Film (1967). Universal Pictures. Directed by Edward Montagne, starring Don Knotts, Leslie Nielsen, Joan Freeman, Arthur O'Connell, and Jesse White. Screenplay James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum. 102 minutes. Colour.
Goaded by his overbearing father Buck Fleming (O'Connell), who wants his son to carry on the proud tradition of his own heroics in World War II, timid Roy Fleming (Knotts) reluctantly applies to become an astronaut, even though he is so fearful of heights that he literally hesitates to climb a stairway. When he is subsequently invited to become a janitor for NASA, not an astronaut, Fleming nonetheless allows his family and friends to believe that he is an astronaut in training, until the truth is revealed when his father and his friends unexpectedly visit him in Houston. His father then confesses that he, too, was a fraud who actually did nothing noteworthy during the war, and Fleming strolls off to drown his sorrows at a nearby bar. In the meantime, Russia is implausibly aiming to score a propaganda coup by launching a completely unprepared civilian into space, to demonstrate the superiority of their equipment; as NASA resolves to find an even more incompetent space traveller to outdo the Russians, an astronaut who befriended Fleming, Fred Gifford (Nielsen), suggests that they recruit the hapless ex-janitor for the job. Despite his inevitable missteps during the flight, Fleming manages to press a crucial button that brings the mission to a successful conclusion; he then returns home to marry his sweetheart Ellie Jackson (Freeman), but he is too afraid to board the plane that was to take them on their honeymoon.
For much of its length, The Reluctant Astronaut is precisely what one would expect it to be – a film that employs the trope of Space Flight solely as a pretext for predictable slapstick involving comedian Knotts, whose film roles invariably cast him as a cowardly bumbler. Yet this film is also interrogating a familiar sf conceit about space travel – that this step forward would usefully function as a winnowing device for the human race, separating those superior individuals who are brave and capable enough to conquer space from their lesser compatriots, who would be justly doomed to wallow in decadence on a declining planet Earth. In written sf, especially that of a Libertarian bent, this premise is typically presented from the self-congratulatory perspective of the protagonists who can handle the rigours of space, implicitly like their equally qualified readers who have not yet been granted that opportunity. Left unstated is what those people who are not deemed worthy to live in space might think about the situation. In this film, at the time when Fleming's deceit is detected and punished, two things are apparent: he is clearly not suited to the life of an astronaut, and he is also a good person at heart, crushed by his expulsion from the space programme, who merits a better fate than an exile to oblivion. This is recognized by Gifford, a prototypically competent astronaut, who intervenes to grant his friend brief membership in his elite fraternity and restore the film's comic mood – for seeing the rejected Fleming getting drunk in a bar, to the accompaniment of other drunks chanting a countdown and "Blast Off" to celebrate each swallow of booze, briefly stuns this film into a poignant sobriety. Perhaps dividing humanity into the fortunate few who master space and the humiliated rejects like Fleming and his father, who must remain confined to Earth, is not such a desirable outcome after all. Watching this film, then, leads one to question many things about the conventional sf narrative of space travel, making The Reluctant Astronaut, almost in spite of itself, a worthwhile contribution to the genre. [GW]
see also: Spacesuit Films.