Nicolas Giraud directs and stars in THE ASTRONAUT (L’ASTRONAUTE), a gentle and beautifully shot film with some ambitious ideas around opening up space exploration and connecting with people on Earth. Although slow, the drama of the climax makes the journey worthwhile.
Jim Desforges (Nicolas Giraud) is an aeronautical engineer who spends his days working on rockets for other people to fly in at Arianespace. He spends his nights and weekends working on his own rocket to take himself into space. Jim dreams of launching the first amateur manned space flight: he wants to build a rocket, launch it into orbit, do a spacewalk, and return to Earth, all without the resources of NASA, Roscosmos, or the ESA. As he enlists a former astronaut (Mathieu Kassovitz), a precocious mathematics student (Ayumi Roux), and his grandmother (Hélène Vincent) to help him, he realises that his fantastic obsession might actually be achievable.
A charming celebration of amateur pursuits is at THE ASTRONAUT’s heart. Like Jim Archer’s BRIAN AND CHARLES or Kim Hopkins’ documentary A BUNCH OF AMATEURS, the film’s most enduring images are of these amateur rocket scientists working out of their farmhouse and barn. The film’s most powerful images – Jim donning his spacesuit in his living room; the team running mission control from a couple of laptops on a wooden desk – work because of the contrast with the usual depictions of professionalised space travel.
The theme of opening up space travel to the individual is the most potent theme in the film. “Space is not open to all,” we’re told at one point, and we are consistently shown that Jim and his friends don’t have the resources of a nation state or a major corporation. Why should that bar them from travelling to space? There’s a terrific sense of open-sourcing space travel, opening up the Earth’s gravitational prison to anyone and everyone with enough will to escape. This feeling opens a conceptual link to video games like Kerbal Space Program (and its recently released sequel), which open up gravitational and orbital mechanics to a non-technical audience. The theme of amateurs unlocking space travel is only partially undermined by a glowing reference to a well-known billionaire and his funding of commercial astronaut programs which tie space travel to huge corporate entities.
Despite its soaring ambitions, THE ASTRONAUT has a very gentle pace with sedate shots of the Alpine landscape rendered crisply in blues and greys. The film builds to a dramatic climactic scene that easily matches the tension of Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13 or Apple TV+’s series For All Mankind. It’s a climax that makes the slow journey worthwhile.