I absolutely LOVE this movie and I feel it’s a shame that more people haven’t seen it. It’s unclassifiable, it’s overwhelmingly gorgeous, it has a great message, Billy Bob Thornton was wonderful in the title role, and the directing from Michael Polish was straight-forward effective and extremely sincere. Was it the odd-sounding title or the barely noticeable advertising? I’m not too sure that people are into “honest charm” anymore – this is a movie that would have felt at home back in the 1950’s. But at the same time, it recalls such classics as Field of Dreams, telling a story of obsession, dedication, and perseverance against great odds, set against the backdrop of something totally fantastical yet oddly tangible. Thornton plays a daydreaming Texas rancher who decides to plunk all of his money into the construction, and hopeful launch, of his own private rocket up into outer space, thus realizing his life-long dream of becoming an astronaut. But once the government catches wind of a private citizen trying to procure rocket fuel, all hell breaks loose, a media storm is created, and a celebrity is created overnight. The Astronaut Farmer is one of the least cynical movies that I can think of, and it seems a minor miracle that it was actually funded by a major studio; it feels like the sort of movie that a writer would be laughed out of pitch over if they suggested it today.
The supporting cast is superb – Virginia Madsen as Thornton’s loving and supportive wife, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson, co-writer Mark Polish, Jon Gries, J.K. Simmons, and an uncredited Bruce Willis – with everyone getting a chance to create a fully-fleshed character that contributes something important to the narrative. And on a technical level, the film is absolutely radiant, with Michael Bay-esque saturated colors being employed by Polish and his creative cinematographer M. David Mullen; the artists playfully subvert expectations and use the dusty backdrops in ways you might not imagine, while taking full advantage for the possibility or two for a glorious sunset in anamorphic widescreen. The slick and peppy editing by James Haygood keeps the entire film moving along gracefully, with scenes playing out for maximum emotional impact without ever becoming cloying. Toss in a warm musical score from Stuart Matthewman and truly spectacular production design by Clark Hunter and art director James F. Oberlander and the aesthetic package is completely sealed. Despite not making a dent in the box office and sort of being shrugged off by most critics, I think The Astronaut Farmer is one of the best family films that families have probably never seen together, and I absolutely can’t wait for my son Owen to experience this wonderful little movie. Hopefully a Blu-ray upgrade occurs in the future. It’s literally impossible not to smile after watching this gem.