October Sky

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October Sky
October sky poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoe Johnston
Produced byCharles Gordon
Larry J. Franco
Screenplay byLewis Colick
Based onRocket Boys 
by Homer Hickam
StarringJake Gyllenhaal
Chris Cooper
Laura Dern
Music byMark Isham
CinematographyFred Murphy
Editing byRobert Dalva
StudioUniversal Studios
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release dates
  • February 19, 1999 (1999-02-19) (United States)
Running time108 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$25,000,000
Box office$34,675,800
 
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October Sky
October sky poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoe Johnston
Produced byCharles Gordon
Larry J. Franco
Screenplay byLewis Colick
Based onRocket Boys 
by Homer Hickam
StarringJake Gyllenhaal
Chris Cooper
Laura Dern
Music byMark Isham
CinematographyFred Murphy
Editing byRobert Dalva
StudioUniversal Studios
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release dates
  • February 19, 1999 (1999-02-19) (United States)
Running time108 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$25,000,000
Box office$34,675,800

October Sky is a 1999 American biographical film directed by Joe Johnston, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper and Laura Dern. It is based on the true story of Homer Hickam, a coal miner's son who was inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 to take up rocketry against his father's wishes, and who eventually became a NASA engineer. Most of the film was shot in rural East Tennessee, including location filming in: Morgan County, Roane County, Oliver Springs, Harriman, and Kingston, Tennessee.

Title[edit]

October Sky is an anagram of Rocket Boys, the title of the book upon which the movie is based. It is also used in a period radio broadcast describing Sputnik as it crossed the "October sky." Homer Hickam stated that "Universal Studios marketing people got involved and they just had to change the title because, according to their research, women over thirty would never see a movie titled Rocket Boys"[1] so Universal Pictures changed the title to be more inviting to a wider audience. The book was later re-released with the name in order to capitalize on interest in the movie.

Plot[edit]

The story takes place in Coalwood, West Virginia in the year 1957. The film starts out with a radio broadcast announcement that, “yesterday,” on October 4th, 1957 Sputnik 1 was launched into the Earth’s orbit by the Soviet Union. It cuts to several scenes that show the mines in operation. The workers are shown covered in soot as they carry pickaxes and drive mining cars around. The town’s people are shown sitting in the local restaurant or getting a shave while listening to the captivating radio broadcast about the launch of Sputnik 1. Even some of the miners carry portable radios and listen to the broadcast. The launch of Sputnik 1 was important to the people of Coalwood.

Coalwood’s largest employer is the Olga Coal Mine and nearly every man living in the town works in the mines. John Hickam (Chris Cooper), the superintendent of the mine, loves his job and hopes that his two sons, Jim (Scott Miles) and Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), will honor him and one day join him in his mine. Homer and Jim both try out for the football team, but Homer is not as successful in playing football as Jim. They both want scholarships for college, but eventually only Jim is offered a scholarship, while Homer is left to work in the mine with his father. Homer’s mother, Elsie (Natalie Canerday), continues to hope for more for her son, and supports him when he chooses to start building rockets.

Homer’s first rocket attempt is extremely unsuccessful. It explodes upon ignition and sends himself, Sherman O'Dell (Chad Lindberg), and their friend Roy Lee Cooke (William Lee Scott) flying back several feet and leave’s Elsie’s new fence damaged. Homer learns about the failure Dr. von Braun’s Vanguard rocket, and writes a letter to Dr. Wernher von Braun, offering his condolence for their failed rocket launch. He compares his own failure to theirs and seems to find inspiration in the world’s efforts to launch shuttles into space. He consults with the school’s biggest nerd, Quentin Wilson (Chris Owen), for help with learning about his new found interest. The entire school sees Homer sit down with Quentin in the cafeteria and the confusion on their faces is obvious. Homer has always been a jock or coal miner to them, but not an intellectual.

With help from Quentin, his friends, and Ike Bykovsky (Elya Baskin), a metal worker from his father’s company, Homer makes his second rocket which is far more promising than his first. His teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), learns about Homer’s rocket and tells him that he should enter into the county science fair. If he wins he will qualify for the national science fair where he could earn a scholarship. The launch of his second rocket is unsuccessful as it flies into his father’s mine and nearly hits his some of the workers. John denounces Homer’s intentions of building rockets, and calls him an idiot and a thief. Homer responds by saying that he will never work in the mines. The boys are bothered by the incident, but not put off entirely.

They find a good place 8 miles (13 km) from the company property to setup a launch site. Some of the town’s businesses donate materials so they can build on the land and many of their schoolmates offer moral support for their cause. With the new location and help from another machinist from John’s mining company, they make several iterations of their rocket designs, many of which explode upon ignition. However, they persist by innovating their designs and by testing their new methods until they start making successful launches. The town catches wind of their new idea for rocket fuel and everyone shows up for their most promising rocket launch yet. The successfulness of their most recent rocket launch changes the tide of their venture for the better. Homer’s grandmother sends him an autographed picture of Wernher von Braun on his birthday. Homer also learns that Jim is getting a football scholarship on his birthday.

