Astro Loco

Director: Aaron McJames
David Argue, Hayley Dallimore, Frank Handrum, Dascha Naumova

On July 20th, 2021, Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder and executive chairman of Amazon made the headlines not because of something to do with Amazon, but what he was able to do because of his work with Amazon. As you probably know, the thing of his that made the headlines that day was when he boarded the rocket ship New Shepard (which had been made by his Amazon shootoff company Blue Origin) with three other people, and blasted off for a short journey into space. As you probably know, news of this event resulted in a lot of discussion in the media, a lot of it negative. Some of this negative feedback seemed to come from both jealousy and a troubling feeling that this Bezos guy was not only getting too powerful, but rubbing it in the faces of ordinary people. Personally, I was of two minds with this news. One of those feelings was a "So what?" feeling. After all, it was Bezos' money that was funding the entire thing, and it seems to me that anyone who acquires money from legal means has the right to spend it in any which legal way he or she feels. But at the same time, I had the feeling that Bezos had really wasted all the money ($5.5 billion) he spent on the entire thing, even if it was only about 3% of his fortune. For one thing, reports state that Bezos only spent about four minutes in actual space. If you ask me, spending so much money on only a few minutes of an experience is ridiculous. Let me tell you that if I was suddenly given the $5.5 billion, I would spend it on things that would really enhance my life and others. For me, I would first buy a 4K TV and 4K disk player, subscribe to every streaming service that catered even a little to my fancy, and then spend the over 99% of the money that was left on funding a slew of movies in the $5 to $10 million dollar range that in my eyes would give hundreds of wannabe filmmakers a chance to show their stuff... as long as the movies they would make be movies that were both good and real.

But there are other reasons why if I were given $5.5 billion, I would not even think about spending it on space travel, even if the space experience promised to me would be more elaborate than just four minutes away from my home planet. Whether it be a stay at a space station or a trip to Mars, I would give a firm "NO!" to the idea. Why? Sit back a while and hear me out on this subject. For starters, in my opinion the art of space travel is still in its infancy. There have been enough reports of rockets blowing up and other mishaps that indicate traveling from and to Earth poses more risk than say a trip on your favorite airliner. There are uncountable factors that have to be absolutely perfect, and the odds are against it. The second reason why I would not want to go into outer space, even if space travel was more perfected, would be that the simple fact that outer space is an incredibly hostile place. Once you leave the safety of terra firma, you are under bombardment from intense radiation. There are also factors like the environment you would be in would almost certainly be extremely hot or extremely cold, drinkable water would not be easy to find, and of course the fact that there is no air in outer space. Indeed, in space nobody can hear you scream because of the lack of air. There is also the lack of gravity you'll almost certainly be experiencing, and it's been proven that being in a gravity-free environment for an extended period of time can be bad for your physical well being. Then there is also the fact that distance from Earth would be a problem. What if there was a problem like your appendix deciding to burst, for example? There's also the fact that communication would be slowed down with enough distance. It takes over a second for radio communication to travel between Earth and the moon - imagine if you were further away from Earth and needed to send a message back home.

All those things concerning space travel would, in my opinion, make me very hesitant about climbing aboard a rocket ship and blasting up to the stars. But the absolute worst thing I think about space travel would be the absolute boredom factor. I need to tell you that I can't stay in one place all Astro Locoday - I have to go out at least once a day to stretch my legs and get a change of scenery. That would be pretty much impossible to do with present day space travel. Being confined in a small space all day every day, and with the same people, I would soon be utterly bored. Even if somehow I had several of those Mill Creek 50 movie DVD packs to view, my cramped, drab, and unchanging surroundings would still get to me, and I would go insane. This particular problem with space travel is an obvious one for me, so it's surprising that up until recently I haven't come across a space movie that's dealt with this problem. But then Australian filmmaker Aaron McJames contacted me to tell me of his new movie Astro Loco, informing me that his film concerned in part this potential space travel problem. That definitely perked my interest, as well as the fact the movie, unlike so many foreign movies, definitely leaned towards being a real movie. Here's the plot: The year is 2074, and mankind at this point has managed to gain the ability to send humans to other planets in the solar system. At this particular time, Earth scientists have decided to send five more astronauts to the Jupiter moon of Callisto after an earlier mission to set up a mining base of operations there. These astronauts are Lucien (David Argue, No Escape), Rex (Hayley Dallimore), Odd (Frank Handrum), Dasha (Dascha Naumova), and Sebastian (Nick Sun). The five astronauts on their spaceship Araya have an extra companion of sorts - the spaceship's artificial intelligence system that is referred to as Hetfield (Jon Reep, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay). The chief responsibility of Hetfield is to keep all the astronauts in check, since the journey to Callisto will be long and laborious on the bodies and (especially) minds of the astronauts. But as the Araya is closing in on Callisto, some sort of alien presence from one of the other 78 moons of Jupiter suddenly makes a sneak attack on the spaceship and its crew. After secretly managing to infect Odd with some sort of alien presence when he makes a brief spacewalk, the alien presence slowly starts a plan to take over the entire crew of the Araya. Being a machine, Hetfield has no risk of being infected, but Hetfield soon figures out that it will be up to him to aid the astronauts to foil the alien force's scheme. Which may not be easy, since Hetfield is still learning about the ways humans feel, think, and act.

