the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Astronaut Farmer

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

I’ve been a space nut all my life, a passion that has only been fueled by my spouse, who works in the space industry. I came to The Astronaut Farmer — a film about a common man who bucks the system in order to follow his dreams, literally, to the stars — the way a starving man comes to an opulent feast — ravenous and enthusiastic. Add to that, I really like the Polish Brothers’ quirky and idiosyncratic filmmaking (Northfork was an inscrutable mess, but oh what a mess). I couldn’t wait to see what they brought to the story of farmer building a rocket ship out of spare parts in his barn. All the ingredients were perfectly in place.

So why did this film disappoint me so much?

Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) was once on the fast track to outer space. And then, on the cusp of fulfilling his dreams, Farmer voluntarily dropped out of NASA’s astronaut corps to care for his ailing father. The astral opportunity, meanwhile, passes him by. Unwilling to give up on his dream of space travel, Farmer uses his engineering know-how and any spare parts he can scrounge together to begin the ludicrous and audacious project of constructing a rocket in his barn.

Farmer has a very understanding family. At best they believe in his dream and at worst believe in him. His wife, Audie (Virginia Madsen) is a loving and devoted stalwart, only cracking when she discovers that her husband has imperiled their livelihood by putting their family hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt to finance his project. Farmer’s son, Shepherd (Max Thieriot) constitutes Mission Control, run out of a trailer festooned with antennas. And his daughters, Stanley and Sunshine (the Polish brothers’ real life daughters) are his biggest cheerleaders, too young to understand that their father’s dream is beyond preposterous.

The FAA and FBI get wind of Farmer’s plans, and while they don’t believe for a second that the vehicle will ever deliver a man into outer space, they are concerned about a fully fueled rocket constructed out of old ballistic missile parts. They cajole, intimidate and threaten Farmer if he should continue with his plans. While they are intent on shutting him down, the media has turned him into a Don Quixote-esque celebrity, a dreamer tilting at celestial windmills.

The Polish brothers are known for their quirky films (Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot, Northfork) and The Astronaut Farmer seemed to be a perfect fit for their goofy sensibilities. Based on their work to date, one would assume that The Astronaut Farmer would be imbued with a peculiar vision and comic sense of irony. But the longer the film goes on, the more one starts to realize that that irony is never coming. In fact, the most surprising thing about The Astronaut Farmer is how seriously it takes itself. What begins looking like a parody of family oriented, inspirational fare is revealed to be the genuine article, a film that gets more outlandish and less enjoyable the closer Farmer gets to actually blasting off and living his dream.

We should be routing for Farmer and delighted that his dreams are finally becoming a reality, but, instead, the implausibility of the whole thing, the sheer Disneyification of its premise, the Capra-corn nature of its “follow your dreams and never, ever quit” message robs it of any real muscle. This is a sports movie without the sports. Where there should be whimsy, there is only slavish literalism. Where there should have been failure, there is, instead, victory. And The Astronaut Farmer is the poorer for it.

To read the full review, click here.


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