Background: For generations now, astronauts have been one of the archetypal heroes of our culture as they brave the unexplored frontiers of space using the cutting edge of technology. Some might say that the "Space Race" was merely an offshoot of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and United States of America but it was a lot more than that to hear the words of John F. Kennedy so many years ago. Until recently, most astronauts were highly skilled military personnel (typically men though that has been changing) that endured rigorous training via the NASA space center located here in Houston, TX; essentially a small cadre of officers in one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, but if you're lucky enough, a few civilians have made it too. As with any dream shared by millions of people that only a few can share, this sets the stage for a cute little drama coming out on Tuesday called The Astronaut Farmer, starring Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie Farmer, a man with a plan to go to space.
Movie: The Astronaut Farmer is a quirky little feature using the TV movie-of-the-week dynamic to show Charlie attempting to live his dream after having given it up years earlier in order to save his family farm. His father had medical troubles and he did what he thought was the right thing, forgetting that the high pressure demands and extremely competitive nature of the program moved on without him. His training aside, he struggles for decades to revive his dream by building a working rocketship in his barn using parts from an old salvage yard that is conveniently located nearby (this is set in Texas and everyone knows we have such salvage yards all over the place, brimming with working components built to last 30+ years in the elements).
His wife and three children are supportive of his efforts, all of them playing a game around the dinner table to punctuate the idea of going to space each night, and while his wife (played by Virginia Madsen) is given to skeptical looks, she clearly adores him in all the usual ways. Farmer rides his horse around his spread wearing his astronaut suit, even making it to the local elementary school where a teacher applauds his willingness to wear such a thing to inspire the youth to dream, showing her outsider status since everyone else in town is quite aware of Charlie's dream; including the bank that holds the mortgage on the farm. The problem the bank has is that Charlie is months behind on his payments, apparently spending more time obsessing over his rocket than tending the immediate needs of running a farm (which is never really shown growing anything and Charlie's sole handyman, an illegal immigrant, doesn't seem to be much for farming either). This sets in motion a timeline that propels the movie at an accelerated rate since Charlie is given 30 days to come up with the impossible amount of money to pay off the note.
The timeline isn't the only trouble Charlie has though since the government is concerned about the effects of Charlie's project too. His need for 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel sparks a warning that travels all the way to Washington DC and agents are sent to check up on the man. The government also sends a charismatic former astronaut in the form of Bruce Willis with the name Doug Masterson (notable if you watch a similar themed movie called Iron Eagle where the lead's name is almost identical) in order to persuade Charlie that they might be able to arrange a space shuttle ride for him in the future if he gives up the project. He rejects the offer after the public relations aspect and other implications are discussed, the resulting conversation turning chilly when Doug explains how willing some would be to take drastic measures to impose a final solution on the pioneer. A visit from Child Protective Services to his wife's workplace at a local diner shows the governmental willingness to explore a variety of less drastic measures to get their way too, giving her the newfound idea that maybe Charlie needs to abandon his dream after all.
The needed hearing set up at a local high school auditorium between Charlie and his small town lawyer against the agents of major governmental bodies in order to get the proper permits is similarly flawed in that it is set up within days; though the stall tactic is appreciated as another means to wait Charlie out. If the government had been serious, especially under the current administration, all the press in the world would not have stopped them from coming in and ending it by seizing the rocket and Charlie both; sending them off to who knows where with the caveat offered up that in post 911 USA, all bets are off as to potential threats (made by one of the many bit players in the show). In the make believe world of The Astronaut Farmer though, this simply causes Charlie to launch prematurely to disastrous results, though no one is hurt but Charlie (part of the fantasy forces the movie to keep the hope alive). His dream ended, he and the family face various other problems though manage to pull through for a second attempt; albeit an even less believable shot given the meager financing and now trashed rocket that took him decades to build.
There are a lot of dreamer movies around and as escapist fantasies they are limited but still fun for children and others of limited mental means but this one was about as shallow as a puddle in most ways. Charlie is initially portrayed as a nutcase obsessed with a dream of space and then the movie switches gears to show him as a credible pioneer able to advance his cause using his untrained family as his crew (his oldest son still in high school and the lead member). With no visible means of support given the state his farm is in and mounting debts, his ability to assemble the rocket is as unlikely as the willingness of the agents to play the foils with numerous missed opportunities by the writers to explore some of the serious issues in favor of a "feel good" movie of questionable merit (with jabs at the administration showing a decidedly left of center political agenda). Most of the acting was as wooden as the stodgy lines providing little realistic responses, Madsen reduced to the crying wife/near widow before the second section is over.
