Throw reason out with the trash, and sit down to a feel-good movie that tries just a little too hard to be quirky. Thatâ€™s your best approach to The Astronaut Farmer, which pits Billy Bob Thornton against all odds to reach outer space by way of his farm-built rocket.
Everyone likes an inspirational story now and then, so Iâ€™m sure this film will find an appreciative audience. For me, there are better choices â€“ say, October Sky, for example. Here, instead of a boy who loves rockets, we have Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob, Sling Blade), a former astronaut who never made it to space. Now heâ€™s trying to get there by himself, having built a rocket from spare parts, a project which has brought him this close to foreclosure on his house, his farm and his family. Though theyâ€™re supportive, even Farmerâ€™s wife and kids have to reach beyond the stars to find the guts and lack of reason to commit to helping their father reach his goal â€“ or bust.
Of course, the authorities arenâ€™t just going to stand by and let this loonie launch into orbit. Once word gets out, in roll the FBI, CIA, NSA, the Federal Aviation Authority and the department of homeland security. Well, maybe not all of the above, but most; itâ€™s hard to tell. In any case, Farmer takes the advice of a pal and plays to the media, which helps him stave off the villainous federal bodies, forcing them to hold a hearing to determine whether Farmer can fly. At the hearing, it becomes clear that the filmmakers are of libertarian bent, when Farmer is asked how the NSA can be sure he hasnâ€™t been building a weapon of mass destruction in his barn. He reply, while humorous, is a bit much: â€œbecause, if Iâ€™d been building WMD, you wouldnâ€™t be able to find it.â€
So whatâ€™s to like about The Astronaut Farmer? Thereâ€™s the inspirational aspect, for one, and the wholesome message of a man showing his children how to never, ever, give up on a dream. The film also has a quirky, playful tone, for at least the first two acts. In the end, things turn much more serious, as the dream of launching into orbit approaches fruition. Oh, and watch for Bruce Willis in an uncredited cameo as an astronaut pal of Farmerâ€™s, who shows up to convince him to quit.
On the negative side, the screenplay resorts to formulaic contrivances more often than not, and the third-act shift into the serious gear doesnâ€™t fly straight and true. Billy Boy is a decent protagonist, but things are unclear on the antagonist front. The feds are caricatures of themselves, and thus lose most of their bite, which leaves only the bank threatening foreclosure and the questionable quality of Mr. Farmerâ€™s rocket. Frankly, thatâ€™s not enough to get me worried about our hero.
So The Astronaut Farmer is plenty inspirational, but you donâ€™t want to watch too closely, or youâ€™ll spoil the whole thing. Just keep your mouth shut and let your kids enjoy it.
The Astronaut Farmer is presented on one disc, in 2.35:1 widescreen format and 1.33:1 full-screen. Your choice, but stay away from full screen if you know whatâ€™s good for you. The transfers are clean, and free of source artifacts or compression issues. Whatâ€™s left is a fairly uninspiring presentation, with naturally dull colours and decent sharpness but very little beauty. Maybe Iâ€™m being picky, but Iâ€™d like to see some inspiring visuals with my heaping helping of inspirational story. Maybe a few splashes of interstellar colour, perhaps?
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is predictable, but solid. Things rev up during launch sequences and other scenes of rocket activity, but otherwise weâ€™re talking dialogue and a paint-by-numbers score. Everything sounds clear, but again, whereâ€™s my inspiration? The presentation is front-heavy, excepting the aforementioned rocket stuff, and my sub only fired up with the afterburners, or whatever theyâ€™re called.
Audio is also available in no other languages, but you can view subtitles in English, French and Spanish.
Like the rest of this disc, The Astronaut Farmerâ€™s bonus material is not out of this world. Space jokes aside, hereâ€™s the countdown:
- Bloopers and outtakes â€“ ah, bloopers. The prospect always seems promising, but so rarely do features of this type actually deliver. This short-ish collection does offer a few chuckles, but nowhere near enough.
- How to Build a Rocket: The Making of The Astronaut Farmer â€“ a run-of-the-mill making-of featurette, this piece treads the usual ground, presenting interviews with cast and crew who spend lots of time praising each other and describing the filmâ€™s story, like we havenâ€™t just watched it.
- A Conversation with NASA Astronaut David Scott â€“ this is the best featurette here, but it falls short in length. Real-life astronaut Scott talks about his experiences in space, and a little bit about the film. Itâ€™s interesting stuff, as far as it goes.
The Astronaut Farmer is pretty forgettable, but definitely worth a rent, especially for families. Itâ€™s clean, inspirational and believable enough if you donâ€™t ask questions. The DVD is just average, so it fits the film like a glove.