The American Astronaut

A lot of outer space movies have a utopian feel - they seem to suggest that one day our intellects will conquer our baser instincts and when that happens we'll live happily ever after with all the other intelligent species in the universe. A lot of outer space movies have the exact opposite message - they seem to suggest that the universe is fundamentally hostile to life and that in the end everything with a pulse is kind of boned. And... that's it for the most part. There aren't that many movies that are set in the great beyond that don't depict it as either being potentially welcoming or definitely deadly. But why? We can project whatever properties onto the unending void that we want to, so why stop at those two interpretations? Why aren't there more movies that depict the universe as inherently sad? Or silly? Or strange?

The American Astronaut is an outlier in the canon of space travel movies, because it's version of life in outer space is consistently surreal. It starts with a space traveler named Samuel Curtis delivering a cat to a bar on a mining asteroid near Mars. As soon as Curtis has given the feline to the bar's owner he agrees to take another courier gig - he needs to take a fluid-filled tank to Jupiter, because that fluid is eventually going to coalesce into a clone of a woman and the all-male mining colony on Jupiter is desperate for female companionship. The instant Curtis drops off the clone-tank he has to turn around and start his next mission - the last man on Venus just died, and the women of Venus want a replacement stud delivered ASAP. If he can successfully take a man to the solar system's second planet then he will be handsomely compensated by the charming (but sexually voracious) southern belles who are currently very, very lonely. Incidentally, the specific man he is supposed to drop off on Venus is named the Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast, and he is a cult hero amongst the miners on Jupiter because he has come vaguely close to having a heterosexual encounter. (I suspect that once word of his life on Venus travels to the boys back home his legend will grow tenfold.)

You can tell from that plot description that the movie is pretty peculiar. After all, it's storyline is basically a more convoluted variation on that old logic problem about the fox, the chicken and the bag of grain, except with cats, clones and gigolos swapped in - a substitution that is random on the face of it and even more nonsensical once you think about it for a bit. (I get why the chicken and the fox can't be in the same place at the same time, but why are all the inhabitable planets in the solar system segregated by gender? I'm pretty sure that men and women can live in the same place without cannibalism occurring.) What that description doesn't tell you is how offbeat the film actually feels. The American Astronaut is consistently funny, but it always feels as if it is one step away from flying off the deep end. One old man keeps telling violent jokes that don't have punchlines. Two men do an elaborate square dance routine in a bathroom despite the fact that their only audience member can't see them through his stall door. Curtis spends the whole movie trying to escape the evil Professor Hess, a madman who uses a fancy raygun to turn everyone he meets into a pile of ash, but Hess only seems to be marginally crazier than everyone else around him. If you grew up in a world that was so sexually frustrated that it's version of Cassanova was a boy who once saw a boob you, too, might want to evaporate everyone in your path.

It's interesting to think about where the American Astronaut exists on the utopian / dystopian scale, because it's a cult movie that feels like it's actually about cults, and cults almost always inhabit a gray area between those two extremes. The film doesn't ever explicitly broach the topic of religion, nor does it ever explain in practical terms how the universe came to be so psychologically screwed up, but it does have multiple scenes that suggest that these characters live in a world of depraved devotion. I mean that both literally and figuratively: the scene where the Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast stands in front of a crowd of miners and describes what the breast looked like is obviously a little perverted, but it's also reminiscent of a prophet preaching to his flock about the marvels he has already seen and which they can expect to see in the next life. If the movie wasn't so consistently silly it's depiction of space as a place where everyone lives in underground bunkers and dreams of a better world could be rather scary. The idea of a young man explaining to a crowd of virgins what a boob looks like is funny, but the idea of that same man explaining to a crowd of virgins what life will be like once they are in heaven with their seventy two brides is.... less funny.

Let's put that thought aside, however, because the American Astronaut actually does a good job of keeping it's tone light, so it doesn't make sense to spend a lot of time discussing how it could have been much darker. Instead I'd rather take a second to talk about how this movie kind of reminds me of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which is another work of art about cults that hints at grimness without giving into it. Specifically, I think that the the Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast is a lot like the titular Kimmy Schmidt, in that they have both known lives of deprivation and hardship - him down in a mine on Jupiter, her in an underground bunker in Indiana - but they remain idealistic about the future nonetheless. They are both defined by a certain naivete about the way that the wider world actually works, a trait which makes them simultaneously awkward and endearing. Most importantly, both characters blur the line between optimism and pessimism, since they are defined both by their bleak backgrounds and their current innocence, and that allows them to exist comfortably in stories that veer between lightness, darkness and strangeness without fully committing to any one of those tones.

I get why most space travel stories pick one tone and stick with it. For one, that's a good way to ensure narrative quality control, and more importantly, it doesn't overtax the viewers mind. It's hard for human beings to wrap our heads around how simultaneously awe inspiring and existentially intimidating the unending abyss is, so it's just simpler to pick one perspective or the other and roll with it. Still, that doesn't change the fact is that is dishonest to depict space as if it only had one dimension. If you were forced to spend your time trapped in a tiny box in the middle of the unimaginable vastness of the universe you would end up going through all of the emotions, not just the good or the bad ones.

I'm hesitant to call a movie as absurd as the American Astronaut "realistic", but there is something about the way it's characters cope with their extreme situation by becoming increasingly eccentric that rings true to me. Yes, it is ridiculous that these people stage awkward all-male dance contests, and that they wear winged helmets and gimp suits instead of real clothes, and that they keep insisting that every day is their birthday... But they have a lot of time on their hands, they live in a madness inducing environment and everyone else they know has also gone crazy, so why wouldn't they do those insane things? There is absolutely nothing in this movie about clones, Venusian women and rayguns that is correct on a technical level, but it does have an accurate emotional core. The truth is that space is so overwhelming that the only reasonable reaction to it is to be overwhelmed with emotions. (In that way it's a lot like a real live woman's breast, which is another natural phenomenon so vast that gazing upon it is sure to boggle a man's mind - should he even survive the sight long enough to tell the tale.)

Winner: Me

The American Astronaut on IMDB