October Sky

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Details At A Glance

Category Drama Theatrical Trailer(s) Yes, 1 - 1.78:1, not 16x9, Dolby Digital 2.0
Rating Other Trailer(s) None
Year Released 1999 Commentary Tracks None
Running Time 102:58 minutes Other Extras Biographies - Cast and Crew
Featurette - Spotlight On Location (10:05)
Production Notes
Web Links
RSDL/Flipper RSDL (-)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Movie
Region 2,4 Director Joe Johnston
Universal Pictures
Columbia TriStar Home Video
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal
Chris Cooper
Chris Owen
Laura Dern
Case Brackley
RRP $39.95 Music Mark Isham

Pan & Scan/Full Frame No MPEG None
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Dolby Digital 5.1
16x9 Enhancement
Soundtrack Languages English (Dolby Digital 5.1, 384 Kb/s) 
French (Dolby Digital 5.1, 384 Kb/s)
Italian (Dolby Digital 5.1, 384 Kb/s)
Spanish (Dolby Digital 5.1, 384 Kb/s)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
Macrovision Yes Smoking No
Subtitles English
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes, during credits

Plot Synopsis

    To my mind, 1999 was the year that demonstrated beyond any doubt whatsoever that hype rules everything about Hollywood and to heck with the substance. This was amply demonstrated by the fact that comparatively mediocre films (and I am being extremely polite here) of the low calibre of The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project, amongst other notables, ended up making a truckload of dollars at the box office. Whilst I appreciate that my views about the comparative lack of substantive merit of these films runs totally against the grain of the majority, it is disappointing that the hype surrounding such films resulted in many fine films disappearing without trace at the box office. October Sky is a typical example of such a film, which basically seemed to fall into the "blink and it's gone category", which is enormously unjustified, as unlike many films that disappear without trace at the box office, this thoroughly deserved far more recognition at the box office than it seemed to receive. Still, one of the great joys of reviewing DVDs for a site such as this is the fact that amongst the dross that tends to fill the release sheets (Jean-Claude Van Damme anyone?), the occasional gem falls into your lap. And like Savior before it, I am extremely glad that this one did, for I missed it completely at the cinema and about the only way I would really ever find out what I missed would be to catch it on a review DVD. The Internet Movie Database currently has this rated at 8.1 out of 10, and at number 161 in their Top 250. Believe me, I am not going to disagree with that assessment at all.

    Based upon the book Rocket Boys by Homer J. Hickam, Jr, this is the true story of the inspiration that the Soviet launch of Sputnik in October, 1957 gave to Homer, the son of a coal miner in the typically small coal mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. However, whilst Sputnik was the catalyst and the inspiration for Homer's efforts to be so much more than what was expected of him (in other words, to go down the mines like his father), this is anything but a film about rockets. Whilst this is admittedly an occasionally clichéd effort, the film nonetheless has a myriad of subplots running through it. This is a glorious encapsulation (I had to get that attempted pun in somewhere) of how the sudden appearance of the Soviets in the high plane of space jolted the United States of the late 1950s in many ways. This was the era when many a small mining town came to face an uncertain future, both through the gradual loss of the economic viability of the mines which had sustained them for so long as well as the gradual loss of the social viability of the towns as the youth of the towns came to appreciate that there were far more choices available to them rather than just following their fathers down the mines. This was the start of a period of intense change in the United States as it was dragged kicking and screaming into the technological age, where the traditionally accepted norms would no longer apply.

    And that is precisely the main plot of the film - young Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) sees in Sputnik a means by which he can escape the drudgery of the mines. Conversely, his father John Hickam (Chris Cooper) cannot see what is so damn wrong with going down the mines - it is almost like a family destiny to do so. The only problem is that to get out of the rut, you need to get to university and that is almost the exclusive preserve of the jocks on athletic scholarships - small town non-jocks simply have no option but the mines, as they simply do not have the financial resources to attend university without a scholarship. But young Homer is inspired and with the encouragement of his teacher Miss Riley (Laura Dern) and with the help of his friends, Homer builds his rockets and aims for the stars. Naturally enough it is no simple task and plenty of failures occur as the quartet of Homer, Roy Lee Cook (William Lee Scott), Quentin Wilson (Chris Owen) and Sherman O'Dell (Chad Lindberg) come to grips with technology and science completely foreign to them. Along the way they manage to indulge in the usual not too subtle doses of Apple PieTM and MumTM so inherent in the All American DreamTM. But what the heck, this is done with a bit of style as they prove that girls go for geeks too and that geekery can pay dividends in the form of success at the State Science Fair and ultimately at the National Science Fair. The rockets go from being jokes that cause nothing but trouble as they spear at odd angles all over the sky to being the talk of the town as they ascend ever greater heights - with the boys along for the ride with the help and blessing of the town. Somewhere in all the Apple PieTM, as Homer achieves his goal, his traditionalist father also comes to realize the way of the future.

    Apart from a wonderful story, what makes this film work so well is the way that even the clichés have been so beautifully blended into the film. Never hitting an overly dogmatic approach, the subtlety of human relationships are handled in a wonderful way. Of particular note is the willingness to accept the previously outcast Quentin, the school geek. Every performance here is handled in a wonderfully understated way that never draws attention to the characters, but in the end highlights the true essence of character. And the directorial approach of Joe Johnston really helps make this a quite enthralling film, even though the usual clichés are so well expected. Add to that a beautiful cinematographic approach and this is a beguilingly engaging film.

