October Sky (1999) — Inspiration via rockets

“Four unidentifiable high school students lost their lives early this morning when their toy rocket exploded.”

Lissa’s rating: The movie that introduced me to the Mutants!

Lissa’s review: There’s a day in my grad school education that I remember very clearly. It was fairly early on, but the workload was heavy. We were doing a project that took up to eighty hours a week, and that wasn’t counting our thesis research. Both my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I were in the lab on an absolutely beautiful Saturday, working. I had this filter that had a lot of carbon deposit on it that I wanted to analyze, so naturally I put it in the carbon analyzer (I never said scientists were creative in naming things).


It was amazing. I could actually see the flame front shooting at me. I hit the floor, like they do in the movies, as the little boat my sample was on shot out directly at me and across the room. The bang was deafening. A hint to all aspiring scientists out there. Liquid fuel + pure oxygen + heat = $800.00 in damage and one very angry professor. Fortunately, my own advisor simply shrugged and said, “That’s why we don’t insure graduate students.”

As you might guess, I was in tears. I stumbled out of my lab and over to Duckie’s, and told him that I blew up the carbon analyzer. Duckie, being the kind of man he is, declared the rest of the day off. He took me out to Bald Eagle Lake, and then later that night, we watched October Sky.

Actually, I’ll be honest. I don’t know if we watched October Sky that night. Looking at the release date, I seriously doubt it, because this had to have happened in 1997 or 1998 and October Sky wasn’t released until 1999. But if we didn’t, we should have.

October Sky is nothing revolutionary. There are no special effects, no aliens, and no unpredictable plot twists. In fact, the plot is downright predictable. Homer Hickman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a high school student in Coalwood, West Virginia when Sputnik is launched. Sputnik captures Homer’s imagination, and inspires him and three friends to enter the science fair with a project on model rockets. If they can win at the state level, they’ll get to go to the national fair, where there will be talent scouts and the possibility of scholarships for all four of them. I’m sure you’ve guessed the ending by now. But to those of you who scoff at the predictability of it, I say tough. It’s a real story. How did you think it was going to end? If it didn’t end that way, it wouldn’t be a story worth telling. Not at this price, anyway.

The acting is, for the most part, solid. The four boys (Jake Gyllenhaal, William Lee Scott, Chad Lindberg, and Chris Owen (yes, he’s The Shermenator from American Pie) give solid performances and the friendship between them seems natural. I particularly enjoyed O’Dell (William Lee Scott), who got some of the best lines in the movie. Laura Dern as the teacher is a little on the sappy side, but that might just be the role.

But the acting award of the movie goes to Chris Cooper as John Hickman, Homer’s father. Cooper manages to keep John emotionally closed off and strict, without turning him into “the evil father” figure. Rather than being a dominating, emotionally abusive type, he comes off as a man who wants what’s best for his family, but doesn’t understand what truly is. Even by the end, Jack Hickam is accepting but not understanding of his son’s love for science.

In an objective sense, October Sky is a solid movie. In a not so objective sense, it’s absolutely inspiring. What makes this movie great? It’s the story of Homer Hickam himself.

This is a movie about realizing dreams. But Homer doesn’t want to be a rock star, or carried off the football field, or a war hero or save the world. He wants to be a scientist. He’s not the most gifted kid in the class, and he has little interest in mathematics until he actually understands there’s a use for them (not that I can blame him there). The simple truth is that Homer is a real person, both literally and figuratively. He reaches for a dream that not only he can achieve, but that is achievable to the normal person. And most importantly to me, he was reaching for my dream. On those days when my research seemed overwhelming and I didn’t know what to do next (or those days when I blew up the lab or accidentally gassed myself), this movie was pure comfort.

Even now, there’s just something about October Sky that completely fits the term “chicken soup for the soul.” Are you depressed and don’t feel like reveling in it? Need to break out of a funk? Need a lift? Pop this movie in. Absolutely positively guaranteed to do the trick. From the relationships to the soundtrack to the moment where Homer inevitably wins the science fair and gets to go to college, this movie is like coming out of the cold and slipping into a nice, hot bath. And I dare you not to tear up at some point. (I always tear up during the final confrontation between Homer and John, but Duckie’s more for the last scene.) Don’t just rent this one — buy it and add it to your collection now.

