Thursday, 10 April 2008

DVD: The Astronaut Farmer

Lowdown: An ordinary farmer on an uplifting quest get himself in orbit.
Films that make you feel good when you watch them are rare nowadays. Speaking for myself, I like that uplifting feeling I get when I watch them, so you can definitely call me a fan. Of the films I classify under this category I would say The Shawshank Redemption is the best of the breed, and if memory serves me right The World’s Fastest Indian was the last of the genre I got to watch. That is, until The Astronaut Farmer came along.
The story behind Astro Farmer is simple. A contemporary Texan farmer, answering to the name Farmer, has built a rocket ship on his own and plans on using it to fly into space on his own. As the film starts the rocket and the plans are all ready and Farmer is just going through the last motions of executing his plan. That, however, is the point in which problems come up: In order to sustain the building of the rocket he has mortgaged his ranch, which is now about to default; the extreme focus on his dream of flying to space and the potential risk to his body and mind is causing rifts in the Farmer family; those surrounding Farmer, including close family and friends but also ex army commanders (Farmer is an ex fighter pilot) don’t really believe in him and his lunatic ideas; and the authorities, in the shape of NASA, the FBI, and the FAA are not that kin on this dude stepping into their domain (either the domain of space travel or the domain of building weapons of mass destruction delivery mechanisms).
The film pits Farmer against all of the above. Farmer is portrayed as a simple and honest person that has people picking on him for no particular reason but also family and friends he gets help from. Coupled with a rather stoic performance by Billy Bob Thornton, one cannot avoid the severe identification syndrome caused by the film as Farmer’s prospects diminish by the minute (despite some comic relief provided by the lackluster FBI ). Thus when the film’s genuine feel good uplifting moments arrive, and rest assured – they do arrive – one cannot but feel, well, uplifted.
As effective as the Astro Farmer is in the uplifting department, there are a few glaring holes in its logic. For a start, there are some basic script problems. That is, certain things just work out miraculously well for our hero. I won’t elaborate because I don’t want to be accused of spoiling the film for anyone, but let’s just say that the disappearance of the press and the authorities at certain key moments sure makes life easy for Farmer.
The more annoying problem is with what Astro Farmer is trying to say. It starts nicely as a film that tells us we shouldn’t always listen to what people are telling us we should do and we should not always do what we are expected to do; instead, we should take control over ourselves. In the age of conformism at all costs, as represented by Disney and many others (say, through the High School Musical franchise), having a film urging people to think for themselves is a positive. However, the film quickly deteriorates into a film about achieving one’s dreams and holding on to the hope of achieving one’s dreams despite all signs telling the hero to lose hope. Unlike The Shawshank Redemption, the dream here does not involve regaining one’s freedom that was wrongly deprived, but rather achieving a pretty selfish act (a quickie in space). This means that while Shawshank Redemption is a film about the human spirit in general, Astro Farmer is a film about achieving the impossible, or in other words – yet another film about that miraculous concept called the American Dream. As much as achieving the American Dream is nice and all, the agenda pushed by the film – that anyone can do it if they really put their minds to it – is simply wrong. For a start, although Farmer is portrayed as a simple farmer, he is not that much of a simpleton; he is an almost ex astronaut, which means he is well trained, and he also has some significant engineering skills to be able to construct a worthy rocket. No one I know can boast either of these skills. Now you go and tell the Sudanese refugee starving in the middle of nowhere that they can achieve anything they set their minds to achieve!
The problem is that any further attempts to impress upon people the agenda of “anything is possible if you want it enough” will actually depress them when their lives don’t turn out as flashy as Farmer’s despite the best of their intentions. Then, in order to continue the rolling of society’s wheels, propaganda films along the lines of Astro Farmer would be required in order to continue the public’s mass delusion. In other words, Astro Farmer is a film generated in order to sustain an unsustainable concept.
Last, but not least, there is some aroma of chauvinism in the film. All the glorious things are done exclusively by men, while the few women are only there to take care of the kids.
Best scene: I liked it when Farmer takes his son out of school so the son can help Farmer along with the last of the rocket preparations. The teacher complains to Farmer that the kid is in the middle of studying history, and Farmer answers back that they are not studying history but rather studying how to read history. The scene demonstrates what my main quarrel with conventional education is and why I have lost most of my faith in it; it also adds tons of roundness to the development of Farmer’s film character.
Picture quality: Compression artifacts and dreadful color fidelity.
Sound quality: Pretty boring for most of the film, but the uplifting moments are well designed to uplift. It’s a pity that in order to emphasize those key moments the rest of the film had to suffer.
Overall: Astro Farmer has its deficiencies, but I have my own deficiencies and one of them is being a sucker for the feel good movie. A mediocre film that earns 4 out of 5 stars from me.


Uri said...

The message of the film is that if you try hard enough, if you really make an effort, it’s more important than any intelligence or talent.
You’d understand it better if you’d read more Scientific American articles.

BTW, do you remember Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky?

Moshe Reuveni said...

I accept your criticism: too many of my recent posts are to do with Scientific American articles. The reason for that is simple: In a routine where my day is made of work, looking after Dylan, and then a couple of hours for myself/ourselves before going to bed stupidly tired, excitement is lacking. Sciam does fill the gap, to one extent or another: I read it regularly over lunch at work (mainly because it's hard to keep a book open while eating but it's easy to do the same with a magazine). Thus Sciam is the closest I get to out-worldly experiences.

As for Astro Farmer.
I agree with your point about the film's message. I think I even said the same thing, albeit using different wording. There are a couple of "buts", though:
1. There is a significant non-conformism element to the film (as demonstrated by the scene I picked as best).
2. The notion that enough effort can take you out of this world and all it takes is enough trying is wishful thinking propaganda. As I have said, a Sudanese refugee will never become an astronaut no matter how hard he/she tries; it's to do with their circumstances. And as I have already said, I don't know anyone who can go out to space on their own, no matter how much effort they put into it; I suspect that is exactly why Astro Farmer never delved into the mechanics of building the rocket and its guiding systems and solved the flying part by making the hero a fighter pilot.

Finally, I don't recall the Heinlein book. What is it called in Hebrew?

Uri said...

something like "towards the 21st century" (''El HaMe'a Ha-21'').
A teenager and his family move to Jupiter’s moon Ganymede to become farmers.

Moshe Reuveni said...

There's a ring of familiarity to it, but just a simple ring (say, one of the Dwarf Lords' seven).