Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle October Sky

By Marc Savlov

FEBRUARY 23, 1999: 

D: Joe Johnston; with Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, William Lee Scott, Chris Owen, Chad Lindberg, Natalie Canerday, Laura Dern. (PG, 108 min.)

Let me preface this by saying I have absolutely nothing against former Austinite Joe Johnston. His work with George Lucas, as production and visual effects honcho on Star Wars and its sequels as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark (not to mention supervising the intense aerial sequences on Spielberg's Always) is beyond reproach. This, clearly, is an artist who can reach deep inside himself and touch the kid that grew up thriving on Ray Bradbury's Mars stories. As Harry Knowles' geek squad would wisely put it, the man is "one of us." That's not even mentioning the terribly overlooked The Rocketeer. There have been the occasional slip-ups: TV's The Ewok Adventure and it's so-bad-it's-really bad sequel Ewoks: The Battle for Endor spring to mind like Tinky-Winky in a broken blender. Hey, no one's perfect. So it pains me to say that October Sky, the true story of Homer Hickam, a Coalwood, West Virginia kid with a dream, is ploddingly earthbound. That dream, to follow in the footsteps of his hero Werner von Braun and kick out rockets for America's budding, late-Fifties space program, comes true, though not without its setbacks. As the film opens, the American world is reeling from the announcement that the Soviets have sent an unmanned satellite -- Sputnik -- into low orbit around the Earth. Gyllenhaal, as the teen Hickam, reacts not with fear but with single-minded fascination. It's not long before he and his friends -- Roy (Scott), Quentin (Owen), and O'Dell (Lindberg) -- set off their own rudimentary jet propulsion mockups, blasting holes in mom's white picket fence and tearing up the countryside with needle-nosed precision. Of course, there's a setback, and here it comes in the form of Homer's father John (Cooper), a longtime coalminer stuck between the striking miners beneath him and this wild kid who just wants to get out of town. Tough call, yes, but Cooper, late of John Sayles' Lone Star, gives the best performance in the film. It's not what you'd call nuanced, but it is thoroughly believable, this hardshelled rural traditionalist with a stoic façade. There's nothing remotely "bad" about October Sky -- it's an accomplished, heartfelt work by anyone's measure. The problem here is the film's deadweight earnestness; watching October Sky is like having von Braun proselytize at you for two hours at a stretch. And that's without the admittedly fascinating Wagnerian subtext. If you've seen the ad campaign -- "not since Rocky has a film so deeply touched the hearts of blah blah blah" -- you're acquainted with a studio that has absolutely no idea how to market this unique, fresh, but ultimately stagnant film. There's hope, heroism, and Dern as a dying schoolmarm, but October Sky falls flat (despite its rich tone and some startling cinematography from Fred Murphy) due to its all-too-obvious third act and the vague fact that, really, not that much happens. Familial redemption, yes, of a sort, but no real fireworks. Here's hoping for a sequel that takes off where that final shot of the space shuttle rocketing skyward begins.
2.5 stars

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