The Astronaut Farmer (film, 2008)

From Death Ray 12. Oddly, although I didn’t rate this film very highly, it’s stuck with me for some reason.



Director: Michael Polish

Written by: Michael Polish and Mark Polish

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Dern, Max Thierot, Bruce Willis

 Schmaltzy American movie in set in that peculiar world where even the most unlikely dreams can come true.

Films about men fulfilling cherished, unrealistic ambitions against all the odds have a long and gooey history in cinema. And we say men because somehow I don’t think your average woman would gamble her home, business, marriage, life and family on a ridiculous engineering project. Tinkering with dangerous bits of metal in a dirty shed is the province of the autistic male.

Charles Farmer, who left NASA’s astronaut training scheme to save the family farm, still nurtures the dream of going into space, to the extent of building his own rocket. But when he finished it and places an order for hazardous fuel, the FBI come a-calling, and it looks like Charlie will stay forever grounded.

These films work best under a few rarefied circumstances. If the story is a true one it helps, as in the excellent The World’s Fastest Indian, for example. Or if it is truly far-fetched, like Field of Dreams. The Astronaut Farmer isn’t either of these things. When you watch a film about kids getting up to this kind of thing, it feels good, a realisation of future potential and imagination. When grown men do this, it looks like an abandonment of responsibility. You want to shake Farmer and tell him to stop mooning over his lost boyhood desires before he loses his perfectly decent adult life. Of course, it doesn’t happen this way, his wife unrealistically (see above) stands by his compulsion when it risks everything the family has. We all need dreams, but this guy’s a nutcase who only succeeds because the script says he does.

A paean to all of yesterday’s Americas (British films on this theme tend to feature more prosaic goals, like growing a prize-winning marrow), where farmers could break the turf of new frontiers and the members of white-bread, nuclear families stood lovingly by each other, The Astronaut Farmer is schmaltz that runs exactly to the format scriven in screenwriting manuals. It’s well-made, but predictability is the real sin of this film, partly because it makes its crass emotional manipulation all the more obvious. Failure to launch.

Did you know?

The story has a real life parallel. US toy maker Brian Walker built a rocket to launch himself 50 miles into the air, but secured neither the fuel nor the permission necessary to get it off the ground.


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