movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 1999 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.)

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Blast From the Past
October Sky ventures into the well-familiar territory of the coming-of-age genre--a genre filled with potential pitfalls (such as a tendency for sticky sentimentality). However, director Joe Johnston, who directed the pleasant but unremarkable The Rocketeer, deftly avoids most of the genre's traps while creating an engaging and life-affirming portrait of life in a West Virginia coal mining town.

Based upon an autobiographical book by Homer Hickam, Jr., October Sky charts the growing conflict between a coal miner and his son. John Hickam (Chris Cooper of Lone Star) has been a miner all of his adult life. It's what he knows. He expects his son, Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal), to follow his footsteps. But one October evening, when the citizens of Coalwood look up into the skies for a glimpse of the Russian satellite Sputnik, Homer gets the fever for rockets: "I'm gonna build a rocket--like Sputnik," he says the next morning. His father can't comprehend what this means for the boy's future, so he forbids Homer to work on rockets on the mining company's property--and the mining company owns everything for miles. John Hickam assumes his son will then drop any interest in rockets. But Homer takes his father quite literally. Even though he and his friends (William Lee Scott, Chad Lindberg, and Chris Owen) must walk six miles to get off company property, they make this journey several times a week. They even set up their own launch site and work shed.

Unlike other movies that have mined this same father-vs.-son territory, such as A Boy's Life, the filmmakers resist the temptation to turn the father into a demon. Whereas the stepfather in A Boy's Life (played by Robert DeNiro) had virtually no redeeming characteristics, Homer's father is a more complex figure. We understand that his own lack of experiences outside of Coalwood has effectively fitted him with a pair of blinders. He sincerely loves his son, but rockets don't fit into any of his plans.

The screenplay sets up the conflict between the father and son in terms that are maybe a little too pat. The father is clearly the kind of guy who will eventually soften and accept his son's dreams of escaping the mining town. The movie's dramatic arc clearly points toward reconciliation, and thus the story's outcome is never in question (and thus any suspense is minimized). But October Sky is still a compelling movie because it gives itself completely to Homer's obsession with rocketry and allows us to experience the same sense of wonder (and disappointment) that he experiences when his rockets soar toward the clouds (or explode famously on the launch pad). Because rocketry also works as a wonderful metaphor for Homer's effort to escape his hometown and the bleak future that his father envisions for him, Homer's attempts acquire added poignancy. We experience disappointment when the rockets don't work, when the boys cower behind wooden barriers, waiting for the inevitable explosions. And we experience elation when the boys succeed and their rockets streak into the sky.

So that we can better understand mine work, director Joe Johnston takes us underground with the miners, where coal dust coats the lungs of the miners and frequent cave ins threaten to end their lives. Johnston films these scenes so we are sure to notice the massive ceilings. The miners live in a world of constant claustrophobic oppression. By giving us access to the mines, we can better appreciate Homer's desire to soar free of restrictions. However, the filmmakers have respect for the work that miners do and the sacrifices that they make. That's what sets October Sky apart from other coming-of-age movies: it isn't about escaping one's background as much as it's about realizing one's own potential.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]