October Sky

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This article is about the 1999 American biographical film directed by Joe Johnston. For the Canadian rock band based in Montreal, Quebec, see October Sky (band).
October Sky
October sky poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joe Johnston
Produced by
Screenplay by Lewis Colick
Based on Rocket Boys 
by Homer Hickam
Music by Mark Isham
Cinematography Fred Murphy
Edited by Robert Dalva
Universal Studios
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • February 19, 1999 (1999-02-19) (United States)
Running time
109 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $25 million
Box office $34.7 million

October Sky is a 1999 American biographical film directed by Joe Johnston, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Chris Owen, and Laura Dern. It is based on the true story of Homer H. Hickam, Jr., a coal miner's son who was inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 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 Oliver Springs, Harriman and Kingston in Morgan and Roane counties. The movie mostly received a positive critical reception and is still celebrated in the regions of its setting and filming.[citation needed]


October Sky is an anagram of Rocket Boys, the title of the 1998 book upon which the movie is based. It is also used in a period radio broadcast describing Sputnik 1 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.


The film is set in Coalwood, West Virginia in October 1957. The coal mine is the town's largest employer and almost every man living in the town works in the mines. John Hickam (Chris Cooper), the mine superintendent, loves his job and hopes that his boys, Jim (Scott Miles) and Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), will one day join him in his mine. When it appears that Jim will receive a football scholarship to attend college, this leaves Homer to fulfill his father's dream, although his mother, Elsie (Natalie Canerday), hopes for more for her son.

In October, news of the Soviet Union's rocket launch of Sputnik 1 reaches Coalwood. As the townspeople gather outside on the night of the broadcast, they see the satellite orbit across the sky. Filled with awe and a belief that this may be his chance to get out of Coalwood, Homer sets out to build rockets of his own and enter the science fair, writing about his progress to Dr. Wernher von Braun, one of the head engineers at NASA. Initially, his family and later his classmates think he has gone crazy and is wasting his time, especially when he teams up with Quentin Wilson (Chris Owen), the school's math geek who also has an interest in rocket engineering. With the help of his friends, Roy Lee Cooke (William Lee Scott) and Sherman O'Dell (Chad Lindberg), and support from their science teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), the four try out their new passion. While their first launches are failures, they begin experimenting with new fuels and rocket designs. After several successful launches, the local paper runs a story about them.

The next day, they are arrested — accused of having started a forest fire with a rocket that had gone astray. After John picks up Homer from the police station, Roy Lee is seen being beaten up by his stepfather, Vernon. John intervenes and rescues Roy Lee, warning the drunken man that, even though Roy Lee's father is dead, he will protect him as Roy Lee's father would have. In a rare display of emotion, he tells Roy Lee that his father had been one of the best men who ever worked for him.

The arrests, along with John's lack of support, crushes the boys' dream and they abandon rocketry.

After a mine disaster, John is injured while rescuing "... a dozen men [who] would have died ...". One of the victims who is killed is Ike Bykovsky (Elya Baskin), a machine shop worker who originally let Homer use the shop to build his rockets, and then transferred to the mine for better pay. This fills Homer with even more contempt for the mine. His father was severely injured in the mining accident and had to be taken out on an ambulance. The family later finds out that he could lose an eye. In a state of despair, Homer drops out of high school and works the mine to provide for the family while his father recovers.

Later, Homer is inspired to look at a rocket science book Miss Riley has given him, and learns how to calculate the trajectory of a rocket. This reveals that the unrecovered "rocket" launched by the boys could not have caused the fire, as it was unable to travel that far. Homer and Quentin calculate the precise distance of the missing rocket and find it in a stream. The boys present their findings to Miss Riley and the school principal, Mr. Turner (Chris Ellis). Annoyed by the police, Turner identifies the offending projectile as a flare from a nearby airfield.

