The Astronauts (1959) is a short, collaborative animation project between eccentric filmmakers Walerian Borowczyk and Chris Marker. Borowczyk would later move into live-action film-making, turning his attention to a cinema of perverse eroticism with projects like Goto, The Island of Love (1969), The Immoral Tales (1974), Beast (1975) and Emmanuelle 5 (1987). Likewise, Marker would produce the short masterpiece La Jetée (1962), the celebrated proto-documentary Sans Soleil (1983) and his critical study of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, A.K. (1985). The film, at twelve-minutes in length, is a testament to the creative energy and ideas of these two filmmakers, not only standing as an interesting short film in its own right, but as a window into the creative world of these two, highly skilled, highly original filmmakers. It remains an amazing piece of work for this very reason, more so perhaps than any other; even if it is admittedly impossible to distinguish between which filmmaker was responsible for each individual part of the creative process, leaving us to assume that it was a pure collaboration in every sense of the word.
In terms of actual style, The Astronauts can be seen as an obvious precursor to Terry Gilliam’s work on the “Monty Python” (1969) television series, with surreal, copy and paste photographic images hand-printed and cropped to work in a bizarre, almost stop-motion approach, stressing the use of collage and caricature. Clearly, it is no surprise that Gilliam cited Borowczyk’s film Les Jeux des Anges (1964) amongst his ten best animated films of all time (alongside work by Jan Švankmajer, the brothers Quay and the Pixar animation studio), with both the visual look, sense of wonder and sly satirical humour of this particular approach all showing an influence, not only on his work with the Monty Python team, but on classic films like Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Like those particular projects, The Astronauts is certainly worth experiencing; if only for the window that it offers into a completely unique creative mindset, wherein Borowczyk and Marker succeed in putting together some astounding little sequences and ideas to create this warm and enjoyable sketch.
It seems odd that these wildly different filmmakers could get together and produce a work of utter, creative symbiosis, and yet here, with The Astronauts, they deliver a fantastic work of short-form animation filled with clever visual references, an expressive and experimental approach to the manipulation of sound, and an extraordinary amount of visual and thematic imagination conveyed by both the story and the actual presentation. Clearly, it is the kind of film that will be of more interest to fans of these particular filmmakers and of avant-garde animation in general, but I think it is definitely a film that is worth experiencing at least once; if not for the obvious thrill of the creative act itself (and in the ideas presented on screen), then for the delightful little story that is really quite witty and brilliantly delivered over the course of its comparatively short, twelve-minute duration.