STUDIO: Warner
MSRP: $27.95
RUNNING TIME: 104 min.
• Widescreen/Fullscreen option
How to Build a Rocket
• Conversation with NASA Astronaut David Scott
• Bloopers and Outtakes

The Pitch

“What if Don Quixote had the Right Stuff?”

The Humans

Billy Bob Thornton (Pushing Tin), Virginia Madsen (Creator), Bruce Dern (After Dark, My Sweet), Tim Blake Nelson (Cherish), J.K. Simmons (The Mexican), Richard Edson (Let It Ride), John Gries (Napoleon Dynamite), Julie White (Transformers)

The Nutshell

When small-town family man Charles (Thornton) attempts to acquire a large quantity of high-grade fuel for undisclosed purposes, the authorities express concern. Turns out he’s trying to realize his dream of space travel, and to that end has built an Atlas rocket in his barn. Where were the Feds when he was apparently cornering the civilian market in titanium? We’ll never know—that all happened before the movie starts.

In Charles’ corner: his loving, sexy wife (Madsen); his adoring kids; and their lefty lawyer (Nelson). Standing in the way of all that’s cool and fun, and generally being big meanies: the head of the FAA (Simmons) and real-deal NASA jockey Eddie (a certain uncredited Armageddon co-star).

Will Charles achieve his goal? Or will he lose everything in pursuit of his ideals? Whose movie do you think this is—his or yours?

"I loved you in Ratatouille!"

The Lowdown

Before I watched this film I kind of knew I was going to have to be mean to it. Writer/director brothers Mark and Michael Polish have been mining a peculiar, precious vein of earnest literalism for a while now. Their first feature was called Twin Falls Idaho, and if memory serves, it was indeed about two twins, falling in love with a girl I can only assume was Da Ho. Another flick, Northfork, benefited from a slightly more cryptic title but suffered from a deluge of magic realism— near as I could tell every single character in that film was supposed to be an angel, with the possible exception of a character named Willis O’Brien. And he never did anything useful like, say, sculpt a Gwangi, so what was the point there?

So when I saw there was a new Polish Bros movie out called The Astronaut Farmer I said to myself, "I suspect this film will be about a farmer who’s also an astronaut," but to then discover that his ACTUAL NAME is ‘Farmer’? I think that’s genuinely worse than Poetic Justice.

Get it? Space? Because the movie’s about a guy who wants to go into space.

Those crafty Polish dudes saw me coming, though. There’s no way to criticize their film without playing into the ‘you probably didn’t clap for Tinkerbell either’ trap. I’ll say this: The movie is not conventional. Forget tropes like foreshadowing, motivation, even character establishment—they’re not here, and it seems the Brothers intended it that way; for their tale to simply exist, fully formed, on its own terms. There’s something honorable in that, and after all they did somehow parlay their Hollywood connections and minor art-house rep into doing this picture as a high-gloss theatrical release with name actors. So, okay—somebody’s actually living their dream and how can I say that’s unrealistic?

Cynic that I am, though, I find it discomforting that the movie provides so little conflict for its hero. There’s a corker of an ‘all is lost’ second-act curtain, but we never for a moment believe that all is, in fact, lost. The film flirts with realistic threats ranging from bankruptcy to military intervention, then waves them away with its magic wand. Because if history has taught us anything in the last six years, it’s that small groups of motivated individuals will always triumph against monolithic institutions. Especially where a couple tons of flammable gas are involved.

"Why does everyone keep asking if I like it Sideways?"

The Package

The Astronaut Farmer is presented on a flipper disc, with the movie in anamorphic ‘scope on Side A and standard pan-and-scan on Side B. M. David Mullen’s cinematography, which recalls Caleb Deschanel’s work on The Right Stuff, is obviously best-represented on the former.

How to Build a Rocket does not in fact depict in the rocket-building events absent from the film; rather, it’s the usual collection of cast and crew mutually congratulating each other, with the difference being that they really seem to have enjoyed themselves. The David Scott interview is notable for being the only evidence of NASA cooperation with the production.

"Hang on up there, honey. This baby’s got some kick."

7 out of 10