Astronaut: The Last Push

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/17/12 15:08:25

"Venus really is lovely this year."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2012 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: "The Last Push" is a movie by space nuts but for a larger audience, and I very much hope that it will find one on the festival circuit. The filmmakers give themselves the opportunity to do a lot with a little, and then impress with a smooth, and occasionally exemplary, job on the follow-through.

Photographs from unmanned probes have discovered life underneath the ice of Jupiter's moon Europa, and while NASA plans more robot missions, Walter Moffitt (Lance Henriksen) has opted to spend a large chunk of his personal fortune to send a manned mission to observe these whale-like creatures. The Life One has a two-person crew - cheerful Nathan Miller (James Madio) and taciturn Michael Forrest (Khary Payton) - who are expected to spend much of the fifteen-year mission in suspended animation. Instead, the ship is hit with a micrometeorite in interplanetary space, leaving Nathan dead, the capsule where the astronauts had been in suspended animation uninhabitable, and Michael with a lot of time on his hands.

The "one astronaut alone" set-up is a common one in independent science fiction (see Love and Moon for other recent examples), and for good reason: It lets the filmmakers keep a lid on the budget and gives an actor some potentially meaty material. The Last Push is more committed to this paradigm than most; filmmaker Eric Hayden doesn't use fantasies or flashbacks to get Michael out of the habitation module or to put anybody else inside it with him. It's a well-designed set, too, and not just because Hayden and cinematographer A.J. Raitano can get good shots despite the closeness of all four walls - it's clean, functional, and cramped enough that the prospect of three years in it is unappealing but large enough to give Khary Payton room to work.

Payton does a nice job, too, especially since an astronaut must be one of the trickier characters an actor can play. There's a bunch of jargon to spout, sure, but mostly it's because these guys are selected for their ability to be cool under pressure, so no matter what the situation is, the actor has to turn the volume down but still get the message across to the audience. Payton turns out to be pretty good at that. It may take the audience a bit of time to realize that this small inflection in his voice is all the sadness he can afford for the death of his friend and that pause is fear, but that's who this guy is: Capable, private, but giving off a bunch of signals that aren't difficult to read. He also benefits a lot from James Madio's brief appearance as Nathan; their interplay establishes Michael's relative stiffness as part of the character. Lance Henriksen and Brian Baumgartner get the job done as the people on the other side of the video link to Earth - invested and doing all they can, but able to go home at the end of the day.

Writer/director Eric Hayden mostly works in special effects, so while there's not a huge amount of them in this picture, it's no surprise that they're well done, though that they are used so well is a bit remarkable. The design of Life One should make space buffs smile; the design not only explains why Michael and Nathan are able to walk around in a one-gee environment, but it highlights the fragility of the vessel. Authenticity is clearly important to him and the other filmmakers, and to that end a lot of NASA imagery is used to build their effects sequences. They thankfully don't confuse "realism" with "ugliness" - the flyby of Venus is beautiful, and clearly the work of people who love this stuff.

Hayden is up to more than just wrangling pixels, though - while there's a bit of rookie hesitation in some scenes and the testimonial footage from around the world is a bit over-earnest, he can tell a story. Michael's attempts to repair systems build from a gag to a genuine source of drama and tension, the effects scenes are part of what allows the movie to hit emotional beats, and he matches the movie's tone to an astronaut's cool professionalism without making it a dry affair. He's made a pretty nifty movie here.

Granted, I'm part of the audience that this thing is squarely aimed at; I love space stories set during the exploration of the solar system. But even among that genre, it's a good piece of work, and I look forward to seeing what Hayden and company come up with next.

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