I recently rented the movie “The Astronaut Farmer” starring Billy Bob Thornton, thinking this movie about a guy who builds his own rocket in his backyard had the potential to be a good Maker movie. It had the making of a decent DIY setup, like “The World’s Fastest Indian.” Yet this movie turned out to be nothing but ridiculous, defining a new category for space junk. I should have known as much when the movie opened with a grown man (Thornton) riding a horse on a Texas ranch while wearing an astronaut suit. Hey, I walked around in a cowboy outfit when I was five, and I watched all the astronauts go into space on TV, and I can see how someone might be completely infatuated with being an astronaut. I wish the movie was a fantasy. It might have had some charm, like Edward Scissorhands, but it wants us to take this rancher named Charles Farmer seriously.
Because he’s a dreamer. Farmer is ready to sacrifice everything for his dream. This former astronaut who left the program to be with his family is actually building the rocket to take him into space — and he’s doing it for them, his family. He’s willing to bet the ranch. He has built an Atlas-class rocket in his barn, which is right next to his house. On top is a space capsule just like a Gemini capsule. He tells a government agency that he grew up believing he could do anything he dreamed of, and he’s going to do it. All by himself.
Building and launching a rocket into space is hardly a DIY project but Farmer is doing it without seeking the help of friends or supporters or experts. He might have been an astronaut (and no monkey) but does he really have the right stuff to build a rocket himself? We’re asked to give him the benefit of the doubt. His mission controller is his son, who is fifteen, and the equipment itself looks older than anything used in mission control. When Farmer finally does blast off, it should torch the barn and the house but it doesn’t because it’s CGI. He doesn’t even tell anyone he’s doing it, not even his son. The first launch ends up as a horrible mess with the rocket careening out of control. The crash should have killed him but he survives more like Wile E. Coyote than a human being. Once he wakes up in the hospital, he’s completely healed. On his second attempt, in a new rocket named Dreamer, Farmer is successful but his son is so tired while Dad’s in orbit that he has to take a nap. When Farmer lands the space capsule at the end — after eight orbits of the earth, he parachutes to a hard landing on the Texas desert — his family knows just where to find him with the Chevy Suburban and pick him up. It’s contrived and preposterous. There’s not a single serious technical detail in the movie, no pretense to making this story credible.
This kind of movie gives dreamers a bad name but it doesn’t matter — the makers of “The Astronaut Farmer” got it all wrong.