The Astronaut Farmer on DVD
Get ready to suspend your disbelief, if you can, when watching this gentle fantasy about a man who dreams of rocketing into space and will let his family starve to achieve it.
Billy Bob Thornton is Charles Farmer, a farmer who appears to do little farming as his ranch falls into bankruptcy and his reputation loses ever more credibility. You see, he's a failed astronaut but he has never gotten the space bug cured. So he lies to his wife (Virginia Madsen) and kids, putting all his limited resources into building a rocket that, with what appears to be a salvaged Mercury space ship on top of it, will send him to orbit.
Hey, if Ralph Kramden had had such, he could've made good on his blustery threats to Alice!
So he builds a rocket on a comparative shoestring, something that takes NASA's suppliers millions and which still required the private citizens who copped the X prize to put together a team and get sponsorship. The movie alludes to this later on, as Farmer hits up various corporations to get their logo onto his ship, but mostly it's just Farmer procuring the materials (junk?) and putting them together into a very short rocket that, when it flies eventually, appears immune to the laws of physics.
You can see where this is going. It's "Field of Dreams" combined with "The Pursuit of Happyness," and is just plain silly and pretentious. At least "Happyness" was based on a true story, though the movie was just as awful as "Astronaut Farmer".
We're space nuts and we were rooting for this film. But by the time it was about a half hour old it had lost us. There's no logic to it and you never really get to feel for the characters: Farmer's an irresponsible loon who'll sacrifice his family to tilt at his windmill, his family are oblivious stooges and pretty well everyone else is an evil capitalist or evil townsfolk moralizer who want to rain on Farmer's parade – a parade the filmmakers obviously want us to join wholeheartedly.
But we couldn't. Except for having a dream, Farmer does nothing to warm our hearts. His "one man fighting the system" is no Mr. Smith going to Washington or Mr. Deeds going to town. Heck, he isn't even a Ray Kinsella because his dream involves doing a lot more than just bulldozing a field and building a baseball diamond: he puts innocent bystanders at risk from the blast of his home made rocket (which according to the movie doesn't seem to present any fire hazard despite being designed to blast out of a wooden barn!).
Our disbelief refused to be suspended any more after his first attempt goes awry spectacularly and he not only doesn't get arrested or sued, but his understanding wife ponies up the money for him to try, try again. This is just after she learned about his financial mismanagement and bailed him out with the money from her dead husband (played while alive by Bruce Dern, and isn't it nice to see him again?).
Then there's the rocket flight itself, which appears to have been conceived by people who've never watched – let alone built – a real rocket. His launch has him meandering skyward with little acceleration and when he finally fires his retros to slow his flight and drop back toward Earth, the ship starts dropping like a stone immediately.
And isn't it handy that, despite the flight having gone all wrong, he lands just about where he had hoped to, just in time for his family to drive up and collect him.
Please. Even a fantasy needs a reality to be grounded in if the audience is to accept it.
The Astronaut Farmer seems determined to earn the "feel good movie of the year" title, but it takes more than good intentions to do it. Oh, the filmmakers obviously mean well – and isn't that all that matters for so many? – but they need to not insult their viewers' intelligence.
All this said, the cast is very good despite the material they've been given. Thornton doesn't come off as the loon his actions show he is and Madsen plays the loyal wife very well. And Dern's aging father in law is a warm characterization that many who remember his loonier roles might find surprising.
The DVD itself is fine. Our DVD gave us both anamorphic widescreen and Pan&Scan versions on the same disc, and naturally we chose the widescreen version. Picture quality is very good, nice and sharp and colorful. Audio, as is typical of Warners' discs, is offered only in Dolby Digital (no dts) and the quality is fine. We'd have liked to hear a little more LFE channel use during the rocket scenes, but by that time we didn't really care any more anyway.
Extras include a half hour "making of" documentary "How to Build a Rocket", a conversation with real NASA astronaut David Scott and a selection of bloopers.
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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