A news reporter gains interest in Homer’s rockets and writes an article about one of his launches. The article helps to earn more interest from the town. However, things take a turn for the worse when the boys are accused as suspects in a forest fire that occurred near their launch site. Homer, his friend Sherman, and Quentin are arrested. The arrests, along with John’s lack of support, crush the boys’ dream and they abandon rocketry. During a mine disaster, John is injured while rescuing several men who would have died otherwise. One man, Ike Bykovsky, does die in the accident. Homer then drops out of high school and works the mine to provide for the family while his dad recovers.

One evening, Homer visits his teacher, Miss Riley, after learning that she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Miss Riley tells Homer to listen to himself and no anyone else, and she tells him that he does not belong in the mines. This inspires Homer to look back at his rocketry books to research information about the trajectory and range of rockets. He is able to calculate the exact distance of the rocket that supposedly causes the forest fire. He discovers that it would have been impossible for the rocket to reach the distance necessary to cause the fire, and he is also able to find the exact location of the rocket that is missing and presents it to the police and the school principle Mr. Turner (Chris Ellis). They discover that the rocket that started the fire was actually an aeronautical flare that came from an airport near where the fire started. The new evidence clears the boys of the allegations and they are allowed to return to rocketry and enter the science fair. John learns about this and says that he is ok with them building rockets as long as Homer returns to work in the coal mines. Homer tells him that he will never go back down into the mine; instead, Homer says, “I want to go into space.”

Homer returns to school, the boys return to rocket making, and quickly win the county science fair. The school decides to send Homer to the national science fair in Indianapolis, Indiana. That night, John is almost shot by a man in a drive-by shooting in his kitchen. John, with Homer and Jim in tow, exits the house to see who fired. John shouts "Vernon!" realizing this was apparently revenge for the threats John gave Roy Lee's stepfather earlier. Homer and Jim express their concern about this to their father, but John passes it over, bitterly telling Homer to go "look for his suitcase" (Homer had been doing so prior to the shooting). Fed up, Homer confronts his father and a heated argument ensues. Homer storms out of the house, vowing to never return or look back.

The boys end up winning the county science far, and are eligible to compete at nationals. While Homer is at nationals in Indianapolis, a strike breaks out at the mine. In Indianapolis, Homer’s de Laval nozzle and autographed picture of Wernher von Braun are stolen. Leon Bolden (Randy Stripling), the other machinist, cannot make a new nozzle unless the mine re-opens. Elsie pleads with John to work out a deal with the miners so the mine can re-open and Homer can get his replacement nozzle. Elsie threatens that she is willing to leave John, if he refuses to help their son. John works things out with the strikers and the mine reopens. Mr. Bolden (Randy Stripling) is able to make the replacement nozzle and sends it to Homer right away. Homer secures victory at nationals and is offered numerous scholarships on the spot from universities across the U.S.; Homer is even congratulated by Wernher von Braun himself, but fails to notice until some asks Homer what Mr. von Braun said to him.

Upon returning, Homer visits Miss Riley, who is now in the hospital, dying from Hodgkin's disease. Homer tells her that they all received scholarships and Miss Riley says that one day Homer’s actions will inspire others to do what they did. Homer talks to his dad after nationals, and tells him that even though they don’t always see eye to eye, he has come to believe that he has what it takes to be somebody, and it’s not because he is different from his dad, but it’s because he is the same. Homer tells his dad that he can be just as tough and hardheaded as he is and says, “I only hope I can be as good a man as you are… Dr. von Braun is a great scientist, but he isn’t my hero.” At their last launch, with their biggest rocket yet, the entire town is gathering to watch. Before the launch, Homer says thank you to his townsfolk, and dedicates his medal and rocket to Coalwood, Ike Bykovski, Miss Riley, and his parents. John finally shows up for a launch, and is given the honor of pushing the firing button. The final rocket reached an impressive altitude of 30,000 feet (9,100 m), higher than Mount Everest. A series of vignettes (including footage of a Space Shuttle launch and home movie footage of the characters in the 1950s) reveal the outcome of the main characters' lives. The boys all graduated from college and went on to become successful engineers and business owners. Homer became an engineer and worked at NASA, where he trained astronauts for Space Shuttle missions. The mine eventually closed and the town of Coalwood was sold off.

Cast[edit]

Critical reception[edit]

The film received positive reviews from film critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 90% out of 72 critics gave the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.6/10 and the site's consensus stating: "Rich in sweet sincerity, intelligence, and good old-fashioned inspirational drama, October Sky is a coming-of-age story with a heart to match its Hollywood craftsmanship."[2]

References[edit]

External links[edit]