From a little research, I found out that writer/director (and former animator) Aaron McJames made his motion picture debut with Astro Loco. Knowing that, as well as the fact that he made this debut in a true indie sense, I was sort of preparing myself for stumbles filmmakers often create in their first movies. There are definite stumbles (which I will discuss later), but in the director's chair McJames does better than others would have done in the same independent shoestring circumstances. The movie is well shot, atmospherically darkened in the scenes taking place in the Araya's interior, and the outer space stuff, while not spectacular to the eye, would put Roger Corman to shame. However, despite the aforementioned eerie darkness, the interior sets often leave a lot to be desired. Except when the movie takes place on a kind of holodeck (which is only for two short scenes), the sets have a kind of cheap and cramped feel to them. McJames tries to hide this with almost always having the camera zoomed close to the characters, but it doesn't work. Also, spoiling the possible feel that we are in a spaceship, McJames frequently uses the same camera angles for each specific room, so we along with the camera feel nailed down and can't really appreciate the surroundings. With limited variety to the camerawork, there are further problems such as a hand-to-hand fight sequence that is more of a jumble of bodies than struggle and tension, as well as some short sequences that go by so quickly that it's momentarily hard to keep up with what's going on, also sometimes because key shots are obviously missing.

Reminding myself again that McJames was working under tight conditions, I will say that the direction and general look of the movie under those conditions probably couldn't have been better with any other person in the director's chair. Anyway, usually production niceties aren't my biggest concern about a movie. More important things include the characters and the script. I'd like to get into the characters now, but just before I do that, I feel that I should mention something about Astro Loco I haven't mentioned before, and that it's actually a sci-fi comedy. Naturally, because of this the cast have to show their comic chops as well as their dramatic ones. I'll say this for the cast - they all do come across as nice people, and even when things get darker for their characters (such as homicidal alien possession), you can still feel sympathy for them. Also, the scenes with them chatting about casual topics did strike the right note more often than not. However, when it comes to them delivering laughs, I'm afraid I didn't find much amusing about their performances. It took me a while to deduce what was going wrong, but I eventually realized that it was because director McJames was having the cast more often than not perform in a somewhat exaggerated theatrical style. While this might have worked on the stage, in a movie like this it really doesn't work very well. The fact that the cast is trying extremely hard for the most part to be "funny" instead of acting in a more identifiable manner that we could relate to in some degree makes it difficult to laugh. In the more limited number of scenes where they do act more like real people, I did smile and even chuckled a few times. I might have done it even more had some of the gags just not have been so darn predictable. When the character of Odd tries to get his crew to help him with a "trust" exercise (catch him when he falls backwards), I knew instantly what would happen.

Another problem with much of Astro Loco's humor is that it often thinks that simply being weird is automatically funny. This technique usually doesn't work - you still have to put some creativity and even smarts behind the weirdness to bring it up to level two or hopefully even higher. A much bigger problem regarding finding laughs is that the narrative of the movie is quite garbled at times. As you recall, I mentioned that some scenes go by too quickly and/or don't seem complete, but the drama is made worse by the fact that while you get the general feeling that there is some serious alien possession going on, how and why most of this is happening isn't exactly all that clear. Any explanation is either rushed or not fully spelt out. With this murkiness, we in the audience are so confused that we can't clearly understand what the astronauts are struggling against and why we should laugh at their attempts to do so. The movie's vagueness about the alien menace is also surprising because there are a lot of really slow spots where not much (if anything) is happening; the time instead could have been spent making the alien plot much clearer. Also, I would have loved explanations about some other unclear aspects, like in the aforementioned hand fight sequence when right after the fight is over, we abruptly cut to the next sequence where all the characters have seemingly forgotten what just happened. As you can see, Astro Loco is far too loco for its own good. Still, this movie might prove to be a good training exercise for writer/director Aaron McJames. Every artist, writer (even including this movie critic), and every director has something not so good in him or herself that needs to be purged before making something much better. Even though I can't recommend the movie as a whole, signs of potential talent did keep popping up while watching it, enough that I'd be willing to watch McJames' next movie.

(Posted September 16, 2021)

Click here to watch Astro Loco on Amazon Prime Video

See also: The High Crusade, Manborg, Star Kid