October Sky: Special Edition
August 1, 2005
Based on Homer Hickam, Jr.’s childhood memoirs, Rocket Boys, October Sky (1999) was a surprise sleeper hit and gave actor Jake Gyllenhaal his first of many substantial roles. October Sky is one of those rare family films that isn’t condescending to its audience or softens the edges so much that it comes across as phony. It is a heartfelt look at the relationship between a father and his son, much in the same fashion as Field of Dreams (1989).
Inspired by the launching of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite in 1957, teenager Homer Hickam (Gyllenhaal) dreams of one day designing rockets like his hero, scientist Werner Von Braun. Once Homer looks up into the starry night sky and sees the tiny, fast-moving white dot that is Sputnik racing across the sky, his world is changed forever. He has found his calling in life. Homer also hopes that it will be his ticket out of Coalwood, a small mining town in West Virginia that very few people ever leave. Homer’s father (Cooper) is a stern, no-nonsense man who works in the mines and sees his son’s interest in rocketry as a passing hobby. He believes that some day Homer will join him working in the mines. Homer respects his father but knows that he doesn’t want to follow in his footsteps. This sets up the film’s central conflict: Homer’s dreams of rocketry vs. his father’s desire for him to become a miner.
Homer is actively encouraged by his optimistic teacher, Miss Riley (Dern) and quietly supported by his mother (Canerday). The social climate of small-town America in the 1950s marginalizes these women but they find ways to subvert the system and help Homer realize his dreams. At first, his friends Roy Lee (Scott) and O’Dell (Lindberg) thinks he’s crazy as his first attempt to launch a rocket does little but destroy a small section of his mom’s white picket fence. So, he decides to seek out his class’ smartest (and most unpopular) student, Quentin (Owen), to help research and build a rocket. He soon enlists his reluctant friends as well. Despite several setbacks and obstacles, the Rocket Boys, as they become to be known, start to make real progress and realize that this could be their ticket out of Coalwood.
October Sky was one of Gyllenhaal’s earliest films and he shows a real aptitude for creating a well-rounded character. He displays all the traits of a sensitive dreamer without slipping into the typical underdog cliché. He also conveys Homer’s frustration when he comes in conflict with his father, despair when it looks like his dreams are disappearing before his eyes and absolute joy when he makes significant breakthroughs with his rockets. It doesn’t hurt that Gyllenhaal is playing a real person, one who is still alive and was able to consult with and this keeps his performance rooted in reality.
The entire cast is good with recognizable character actors like Chris Cooper essaying yet another gruff disciplinarian (also see American Beauty) and Laura Dern as Homer’s inspirational teacher. However, it is the lesser known actors who also shine. William Lee Scott as the girl-crazy Roy Lee uses this façade to hide the abuse he receives at the hands of his alcoholic step-father. Chris Owen plays the bookish Quentin but is a far cry from the stereotypical high school nerd. Because these characters are based on real people, they have several sides to their personality that are shown.
Director Joe Johnston, known mostly for big-budget action-adventure films, like The Rocketeer (1991), shows surprising restraint with October Sky by making a traditional film that places an emphasis on character and story. And because they are both compelling and interesting to watch, we are drawn into Homer’s story and care about what happens to him. We want to see him succeed.
October Sky was originally released on DVD shortly after its theatrical release and the extras that were on it are also included in this new version. Universal has added a new DTS audio track which is a nice touch.
One of the new extras is a retrospective documentary, “Aiming High: The Story of the Rocket Boys,” that reunites the actual Rocket Boys that the film is based on. They talk about what inspired them to build rockets in the first place. Homer goes back to his hometown which is being restored thanks to the popularity of the movie. He shows us the actual house he lived in with his family. This is good look at the real people and their stories.
The strongest extra is also a new addition. The real Homer Hickam contributes an audio commentary where he talks at length about the authenticity of the film to the real-life events and people. He praises Gyllenhaal’s performance and provides many interesting anecdotes about what we are watching. This is a heartfelt, intimate commentary.
Included from the previous DVD is the “Spotlight on Location” featurette that focused on the making of the movie. It is pretty standard press kit material with lots of clips from the movie mixed with interview soundbites done during filming.
Finally, there are production notes and a trailer.