Homer returns to school, the boys return to rocket making, and they end up winning the school science fair. The principal has a change of heart and wholeheartedly decides to send Homer to the national science fair in Indianapolis, Indiana. Later that night, the workers' union decides to on strike against Homer's dad. While the family was eating dinner inside, John goes to the kitchen, upset about Homer's rocket dreams. A car pulls up outside and shoots a bullet into the house. It misses John and he realizes that it was Roy Lee's stepfather Vernon. Homer and Jim express their concern to their father, but John dismisses their fears, bitterly telling Homer to go "look for your suitcase". Fed up, Homer confronts his father and a heated argument ensues. Homer storms out of the house, vowing to never return or look back.

At the national science fair, Homer's display is received very well. Overnight, someone steals his de Laval nozzle, as well as his autographed picture of Wernher von Braun. Homer makes an urgent phone call home for help. Elsie implores John to end the ongoing strike so that Mr. Bolden (Randy Stripling), the machine worker that replaced Bykovsky, can use the mine's machine shop to build a replacement nozzle. John initially refuses, but relents when Elsie, fed up with his lack of support for their son, threatens to leave him. With the support of the town, Homer wins the top prize and is bombarded with scholarship offers from colleges. He is also congratulated by his inspiration, Dr. Wernher von Braun, but does not realize the engineer's identity until after he has gone.

Homer returns to Coalwood as a hero, and visits Miss Riley, who is now dying of Hodgkin's disease. He shows her the medal he has won, and she says she'll be proud to tell her future students that she taught the Rocket Boys. A launch of their largest rocket yet (called the Miss Riley) is the last scene of the film. The rocket boys' most successful rocket reaches an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,100 m) — higher than the summit of Mount Everest. John finally shows up for a launch, and is given the honour of pushing the firing button. As the rocket streams upward, the film shows the view from the perspectives of many characters. As the group looks up to the rocket, John slowly puts his hand on Homer's shoulder and smiles.

A series of vignettes (including footage of a Space Shuttle launch and home movie footage of the characters in the 1950s) reveal the outcomes of the main characters' lives.



Filming began on February 23, 1998, almost a year before the movie's release. Although the film takes place in West Virginia, Tennessee was the location of choice for filming in part because of the weather and area terrain. Film crews reconstructed the sites to look like the 1957 mining town setting the movie demanded. The weather of east Tennessee gave the filmmakers trouble and delayed production of the film. Cast and Crew recalled the major weather shifts and tornadoes in the area during the filming months but Joe Johnston claims, "ultimately, the movie looks great because of it. It gave the film a much more interesting and varied look."[2][3] The crews also recreated a mine for the underground scenes.. Director Joe Johnston expressed that he felt that the looks of the mine in the film gave it an evil look, like the mine was the villain in the film. And felt it ironic because that is what gave the town its nourishment. More than 2000 extras were used in the movie. A small switching yard allowed the filmmakers and actors to film the scenes with the boys on the rail road and gave them freedom to do as they pleased, even tear apart tracks. Filming concluded on April 30, 1998.[2]

The film's star, Jake Gyllenhaal, was 17 years old during filming, the same as Homer Hickam's character. In an interview in 2014, Natalie Canerday recalled that Gyllenhaal was tutored on set because he was still in school and taking advanced classes.[3]


Box office[edit]

October Sky opened on February 19, 1999 in 1,495 theaters and had an opening weekend gross of $5,905,250. At its widest theater release, 1,702 theaters were showing the movie. The movie has had a total lifetime gross of $34,675,800 worldwide.[4]

Critical reception[edit]

The film received critical acclaim 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: "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."[5] Metacritic gave the film a 71 rating with these being dubbed "Generally Favorable Reviews" based on 23 professional critic reviews of the movie.[6]

Many critics tend to commend the movie for its values, family, and inspirational aspects. A lot of reviews focus on the main character's relationship with his father and on the actors' performances. Roger Ebert recognized that the film "doesn't simplify the father into a bad guy or a tyrant. He understandably wants his son to follow in his footsteps, and one of the best elements of the movie is in breaking free, he is respecting his father. This movie has deep values."[7]

Joe Leydon of Variety reviewed the film and called it, "Immensely entertaining and unabashedly inspirational."[6]

