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The Astronaut Farmer is a quirky film that tells the story of a Texas family man who has an insatiable longing to visit outer space. His dreams (aided by an aeronautical engineering degree) lead him to construct a rocket in his barn with the help of his fifteen-year-old son and the slightly skeptical support of his wife, Audie (Virginia Madsen). Despite near financial ruin and the very real possibility of repossession of his house by the bank, this family man pushes himself, and his family, to the limits in an unrelenting pursuit of his dream.
A most interesting point that is not readily apparent until after watching the film is the irony of its title. Prior to viewing it, I assumed that “Farmer” referred to the occupation of the main character, which it does. But it also, more importantly in fact, is a reference to his last name. Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thorton) is a farmer by trade, but an astronaut by desire. He is, in reality, “Farmer: The Astronaut.” This is a major component of the film that is emphasized over and over again and is not to be missed. In fact, names play an integral part of the story in The Astronaut Farmer. Charlie’s son is named Shepard, as in Alan Shepard, the first American and second person to go into space. His youngest daughter is named Sunshine, and his middle child is named Stanley, as in Stanley Kubrick, the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This may seem like a stretch until we look at Audie’s father’s name, Hal, as in HAL, the villainous computer from 2001. Audie’s own name may come from Audie Murphy, the World War 2 hero and film star. After the war, Murphy bought his sister a home in Farmersville, Texas. Not sure of the significance of this, if any, but it is quite interesting if nothing else. Finally, Charlie’s friends and family almost never call him by his first name; he is simply “Farmer” to them. This becomes something of an albatross that he wears everywhere he goes in his hometown. His passion and need to get into outer space is not shared or understood by those closest to him, so the townsfolk view him as an oddity of sorts.
The Christian doctrine of “calling” or “vocation” is very much in view in The Astronaut Farmer. We learn throughout the course of the film that Charlie had been on the fast track to becoming a NASA astronaut, but was sidelined when his father died. Charlie chose family over career, so his dream of becoming an astronaut was buried in the ground xalong with his father’s casket. But his desire remained. Although he physically left the aeronautical world for the terrestrial world of agriculture, his heart never left the skies. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin emphasized two callings on the individual Christian’s life. The first was a general calling to glorify God, while the second was a particular calling to use the gifts and talents that God gave to each individual in order to fulfill the general call. This second was the calling of “vocation,” how each individual would make their contribution to society and thereby glorify the God who made them. Although Charlie Farmer was fulfilling an “occupation” as a farmer, he was not fulfilling his “calling.” His yearning for space filled his every waking hour and consumed his every thought. He is an astronaut by design, but a farmer out of necessity. At one point in the movie, after the FAA essentially denies his request to launch the rocket, Audie joins him on the front porch and attempts to console him. “I’m sorry about the ruling, Farmer” she says, reinforcing his failure and affirming his status as a gravity-bound tiller of the earth.
Many critics blasted (pathetic pun intended) The Astronaut Farmer for being too unbelievable, which it is. In an age when space technology has been essentially co-opted by the government, we find a rocket built in a Texas barn to be a bit outside of our abilities for suspending our disbelief. But this is where many overlook the main attraction of the film. It is almost fairy-tale-like in its development. The settings are rural Texas and the characters seem like realistic-enough Texans, but the story never stays grounded in reality. Those who try to keep The Astronaut Farmer firmly planted on terra firma are not allowing the film to be what it really is: a fable or perhaps a picture storybook come to life. The Astronaut Farmer actually has more in common with The Princess Bride than with Apollo 13, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey for that matter. While the tale that it tries to tell has a strong moral lesson, it isn’t above bending the rules of science and reason in the process. The Astronaut Farmer is an endearing story about the trials and triumphs of one family that is bound and determined to stay together, by allowing the father to pursue his illogical dream. When Charlie finally gets what he thinks he wants, he looks back at the earth and realizes that home is where his dreams really reside. After nine orbits of the Earth, he re-enters the atmosphere, and parachutes back into his real dream: his family.