpokes who have born a male son.
McAbee gestures towards a future final frontier of unlimited sexual possibilities, and yet ultimately backs off from this tantalizingly transgressive vision. The lovechild created by the two space cowboys turns out to be a monster and the ladies of Venus can’t live without men. In one of Sam’s stops, he travels to an all-male planet where mineworkers are pacified by listening to the one inhabitant who once saw a woman’s breast, who repeats his story again and again. The owner of the mine successfully uses the workers’ unmet heterosexual desire to keep them working at optimal levels.
The problem with The American Astronaut is that McAbee has imagined the outlines of a bizarre and intriguing universe, but fails to realize the possibilities he sets up. One way that the film is a success is in its rich black and white cinematography. The scenes in the floating barn in particular are starkly and eerily beautiful but the flimsy dialogue screams “art school concept film”, suggesting little about the male psyche except that the director might have seen Eraserhead and Dark Star way too many times.
Despite its wacky premise and indie cred (the film was made with a Sundance grant), The American Astronaut derives from other, much more enjoyable films. Most obviously, it rips off The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in style if not in subject matter. And while it’s pitched as a “rock opera,” The American Astronaut has a peculiarly brooding score. And while the film echoes Rocky Horror’s camp humor and B-movie quality special effects, the jokes tend to fall flat. Fans of The Billy Nayer Show might be intrigued to see how McAbee connects his film vision and music, but beyond that, The American Astronaut‘s appeal is severely limited.