James Wall of The Christian Century describes the film's concentration on the father-son relationship as "at times painful to watch. There are no winners or losers when sons go their separate ways. October Sky does not illustrate good parenting; rather, it evokes the realization that since parents have only a limited vision of how to shape their children's future, the job requires a huge amount of love and a lot of divine assistance."[8] However, some reviews, such as one from Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide, claim that the movie's highlight was the acting of Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper.[9][10][11]


October Sky won three awards, including: OCIC Award for Joe Johnston at the Ajijic International Film Festival 1999, the Critics' Choice Movie Awards for Best Family Film from the Broadcast Film Critics Association in 2000, and a Humanitas Prize 1999 for Featured Film Category.[12]

Differences between the film and novel[edit]

Although the movie was praised for its portrayal of 1950s Appalachia, it has several major and minor differences from the book on which it is based.

  • Homer Hickam is the main character's name; however, in the book and in real life he was nicknamed "Sonny".[13][14]
  • Homer Hickam Jr's father was not named John. This was changed in an effort to keep the audience from being confused.[14][15]
  • There were actually six "rocket boys" instead of the four in the movie. Some of the movie's representations of the characters are combinations of the real life boys. Their names were: Homer Hickam Jr., Quentin Wilson, Jimmy O'Dell Carroll, Roy Lee Cooke, Billy Rose and Sherman Siers.[13][14]
  • The Rocket Boys did not steal railroad parts as they did in the film; however, they did attempt to grab a cast iron pipe under the tracks and, according to Homer's Web site, this almost got him killed[13]
  • Homer never dropped out of school to work in the town's mine[13]
  • Homer never met Wernher von Braun[14]
  • The boys did not win any college scholarships[13]

Cultural impact[edit]

There are two annual festivals in honor of the Rocket Boys and the movie that are held. One is held in West Virginia where the real life events that the book and film took place, and the other is in Tennessee where the movie was actually shot. The "Rocket Boys" often visit the festival in West Virginia on a regular basis, and it is also called the "Rocket Boys Festival", while the festival in Tennessee focuses more on the filming locations being the relevance to the movie. The Tennessee festival's site claims that the festival is "a celebration of our heritage." [16][17]


  1. ^ Homer Hickam official Web site - October Sky/Rocket Boys, The Keeper's Son
  2. ^ a b "About the Filming". Coalwood West Virginia. NMT Web Designs, LLC. Retrieved 30 July 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Kazek, Kelly. "'October Sky' actress Natalie Canerday on Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, film's legacy 15 years after debut". al.com. Retrieved 31 July 2014. 
  4. ^ "October Sky". Box Office Mojo. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 28 July 2014. 
  5. ^ October Sky. Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 28 July 2012.
  6. ^ a b "Critic Reviews for October Sky". Metacritic. Retrieved 31 July 2014. 
  7. ^ "October Sky Review". RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital LLC. 
  8. ^ Wall, J.M. (1999). "Fathers and Sons". The Cristian Century 116 (10): 331. 
  9. ^ Schwarzbaum, Lisa (March 5, 1999). "Rocket Booster". Entertainment Weekly (475). 
  10. ^ McDonagh, Maitland. "October Sky Review". TV Guide. Retrieved 31 July 2014. 
  11. ^ "Critic Reviews for October Sky". Metacritic. Retrieved 31 July 2014. 
  12. ^ "October Sky Awards". imdb.com. 
  13. ^ a b c d e "Movies Rocket Boys". homerhickam.com. Retrieved 31 July 2014. 
  14. ^ a b c d Kazek, Kelly. "Real vs. Reel: Author Homer Hickam talks differences in 'Rocket Boys' and film 'October Sky'". al.com. Retrieved 31 July 2014. 
  15. ^ Bonvillian, Crystal. "'October Sky' does good job of telling Homer Hickam Jr.'s remarkable story". al.com. Retrieved 31 July 2014. 
  16. ^ "October Sky Festival". October Sky Festival. Retrieved 28 July 2014. 
  17. ^ "October Sky Festival". Coalwood West Virginia. NMT Web Designs, LLC. 

External links[edit]