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Friday, February 23, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"The Astronaut Farmer" | Buying this premise would be a giant leap for mankind

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"The Astronaut Farmer," with Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Max Thieriot, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson. Directed by Michael Polish, from a screenplay by Mark Polish and Michael Polish. 104 minutes. Rated PG for thematic material, peril and language. Several theaters.

A mysterious little movie about a man following his dream, "The Astronaut Farmer" seems to be a visitor from some alternative universe, a place where logic and reason and recognizable human behavior have little reign. Billy Bob Thornton, looking a tad otherworldly himself (he's quite thin, with wondering eyes), plays Charles Farmer, a former astronaut-in-training with NASA who never got a chance at space flight. Now a rancher in Texas, with a wife (Virginia Madsen) and three kids, he's still looking up at the skies and dreaming — and tinkering with the rocket in which he intends to orbit the Earth.

Yes, Farmer is building a rocket in his barn, with his 15-year-old son Shepard (yes, the kid's name is Shepard Farmer) acting as co-engineer and Mission Control. Because, in this movie's universe, building a manned rocket that's capable of orbiting the Earth is something easily within the grasp of a guy with a barn, a teenager and some out-of-date NASA experience. Meanwhile, the Farmer family struggles with its finances (mom Audie works as a waitress and is horrified to learn that Charles has been draining the family coffers to pay for rocket supplies), and the neighbors scratch their heads over Charles' exploits. To naysayers, his response is simple. "It's always been my dream," he says quietly.

The brother filmmaking team of Michael and Mark Polish (whose last film was the elegant but often inscrutable "Northfork") are making their first studio film here, and the result is a sometimes interesting hybrid of blandness and free-floating artistry. Every shot, captured by the Polish brothers' longtime director of photography M. David Mullen, has a grandeur to it; the characters stand in stark silhouettes against the endless lines of the Southwest plains. And a few passing moments are undeniably lovely: In one, a child in a carnival rocket ride raises her arms happily, reaching as if to embrace the sky.

"The Astronaut Farmer," with its warm family spirit, has a genuine sweetness to it, and it feels downright curmudgeonly to find fault with its follow-your-dream message. But as Farmer faces ridicule from his neighbors and persecution by government officials alerted by his purchase of thousands of pounds of high-grade fuel (in a nice touch, one of the G-men has Darth Vader's theme as his cellphone ringtone), the movie seems to get more and more muddled. By the end, it's left this Earth entirely, orbiting somewhere where dreams like this can become reality — where astronauts can orbit the Earth in homemade rockets and still make it home in time for dinner.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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