Directed by: Michael Polish
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Max Thieriot, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson
A lot of reviewers have made a big deal about the preposterousness of The Astronaut Farmer, with one critic saying that this is obviously something that could only be concocted in Hollywood. Using this as a way of detracting from the film is missing the point, because that is the point. The film is very much set in the cockle-warming mindset that has been utilized and abused in Hollywood for decades, and the makers wear this fact on their sleeves. Does this make The Astronaut Farmer a great movie? No, not by any means. But it also doesn’t make it a bad film. Director Michael Polish and his brother and writing partner, Mark, have made what amounts to a nice little film about following your dreams. The duo has no other aspiration than that, nothing more nothing less.
Yes, the idea of a farmer—named Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton)—building a rocket in the barn of his ranch is ridiculous. And there are other slightly less absurd plot points, as well. However, the film never stops to question any of them. By the film’s own internal logic, it is completely feasible that a man with experience in aerospace engineering from 30 years ago can build a spaceship out of used rocket parts, and finance it simply by mortgaging his farm. No one on-screen ever challenges these assumptions, or questions anything other than the idea of going into space by oneself. Everything is done in such a straight-faced manner that it somehow manages to work as a whole.
On the downside, for a film with such an off-kilter premise, it has the distinct problem of being too traditional and predictable. Aside from the fact that they show you the climax in the trailer, the film is too set in its wholesome “overcoming all odds” mindset that every subplot and every character’s fate is quite obvious and set in stone from the beginning. After losing his wedding ring in the rocket’s capsule, at what opportune time will Farmer find it again? What will happen to the genteel grandfather (Bruce Dern)? So much of the film is so painfully obvious, from the heavy-handedness in which the film’s message of following one’s dreams is handled, to the generic government bad guys who want to stop Farmer, to the choice of the Elton John song on the credits, that you more or less spend the entire movie waiting to see which clichéd plot points are going to show up first.
The direction is capable, as it’s never too flashy to be distracting or too boring to make the audience lose interest—though a lot of the special effects do feel extremely dated and awkward. Thornton does a good job of making the character of Farmer likable, despite the fact that he’s a selfish man who has pulled his kids out of school to build a rocket, and has nearly made his family homeless at the expense of his own, very singular aspirations. In the end, the movie is a decent, though forgettable diversion, that doesn’t come off as preachy or as treacly as most other films of this type have a tendency to do. Rated PG for thematic material, peril and language.
— reviewed by Justin Souther