- The Astronaut Farmer (2006) movie review: As a rocket-obsessed Texas rancher, Billy Bob Thornton represents the average all-American dreamer in Michael and Mark Polish’s “inspirational” drama.
The Astronaut Farmer movie review: Audiences invited to dream along with Billy Bob Thornton’s rocket-obsessed Texas rancher
The Astronaut Farmer is considerably more than the story of a guy who builds a rocket. In fact, writer-director Michael Polish and co-screenwriter Mark Polish have concocted a tale about devotion; one in which a man pursues his far-fetched dream at any cost, categorically refusing to let anyone interfere with his plans.
As an unconventional movie built on a conventional premise, The Astronaut Farmer works just fine.
The Polish brothers, whose Twin Falls, Idaho, and Northfork received warm critical praise in some quarters, have crafted an inspiring family adventure tale that is subtle enough to swiftly ensnare audiences of all ages, inviting them to dream along with its protagonist.
Down-to-earth space fantasies
The Astronaut Farmer centers on Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), a small-town Texas rancher and former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who keeps himself busy building a rocket in his barn so as to eventually launch himself into orbit.
His caring wife Audrey (Virginia Madsen) and his three children all stand behind him – at least until they find out that Charles has exhausted the family’s finances to buy fuel for his rocket.
The rancher’s unusual activities also catch the interest of the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, and even of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. After classifying his project as a national security threat, the government tries to shut everything down. Charles stands firm. He hires a lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) whose first move is to attract lots of media attention.
“When I was a kid they used to tell me I could be anything I wanted to be, no matter what,” Charles tells the heads of the FAA at a hearing. The Polish brothers also supply him with an array of thoughtful lines, thus creating a hero that is down-to-earth while (at least some of the time) paradoxically having his head way up in the clouds.
Throughout it all, the filmmakers cleverly dodge corny situations and formulaic dialogue, combining humor, suspense, and tragedy to create a gripping fable.
Billy Bob Thornton, who constantly switches between genres and often plays bad-tempered characters (e.g., Bad Santa), delivers a thoroughly believable performance as the multi-layered, iconoclastic astronut.
As a plus, the ensemble cast shines throughout. Thornton and Virginia Madsen share extraordinary chemistry, while Bruce Dern offers solid support as the grandfather who pays occasional visits to boost Charles’ morale.
On the technical side, David Mullan’s striking cinematography gives the movie its warm atmosphere – though the visual effects needed some extra polish.
Know what you wanna do
Ultimately, The Astronaut Farmer goes one step further than most inspirational mainstream family films – and that is what substantially increases its credibility.
For instance, the Polish brothers never shy away from depicting several fierce confrontations sparked by Farmer’s intransigence. Besides, the story never goes too far over the top despite several surprising twists.
In spite of its routine final act, The Astronaut Farmer brings to life a type of family film that has been long forgotten. This fable of perseverance hits the mark by conveying its message without appealing to narrative clichés or unnecessary schmaltz.
As Farmer wisely puts it, “You better know what you wanna do before somebody knows it for you.” The Polish brothers sure knew what they were doing.
The Astronaut Farmer (2006)
Director: Michael Polish.
Screenplay: Michael & Mark Polish.
“The Astronaut Farmer Movie (2006): ‘Inspirational’ Folksy Fantasy” review text © Franck Tabouring; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“The Astronaut Farmer Movie (2006)” endnotes
Initially screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival (in Northern California) in October 2006, The Astronaut Farmer opened in the United States in February 2007.
Billy Bob Thornton The Astronaut Farmer movie image: Warner Bros.
“The Astronaut Farmer Movie (2006): ‘Inspirational’ Folksy Fantasy” last updated in September 2021.