Sue’s rating: Teacher Recommended, Mother Approved

Sue’s review: Back in September, my son, Spawn of Mutant 1, began to exhibit an interest in model rocketry. It’s a guy thing, I guess, so I stifled my maternal, “you’ll shoot your eye out!” instincts and recommended in as supportive a way as possible that if he liked rockets, he might enjoy watching October Sky because it was… well, about boys who loved rockets and there were explosions and things in it.

By way of reply, he treated me to that special uncomprehending-but-friendly stare that teenage boys and Labrador Retrievers are notorious for. Clearly we have left, “Mommy loves me and protects me” in the dust, passed straight through, “Mom is so omniscient it’s scary!” and thumped right smack dab into the middle of “Mom is a chowderhead.” It’s a rite of passage. He’ll apologize when he’s forty and his kids are in the “We must be adopted cause this guy is a buffoon” stage.

Anyway, two weeks ago, my firstborn of the Labrador eyes came bouncing home from school and launched straight into, “Mom, can you rent a movie called October Sky for me? Our Tech-Ed teacher showed us some of it, and it’s awesome! It’s about these guys who love rockets and there’s explosions and things in it!”

“B-But,” I stammered despite myself, “that’s the movie I told you about months ago!”

“Did you?” he asked with honest bewilderment. “Huh. That’s funny. So can we rent it or what?”

I will not relay my exact private thoughts in so public a place, but let us reflect for a moment about what you might have thought if this situation happened to you. Be nice to your mothers, my friends.

Inevitably, I rented October Sky, and we watched it together. My son, of course, loved it, and we bonded, and it was all very sweet. But throughout it all, a tiny voice in the back of my head kept repeating, “Tech-Ed teacher, huh? Phooey!”

I will, however, suspend my animosity, because October Sky really is a good movie and no matter how we came to see it together, I was happy to share it with my Labra- I mean, my son. As Lissa already mentioned, stunning, cutting edge or innovative it isn’t, but it’s solid and well crafted with a worthy story and excellent acting all around. Best by far is the chemistry (not in a romantic way!) between Chris Cooper and Jake Gyllenhaal; respectively playing a father who is sincerely passionate about his choice of career (coal mining) and his son who wants to pursue something so totally different (rocket scientist) that it’s completely out of his dad’s scope of comprehension. It’s not that father-son angst isn’t a movie staple, but this is just beautifully done. Better yet, it’s completely relevant to those times. These days, picking rocket science over black lung disease seems like a no-brainer, but back then, the space race was so brand spanking new that it might well have seemed like a fad.

Not that I remember those days. Honestly, I don’t!

Anyway, another thing I really liked about Cooper’s character was that even though he came across as hide-bound, unyielding and dictatorial, he was not by any means Emperor Palpatine in coveralls and a hard hat. I like a movie where you can understand everyone’s point of view in a balanced and fair way.

Despite it’s predictability, October Sky isn’t exactly devoid of suspense either. The obstacles the boys, especially young Homer Hickam, have to overcome are real and daunting and a few of the pitfalls are downright unexpected. Okay, it’s probably not a great flick, but it’s a darned good one.

In any case, I suppose I should be grateful to Mr. Tech-Ed Teacher, even though he seems to have supplanted me on the adult-wisdom scale in the eyes of Labrador Boy. Ahhhh, youth is fickle.

Now please go hug your Mom.

Didja notice?

  • October Sky is an anagram of the book’s title Rocket Boys. Cool, huh?
  • The Virginia Tech recruiter does approach Homer at the end – Virginia Tech is Homer Hickam’s alma mater. (He also served in the Air Force ROTC and captained the crew that shoots off the cannon when VT scores a touchdown, a fact I only know because my brother captained the same crew many years later.)
  • Elsie did move to Myrtle Beach after all.
  • In the shot where Homer first steps off the truck after returning from the Science Fair, a camera is clearly visible at the left hand side of the screen. I normally don’t include these because I rarely notice them, but this one I did – although I’d always just assumed it was someone taping for a news program or something.
  • Despite the fact Quentin knows what’s wrong with the car, the boys junk it anyway. I can only assume that this is because there was a heck of a lot more wrong with the car than the choke cable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s