Appellate Judge Dave Ryan once built a fully functional Gemini spacecraft out of several cardboard boxes and a discarded blender. True story.
"Without the rocket, we're just a dysfunctional family."
Can you make a solidly entertaining PG-rated family film even though you have a totally impossible and unbelievable premise?
Facts of the Case
Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade) is a man with a dream. He wants to fly into space. Long ago, he was in training to be an astronaut, but a family tragedy derailed his career path and sent him back to his west Texas farm. But he hasn't given up on that dream quite yet. To the contrary, he's busy building his own spacecraft and missile in his barn, using discarded parts from junkyards. Of course everyone thinks he's nuts, except for his infinitely patient wife Audie (Virginia Madsen, Dune), his devoted son Shepard (Max Thieriot, Nancy Drew), and his two adorable daughters (Jasper and Logan Polish).
Farmer's troubles continue to mount as he gets closer to completing his rocket. He's already borrowed heavily against his farm to fund the project, and the bank wants to see some payments. He and his lawyer friend Kevin (Tim Blake Nelson, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) are trying to convince the FAA and its immovable Director Jacobson (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man) to approve his flight plan. And the FBI thinks he's a threat to national security due to his interest in purchasing large quantities of explosive fuel, sending two agents—Mathis (Mark Polish, Northfork) and Killbourne (Jon Gries, Napoleon Dynamite)—to investigate him thoroughly.
Will Charlie reach space? Or will his dream die on the Texas prairie?
(Oh come on—like you can't figure that one out.)
If you just look at it on paper, The Astronaut Farmer, from relatively new filmmaker twins Michael and Mark Polish Twin Falls Idaho), is quite possibly the hokiest piece of crap you've ever seen. Guy builds a functional Mercury-Atlas stack in his backyard? His family totally supports him? Good gravy. Wake me up when you approach reality, guys.
But something funny happened on the road between concept and screen—against all odds, the Polish brothers made a pretty darned good film. Oh, it's still utterly unrealistic, but it manages to strike just the right notes at the right times to keep itself on an even keel. It's sappy, but not too sappy, and doesn't hammer you over the head with The Big Message. It's just a gentle family film that happens to involve a rocket.
Credit for this success is properly split between the deft touch of director Michael Polish and the perfectly chosen cast. It all starts with Billy Bob. Even though he's an Oscar winner, you don't really hear Thornton's name thrown around in "best actor working" discussions. That's probably because he takes a lot of roles like this one—quiet, unassuming, subtle acting jobs that are far more difficult than they look. Here, he's required to make Charlie Farmer—a man who is mortgaging his farm to build a rocket in his barn—sympathetic and understandable, instead of coming off as the nutjob he probably is. And you know what? He does! It doesn't take long before we're buying into Charlie's dream, too, unrealistic though it may be. I really can't see this film succeeding without Thornton's participation. This isn't the kind of role that will win him awards and vast popularity, but it's a role that shows how seriously he takes his craft. The always lovely Virginia Madsen puts in a quality performance as his loyal wife as well. Again, it's not a flashy, scenery chewing sort of role, but a subtle, thoughtful, quiet little part.
Thornton and Madsen are great, but credit is also due to Michael and Mark Polish for crafting a script that lets them be subtle. The Polish brothers don't shy away from the story's underlying ludicrousness; instead, they turn it into an adult fairy tale ("adult" in the grown-up sense, not the porn sense). The Polish brothers also crafted it to be a metaphor for the process of getting a motion picture made in the Hollywood system. It works on both levels, so just pick whichever interpretation you like better. Our questions about the reality of the tale quickly subside as we become more and more invested in Charlie's fate. Even though you just know that there's some sort of happy ending coming (heck, even chimps can probably see that), you still want to see how it all plays out.
The Astronaut Farmer is also a very family-friendly movie, focusing in large part on Farmer's relationships with his kids. Despite the quote from Audie above, the Farmers aren't really dysfunctional in the least. They clearly love each other, and spend a good deal of time with each other. There's no absentee parenting, substance abuse, or emotional distance in this gang. It's a good, positive family situation, albeit one that involves a large Air Force missile. There's no sex and very little bad language here, making it safe for even young kids to watch. And yet it doesn't come off as cloying or pseudo-religious in the least, making it safe for cynical hipsters to watch as well.
The DVD release of The Astronaut Farmer, released on a widescreen/full-screen flipper disc, is pretty slim in the extras department. The main extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette, "How to Build a Rocket." It's quite good, and has a lot of talking-head interviews with virtually everyone in the cast, as well as the Polish brothers themselves. (The only cast member MIA in the featurette, unfortunately, is the always entertaining J.K. Simmons.) The conversation with Apollo 9 and 15 astronaut Dave Scott is way too brief, although I applaud the decision to allow Scott free rein to discuss the impossibility of Farmer's project. A blooper and outtake reel completes the extra package. As far as the disc's video and audio goes, they're competent but unspectacular. The sprawling Texas vistas look very good, but darker scenes suffer from a bit of softness.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I could write thousands upon thousands of words on the technical inaccuracies, engineering problems, and outright impossibility of virtually everything involving Charlie's space transportation system. Literally. Here's the bottom line: what Charlie does in this film is absolutely, positively impossible. There are at least 30 different places in the course of his construction where Charlie would fail or die or both. At least 30. But then again, Salvage 1's junkyard spaceship defied the very laws of physics, yet that was a pretty good show…
(Do I get any bonus points for a Salvage 1 reference?)
The Astronaut Farmer isn't a great film. But it's a very good film; far better than I expected it to be. Don't judge it by its utterly improbable premise. It's a lot better than that.
Cleared for launch.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• How to Build A Rocket: The Making of The Astronaut Farmer
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