Saturday, February 24, 2007

Movie Review: The Astronaut Farmer

"The Astronaut Farmer" would be Robert Heinlein's favorite movie. It's a story that isn't told often enough... in fact I've never read this story exactly. Similar stories, but they all end differently. More on that in a bit.

Billy Bob Thorton (it's hard to take anyone named Billy Bob seriously) plays Charles Farmer, a rancher who used to be on the track to the space program. When his father died he had to take time off to help the family deal with that. NASA figured the fact that he chose family over the program meant that he wasn't serious about being an astronaut and retired him.
Here it is, an unknown number of years later and he's built a rocket in his barn. He plans to do one orbit around the Earth and land in the pond in his back yard. When he goes to order the rocket fuel the government finally takes him seriously and comes to stop him.
The movie covers how he got the material, the problems he has with the bank having spent every extra dime and then some on the rocket, the lesson about never giving up your dreams, the government trying to stop him, and the issues with the neighbors who laugh much the way Noah's neighbors did as he built the Ark.

One variation I read was from one of the many old comics of the "Tales From the Crypt" genre in the 50's. In that one the farmer took his whole family in the rocket and from the inside it simulated a rocket launch with video screens showing the stars and planets. But in truth they never left the ground.

The one that I'm most reminded of is from the second of a Robert Heinlein two parter. The first story was "The Man Who Sold The Moon" and tells of Delos David Harriman who wanted so much to go to The Moon that he used his whole fortune to build a private space program. But in the end his business partners think it's too risky to allow him to go on the first rocket launch and keep him on Earth. He watches the launch and then gets back to business. It's kind of heartbreaking. It also has some interesting parallels with Sir Richard Branson and his drive to make space tourism a reality from Virgin Galactic's spaceport in New Mexico.
The second story, "Requiem", takes place many years after "The Man Who Sold The Moon". Harriman is now an old man who despite making it so trips to The Moon are commonplace has yet to be able to go himself. So he gets a couple of astronauts and together they secretly build a rocket in a barn. The secret only lasts so long and then everyone is trying to stop him. Relatives, business partners, the government, and his doctors. He's just too old and frail to make the trip. Still, they finally take off and make it to The Moon some distance from a spaceport. But the stress kills Harriman and he dies happy resting on a boulder on the surface of The Moon.
Both stories are heart wrenching tales in much the same way "The Astronaut Farmer" is.

It's a great date movie. I will definitely get this on DVD.

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