    If you missed this at the cinema, I would strongly urge you to beat a hasty path to your local DVD supplier and get your hands on this beautiful film. Take a deep breath before indulging in the inevitable doses of the All American DreamTM, but then enjoy a wonderful film despite of it. And if you are a train buff, you will appreciate the brief cameo of a certain O. Winston Link. For those who do not know, O. Winston Link is possibly the greatest rail photographer the world has known, famed for his magnificent black and white photographic record of American steam during the 1950s in particular.

Transfer Quality


    Unfortunately, Universal have been nothing if not inconsistent in their transfers and it does become a bit of a raffle when one drops one of their DVDs into your player. This one is one of their better efforts thankfully.

    The transfer is presented at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and it is 16x9 enhanced.

    This is another of those anamorphically shot films that always seem to produce impressive transfers and once again we have the evidence on screen to demonstrate why this should be the process of choice (no correspondence entered into!). Another sharp and detailed transfer that hides little in the way of the subtle detail offered. Indeed, faced with the prospect of underground coal mine shots, this could so easily have descended into hideously dark and murky scenes that lacked any sort of detail. What we have is some very nice detail and a wonderful clarity to highlight the fact. At times the definition is not piercingly sharp but this suits the style of the film and the period quite well indeed. The highlights here were funnily enough the relatively simple things - the gorgeous shafts of light from the miners helmet lamps piercing the growing darkness of the shaft as they descend to the working levels of the underground tunnels are typical examples. There was not a hint of low level noise in the transfer.

    The colours come up very nicely in the transfer, nicely vibrant although obviously lacking a lot of bright colours. This wonderfully captures the grimy, darker tones of a coal mining town that I remember so well from my youth. There is a nice depth to the darker tones here that is utterly believable and so completely engrossing that you hardly notice the lack of bright colours at all. Not a hint of oversaturation here and this is a wonderfully natural looking picture overall.

    There did not appear to be any MPEG artefacts in the transfer. There was a rather consistent albeit minor problem with film-to-video artefacts throughout the transfer, in the form of some minor aliasing: whilst nothing too bad in itself, the consistency tended to draw attention to it although it did not really cause any serious distraction to the film. As befits a film of such recent vintage, film artefacts were virtually absent from the transfer.

    This is an RSDL formatted disc, but I did not notice the layer change at all during the film. It is probable that the film is on one layer and the extras are on the second layer.


    If you have read my bio on the site (and if you haven't, why not?), you will note that I love detail in soundtracks. This is a very good example of what I like.

    There are four audio tracks on the DVD, all Dolby Digital 5.1 efforts: English, French, Italian and Spanish. I indulged in the English default soundtrack only.

    The dialogue was clear and easy to understand throughout.

    There did not appear to be any audio sync problems with the soundtrack.

    The musical score comes from Mark Isham, whose music I have enjoyed for many years, especially since his early work on Windham Hill Records. His film work has in general been of a good calibre and this is no different, offering a very nicely supportive score, quite heavily dependent upon the string instruments, pulling all the right emotive strings without being too schmaltzy. Adding to the supportive score is a nice collection of some of the early rock and roll hits of the era.

    Where this soundtrack really grabs me is through the nicely effective use of the surround channels, especially the rear channels, all without being obtrusive (or indeed intrusive). This is a quietly effective soundtrack that highlights how effective a well mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack can be even without indulging in too many percussive tricks. A very clean sound, with a nice amount of space to allow the sound to bloom, let down just a tad by a not quite perfect soundscape: the voice track is perhaps just a little too forward in the mix at times, but nothing that I found too disturbing at all. The bass channel is again very nicely supportive without being too aggressive and the result is a rather nicely balanced effort.


    This is a fairly typical non-Collector's Edition package from Universal, that clearly is crying out for a commentary track from either or both of director Joe Johnston and author Homer J. Hickam (who incidentally ended up working for NASA).


    A fairly typical Universal style menu, lacking audio and animation enhancement.

Theatrical Trailer (2:07)

    A slightly inferior quality effort for a film of this recent vintage, presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, not 16x9 enhanced and with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. A fairly atypical example of the modern trailer in that it does not completely give away the entire film in two minutes!

Featurette - Spotlight On Location (10:05)

    This is your typical ten minute extended promotional effort with cast and crew interview snippets interspersed with some behind the scenes footage and some extracts from the film. Presented in a full frame format (apart from the film extracts), not 16x9 enhanced and with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, this unfortunately suffers somewhat from film-to-video artefacts - most notably some ugly shimmering at times. To be blunt, these sorts of featurettes are really starting to make me blasé and I sincerely wish that studios would go with a decent length full blown "making of" effort that really conveys more of the behind the scenes stuff.

Biographies - Cast and Crew

    The usual extensive efforts that Universal seem to be better at than anyone else in general.

Production Notes

    Again the usual extensive effort that Universal definitely do better than anyone else in general. Completely legible and completely readable, and informative to boot.

Web Links

    No comment on these accursed things, since I do not have access.

R4 vs R1

    This would appear to be identical to the Region 1 release, except we miss out on a Pan and Scan version of the film. Note that the Region 1 version is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and does not contain a director's commentary, despite information to the contrary at a number of sites. Now let's see, an NTSC DVD with the addition of a Pan and Scan version of the film or a superior PAL resolution DVD - I don't know but I think we again have a Region 4 winner on our hands.


    October Sky is a wonderful film, presented on essentially a damn good DVD. Just go out and get it!

    A very good video transfer.

    A very good audio transfer.

    A decent extras package that cries out for a commentary track.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ian Morris (have a laugh, check out the bio)
14th April 2000

Review Equipment
DVD Pioneer DV-515; S-video output
Display Sony Trinitron Wega 84cm. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Audio Decoder Built in
Amplification Yamaha RXV-795. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Speakers Energy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL