Film Reviews

Dross in Space

Ever endure a friend stuck in a deep depression who refused to lighten up but delighted in spewing ugliness to bring you down? Such is the method of The American Astronaut, a thematically inventive but woefully crude science-fiction jaunt that's less engaging entertainment for us than perverse psychotherapy for writer-director-star Cory McAbee. This 2000 release has accrued many comparisons along the festival circuit--Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra dubbed it "Tim Burton crossed with Dr. Seuss"--but most praise seems a tad too generous. The movie is an ambitious pastiche, sure, but it's more accurate to call it a degraded Flash Gordon, produced with all the delicacy of early Jim Jarmusch and the come-hither charm of the Residents.

Rendered in grainy black and white and often oppressively creepy, this jumbled story starts on the asteroid of Ceres, where an interplanetary smuggler named Samuel Curtis (McAbee) dry-shaves his grizzled beard aboard his clunky spaceship before venturing into a nearby saloon. A patron who looks like a smacked-up William Hurt leads him to barkeep Eddie (Bill Buell), who in turn directs him to the lavatory, advising the protagonist (and us), "It's a real toilet, so be careful." Indeed, Curtis is soon accosted by hyperactive yokels who snap a compromising Polaroid of him before singing and dancing through the nasty rest room as if possessed by a lobotomized Twyla Tharp.

It is worthwhile to issue the warning that The American Astronaut is something of a musical, featuring things sort of like songs provided by McAbee's alleged band, the Billy Nayer Show. From the twisted tune of the macho dance contest on Ceres to a weird ditty called "The Girl With the Glass Vagina" expelled seemingly light-years later on Venus, the characters do indeed deliver their share of spontaneous, semirhythmic outbursts. Perhaps this is an attempt to crowd the midnight turf of the The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but there's no threat of that; the enduring kick of Rocky lies in its smart tunefulness, whereas this discordant slop makes one wish the guitar had never been invented.

In between annoying non sequiturs and meaningless pregnant pauses, the story gradually unfolds. On Ceres, Curtis meets the Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor), who sets our hero on a mission. It seems that on the all-male mining planet of Jupiter, there is a morale-boosting youngster known as the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast (Greg Russell Cook). Curtis, who has just delivered a cat named Monkeypuss to Ceres, is to take a gestating girl in a box (cloned from Eddie) to Jupiter, swap the future sex-slave for the Boy, then take the Boy to the all-female planet of Venus, where women can reproduce without men but require a single stud for new blood. Otherwise, explains the pirate, "they become high-bred, too snippy even for their own good."

The fleeting moments of dry wit are too sparse to hold the movie together, so instead McAbee takes the kitchen-sink approach, hitting us with whatever he's got. The spaceship is basically a stuffy dorm room on the inside, a series of stills of an interstellar bus on the outside. Eventually it lands in a space barn, where Curtis and the Boy meet an alien from Nevada who looks like Larry King, who plies them with chocolate and cigarettes to return to Earth with his twitchy, smelly, retarded son, Bodysuit (James Ransone). The intrepid explorers then cruise on to Venus to collect the spent body of the old stud and drop off the new one, discovering that the landscape looks like upstate New York and the inhabitants all dress and behave as Southern belles. Were this anywhere near as amusing to watch as it is to recount, it'd be one hell of a movie.

Rather than arriving as a snappy farce or silly adventure, however, The American Astronaut behaves like an annoying brat seeking attention but going about it all wrong. This description also matches the movie's narrator and villain, one Professor Heiss (Rocco Sisto), who dogs Curtis through the galaxy, flagrantly announcing his own birthday and vaporizing anyone who refuses to sing to him (mysteriously, he spares the cat). There's a weird codependence between hero and bad guy, as Curtis divulges to the Boy how Heiss cannot forgive him for some past trespass, but if such forgiveness ever comes, the professor will kill him. "He's like family," he explains.

Beneath all the vulgarity and bizarre trappings, the movie boils down to pining for paternal role models and sturdy male friends out in the vast void. Its one moment of truth comes when the mad, alienated Heiss zaps all the miners--who apparently oblige him by standing still in perfect formation--and then rolls around in their piles of dust, crying and bellowing in regret. He rises smiling glibly, but for that moment his horror protrudes beyond camp, bringing a poignant spark to this otherwise ugly space oddity.

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Gregory Weinkauf