I appreciate that there is a market for tripe such as this little melodrama and Billy Bob Thornton was his usual offbeat self for the fans to appreciate but it would take hours to detail all that was wrong with The Astronaut Farmer from the concept to the execution to the directing faux pas that suffice it to say, a thinking audience should consider this a Skip It and those wanting pure escapist drivel should rush right out and get a copy. It's one thing to elevate the status of the pioneer who pushes the limits of science and exploration but when it's done so ham handedly as this one, you really have to shake your head. Here's what the back of the box cover said if you're still interested:
"All systems are "Go" for Charles Farmer. He's faced bank foreclosure, neighborhood naysayers and a government alarmed by his huge purchase of high-grade fuel, but now he's ready to blast into space inside the homemade rocket he built in his barn. Just be home in time for dinner, Charlie. Billy Bob Thornton portrays Charlie in this charmer about chasing dreams...and about what it means to be a family. 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel alone can't lift Charlie into the heavens. He needs a launch/recovery crew, and he has one of the best: his wife (Virginia Madsen) and children, dreamers all. They have liftoff. Our spirits have uplift. Gravity cannot hold down our dreams. The Astronaut Farmer is that kind of movie."
Picture: The Astronaut Farmer was presented on a dual sided DVD with a full frame, 1.33:1 ratio version on one side, and the original 2.35:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen version on the other. For the purposes of this review, I watched the OAR version and it was pretty decent if unexceptional. The fleshtones were solid and the amount of visual flaws seemed minimal, almost as if the movie was made for a quick viewing on the Disney Channel. The special effects, from the first launch, were a bit too animated and unrealistic but not so over the top as they could have been given the sappy sentimentality of the screenplay. I saw no obvious compression artifacts and the levels of grain in some of the establishing shots seemed to be there naturally as if intended. The editing and other technical matters were low end too but never particularly bold and creative as some of the director's previous movies have been, almost as if this was a movie made to pay the rent while waiting for the next cult hit.
Sound: The audio was presented with 5.1 Dolby Digital English, adding in optional subtitles in English, Spanish, and French for those who care. The clarity of the vocals was always pretty decent but the use of the surrounds came into play very rarely; leaving most of the audio strictly sourced out on the center channel. I can only remember two times when the back channels came into play and that was during the rocket launches so don't expect much more of the audio (which fit with the thematic mangling of the concept I suppose). The music sounded canned and uninspired with the dynamic range akin to some of the cable movie of the week presentations that no one ever seems to care about; marking the audio as a place where the production appears to have saved some money.
Extras: There were some bloopers and outtakes that really didn't impress me much. Coming in at under ten minutes, they showed the cast having some fun but this was weak compared to similar releases these days (maybe there will someday be a "high in the sky" edition for collector's that adds more in). The best extra of the lot was a featurette called How To Build A Rocket: The Making of The Astronaut Farmer. It lasted about a half hour and managed to provide a cross section of the cast and production crew with some astronauts added in to boost credibility of the project (though it didn't). I actually found the feature to be more interesting than the movie itself, something that is not a good sign if you catch my drift, though I must have missed the explanation of Bruce Willis' missing credits in the movie). Lastly, there was a very brief conversation with astronaut David Scott who gave me the impression that the movie should have been sub-labeled "A spaceflight fable" or something similar in his slightly smug manner.
Final Thoughts: The Astronaut Farmer was a lame flick for me since I was expecting something more in tune with the realities of space flight and got the tear jerker movie of the week instead. Charlie Farmer was a poorly written character with all the usual monologues about conquering space and making dreams come true, jammed too tightly together to come off as anything other than preachy. The two dimensional characters comprising the leads were better than the one dimensional snips make at the rest of the cast but if the movie was truly knocked out in a very quickly paced time frame, it's easy to understand why this would be so. If you really set your sights low enough to enjoy this one, by all means empty your head and consider it a popcorn flick with a lot of dead space where you can make out with your significant other on the couch but don't expect The Astronaut Farmer to soar like a rocket given the many flaws it possessed.