It’s a conspiracy spanning the cold depths of space from Earth to Mars and back again! And for the people in charge of America’s space program, the stakes have never been higher! (Stakes like avoiding budget cuts – this is a government agency after all.)
For the ex-pilot at the center of it all, it’s a chance for redemption after a flight that went horribly wrong and killed three people on the ground, leaving him so depressed, a job at NASA impersonating the most famous (but dead) astronaut of all time, sounded like a great career choice.
But their carefully constructed charade never took into account two things that should have been obvious. One, that the Russians would haul ass up to Mars right after we did, thus inadvertently exposing the awful truth of what happened to Col. Brice Randolph. And two, and even more obvious, that imposter Brice Randolph was going to want to impersonate him in the bedroom with Mrs. Randolph, too!
Jackie Cooper plays Kurt Anderson, the man in charge of the Mars mission and for awhile, the movie’s moral center, or at least he was the only one on the mission team to at all question whether it was right to put their contingency plan into motion. That this sort of “replacing a dead guy with imposter to protect our budget” scheme was something that was already planned out and known to everyone on the team (including the real Brice Randolph) doesn’t say much about the confidence these folks had in the mission and gives some credence to the President being a bit wary of continuing to fund such a program.
Eddie Reese is brought in to be Randolph’s replacement. He goes through intensive training about the mission and about Randolph before finally going through plastic surgery to look exactly like him. Normally, it would stretch credibility that all this could be done in the 70 days they have until the surviving astronaut returns and the new Randolph has to be inserted onto the stage, but they did manage to send two guys to Mars, right?
The first hint of trouble is when Kurt visits Randolph’s wife, Gail. He’s planning on telling her about what happened to Randolph and the imposter, but she’s pregnant and worse, she talks about how Randolph thought she was a failure and didn’t really want the baby. Remember how Kurt had a conscience about all this for close to 20 seconds? He quickly goes from his high horse of truth telling to a much easier to ride horse, pragmatic procrastination.
Once the new Randolph comes home to his wife, he makes a critical mistake – he fails to treat her like complete crap! His weird niceness eventually unnerves Gail and Randolph admits he is a fake. What follows is like a bunch of vodka-soaked Cosmonauts let loose at a party on the International Space Station – lots of screaming and breaking of things.
But deep down, Gail (Susan Clarke) is no dummy. She knows an upgrade when she sees one. And new Randolph knows a pretty piece of lonely, frustrated housewife tail when he sees one. And their feelings blossom in the movie’s sole action sequence when Randolph punches out the agent at the house keeping an eye on them so that he and Gail can escape for a night of slow dancing at a senior citizen dance hall! I’ll bet the real Randolph was so pissed he died on Mars and missed that exciting night out!
But all domestic dramas must come to an end and give way to an exciting climax and so it is that the day of the big boat explosion arrives where the space program is going to fake the death of the fake Randolph!
But what about the Russians headed to Mars and the knowledge they will meet the same fate as the real Randolph? There’s some hand-wringing at NASA about letting it happen so their secret doesn’t get out, but Randolph found out, bailed on his fake death and provides the movie its slambang finish by calling Kurt and guilting him in to telling the President the truth. Damn, but the future is so prosaic in resolving its limp conspiracies!
The Astronaut was part of the ABC Movie of the Week TV series and its 1970s TV movie origins are there for all to see. There is nothing but talking, no action, barely any real conflict, and even the conspiracy is so low key in how it plays out that the only suspense comes from modern audiences just assuming that Kurt and/or his government buddies will double cross Randolph and try to kill him like in every other conspiracy movie released after Watergate, including another NASA conspiracy movie, 1976’s Capricorn One.
Not only is there no attempt made on Randolph, but there never is even any threat of it. The “bad” guy working for Kurt just wants the fake boat explosion to go forward as planned. There was never any feeling that anything sinister was going on – Kurt was just trying to buy time and keep the appropriations flowing to figure out what killed Randolph.
Though it did sometimes play out as a very compressed storyline from a 70s soap opera like Days of Our Lives, The Astronaut really benefits from Monte Markham’s convincing performance as the fake Randolph. He’s trying to make things right for the deaths he caused by helping out the space program, he’s feels for what Gail is going through, and he ultimately anguishes over exactly who he is since he has the face of dead man who will soon be dead again.
Gail isn’t terribly sympathetic at first, but by the end of the film, she’s Randolph’s biggest support. Despite the gimmicky conspiracy and imposter story, the most effective parts were the scenes between Markham and Gail as they tried to makes sense of their feelings for each other.
At 75 minutes the movie didn’t have enough time to fully flesh out how their relationship changes or to put them in any real jeopardy with the oddly benign conspiracy, but nice touches like the grainy broadcasts from Mars, the relatively pedestrian cause of Randolph’s death, the lack of snarling cartoon bad guys and people’s humanity winning out in the end (it was the middle of the Cold War, but both Kurt and fake Randolph wanted to prevent the Cosmonauts’ possible deaths), give this an interesting early 1970s vibe that’s worth checking out for fans of sci-fi drama who can keep their expectations in check.
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