The Astronaut Farmer
How can a movie go wrong in so many ways? It’s about a man building his own spaceship and taking off into the unknown. There must be a good story in there—I ought to know, I wrote one. But this ain’t it. I’d usually insert a spoiler warning here, since I’m going to give it all away, but I’ll just give a WARNING instead: Don’t bother with this movie! Here’s why:
Billy Bob Thornton is a frustrated ex-engineer who washed out of the astronaut program. Now he’s building a rocket in his barn and intends to blast himself into orbit. “Blast” is the key word here, too. While it probably is possible to assemble a decent rocket from the cast-off junk of the space program (though not one with enough thrust to put you into orbit), you’d think he’d at least want to test the engines before taking off. He doesn’t. He might give little thought to what’s going to happen to the barn he built it in when he lights those candles (hint: burnt toothpicks), but that’s okay; in this universe, he blasts off not once, but twice, and the wooden barn is unharmed. The rocket he’s building is an Atlas, which is what John Glenn and later Mercury astronauts rode. The problem is fuel. He tries to get “high-grade rocket fuel,” whatever that is, and brings the Feds down on him, because they think (reasonably enough) that he might be building a big bomb. A rocket engine is a big bomb, a controlled explosion, as NASA learned to its sorrow in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, when all our rockets blew up. Or most of them, anyway. There’s a thousand things that can go wrong. Then he decides to use kerosene and hydrazine. Hydrazine is one of the reasons the first people to approach a landed shuttle are wearing hazmat suits. It is extremely toxic, it’s difficult to store … not the sort of stuff you’d want within ten miles of your family. But Billy Bob manages it. (What Atlas rockets actually used was kerosene and liquid oxygen, which you don’t keep in old milk cans, either.) His first launch is a failure, the rocket tips over and shoots along the ground, nearly killing a lot of people gathered around, and nearly killing him, too … but he’s okay, and so is the rocket! Just set that sucker upright again and give it another shot! Idiocy piles on idiocy, and believe me, I’ve only scratched the surface, I could write pages and pages …
But that’s just the scientific howlers. Next we get to the political stuff. The government is the bad guy here, naturally, and while I’m no fan of the gov, it is useful for some things, such as keeping a stupid monomaniac from launching a rocket over populated areas from Central Texas to Washington D.C., according to the trajectory we see. Most likely it would blow up on the pad, but there’s a reason we put our launch pads at Cape Canaveral: Your mistakes drop in the drink, not in downtown Sioux City. But these Feds are portrayed as mindless bureaucrats whose only intent is to keep a dreamer from his dream. In addition, the head of the FAA is obsessed with the idea that the government must be sure no private citizen every succeeds at a home-built project like this: “It would make us look stupid.” Well, whoever wrote this shit, wake up! NASA is paying out good money to a lot of small rocket ventures these days. They’re encouraging it. They’d have paid Burt Rutan, except he didn’t want the money. But these government people are so bad they deny a launch ever took place, and it’s implied that they even tried to wreck his electronics, which would certainly kill him.
But that’s just the scientific and political stupidity. Could it get even more fucked up? Yes, easily. There’s the human side of the story. We’re supposed to be rooting for this guy. But in the first ten minutes we learn that he’s on the edge of bankruptcy. Nothing matters to him but his cockamamie “dream.” Not his family’s welfare, the loss of everything they own. He heaves a brick through the bank’s window when they won’t loan him any more money. The only reason he can go ahead is that his wife’s father dies (Bruce Dern, playing a cranky old codger, only there to jerk a tear … but by the time he died I had forgotten he was even living with them, he appears so infrequently) and leaves her some money she can invest in his dream. He is a narcissistic and depressive personality, and a bit of a whiner, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d killed his family and then himself. He’s totally without charm, and this story should have been blown up by the range safety officer before it ever left the launch pad.
Damn it, if you are telling a story about a crazy man with a dream, you have to like him. This script, and Billy Bob’s performance, gives me nothing to like. This sort of thing can work, on a magical level. See Field of Dreams. Or it can work on a down-to-earth level. See The World’s Fastest Indian, or Danny Deckchair. The story of a man who wants to blast off on his own home-made rocket could have worked, on either of these levels, or on an allegorical one, but not here.