by RISHI AGRAWAL
Perhaps The Astronaut Farmer could have worked as a surrealistic, dreamlike fantasy. The Polish Brothers got their big break in 2003 with the incomprehensible Northfork. If they could have combined their striking cinematic visuals and fable-like tone of Northfork with the narrative structure of The Astronaut Farmer, perhaps we could have had a really good film. Unfortunately, their latest film tries to stay grounded in some kind of reality, which is why the film didn’t work for me.
Billy Bob Thornton plays a rancher named Charles Farmer who builds a rocket in his barn in order to fulfill his dream of going into space. Strangely enough, his wife (Virginia Madsen) seems supportive of this idea and he even gets his kids involved. This of course leads to financial difficulties, not to mention catching the interest of the government, who wants to put a stop to Farmer launching into space.
The movie tries to ground itself in reality, rather than trying to be a fantasy. Farmer is a former aerospace engineer, and was training to become an astronaut before he had to drop out when his father died. The movie shows us a junkyard for old spaceships, apparently where NASA disposes of their refuse, in case we wonder where Farmer got his parts. (I would love to see an episode of Junkyard Wars set there – the winner is the first to get into space!) The Polish Brothers did everything they could to make it semi-plausible that Farmer could eventually launch his spaceship.
Now, here’s the problem. If the movie is going to try to make the scenario believable, then we start to question every turn the movie makes. We cannot sympathize with Farmer, but we must sympathize with his naysayers who think that he is crazy. Farmer isn’t even a particularly likable character, prone to fits of anger at the smallest provocation. For example, Farmer has gone into massive debt trying to finance his folly. When the bank sends him a foreclosure notice, he responds by throwing a brick through the bank window.
Why would Farmer’s wife support his dream of going into space, at least at first? And why would Farmer still want to launch into space, even though he is risking life, limb, family and everything he owns? The film only offers the thin excuse that we must keep reaching for our dreams.
In case I have not dissuaded you from seeing this movie, I will refrain from discussing the end of the film. Let me assure you though, if you think the beginning is hokey, things just go from bad to worse. I will say, however, if the point of the film is that we should work hard to achieve our dreams, serendipity should not enter the equation.
The logic of the film doesn’t fly when our dreams are unrealistic. Though the film might disagree, I think there are definitely worse things than not achieving one’s dreams. One of those things is false hope. For example, the Polish Brothers probably one day hope to make a good movie. Unfortunately, this is a completely impossible goal for them. Perhaps they should try to climb Mt. Everest instead.
1 1/2 stars