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RocketMan (1997) - Guilty Pleasure

Updated: Jul 20

RocketMan. The film that paid tribute to Elton John and made Taron Engelton a star, this film shed light on the past, tribulations, and milestones of one of the most iconic and talented musicians of our time. And it did so with robust song sequences, terrific performances, and, once again, a warts-and-all look at how he came to be.


It took the world by storm. It dazzled audiences everywhere. It swept the Oscar for Best Song, with Elton John writing part of that song himself.


My intake on this modern classic is...


Oops! Already taken care of. You can read it for yourself here.

I guess I lost track on which movie I was supposed to tackle for this month of Guilty Pleasures. But getting back on track, what I meant to review is, I must confess, my absolute biggest guilty pleasure out of all of them:


The other RocketMan, with Harland Williams. Only this one does go up into space.

This screwball comedy dwelled on a NASA scientist named Fred Z. Randall, who dreamt of one day becoming an astronaut. After initially being requested to troubleshoot a glitch from the Mission Operating System, a freak accident left one of the astronauts, Gary Hackman, in a crippled condition. This compelled the NASA board to consider Randall and space rookie Gordon A. Peacock as the replacement for the forthcoming first manned mission to Mars. Even if it was all by accident, Randall ended up excelling on (almost) all of the space sequence tests, including on lung capacity and spending a good portion of time in isolation. This got him a spot as the third crew member and astronaut of the manned mission to Mars, alongside astronauts Bill 'Wild Bill' Overbeck and geologist/love interest Julie Ford, plus a rock-detecting chimpanzee named Ulysses. From there, the four of them set out to make history as Fred, being the goofball and genius that he was, subjugated the crew and the mission to endless pratfalls and even some significant discoveries of Martian activities as they went along.


From left to right: Bill 'Wild Bill' Overbeck, Fred Z. Randall, Julie Ford

Now, I may not be an expert on science, space travel, or even space conditions, but I know this for sure: what I saw from RocketMan may obviously not be the likeliest outcome of space ethics or expeditions that can ever be interpreted. At the time of this writing, we just reached 2021, and so far, no one has been lucky enough or brave enough to plan a mission to Mars. I mean, sure, we still have a ways to go before we can make it that far, but this movie came out in 1997, and yet, all we've accomplished so far is send some satellites onto Mars. Though don't get me wrong, these are still significant steps forward. Some of these satellites had already taken plenty of Mars pictures and sent them back to us on Earth. They sure helped give us a visual taste of what we'd expect to see by the time we finally reach Mars. And I, just like the rest of you, am praying for us to take the next steps necessary to pull off the first manned mission - the first successful manned mission - to Mars sooner rather than later.

Also, I caught two blatant scientific inaccuracies from this picture. One is, we are still lightyears away from developing hypersleep. I understood that this was born through science fiction, and it would take a miracle to make this an actual thing for space travel...much like what it'd take to make time travel a reality. The closest thing we have to it that is manageable is being cryogenically frozen and then dethawed at a later period of time. But as for space travel, I think that anyone who went through space missions, especially to the Moon, would've had to treat their rocket as a new home for the duration of the trip, with no facility to sleep it through. I mean, isn't that what the isolation chambers are there for, anyway?

And two, communicating with anyone on Earth from either a rocket shuttle in a far-off distance or even on Mars would be easier said than done...so to speak. The messages or voice calls that would've been transmitted between them would've had to be treated similarly to how we treat letters, telegrams, or even emails. The distance can affect the amount of time it takes for the calls or messages to get through from one side to another.

Of course, in the case of RocketMan, those do not matter. What does matter are the characters and the humor that both take center stage here.

First, let's talk about the characters.


Fred Randall was just a dimwitted yet highly skillful computer scientist. He can pinpoint specific NASA facts and space information when the situation called for it while also just going through things in his own Freddy way. Bill 'Wild Bill' Overbeck, the astronaut who had nine shuttle missions under his belt, was just the straight, levelheaded guy who frequently found himself getting annoyed by Fred's tactics, despite his skillful space expertise. And by the end of the movie, Bill gave off a hint that he was more sick and tired of always being shown up by Fred, accidental as his accomplishments may have been. Julie, the geologist, felt like the standard astronaut who sought to harvest some rock samples from Mars and started to develop feelings for Fred. Paul Wick, the lead flight director, was a sensible guy - or so we would've been led to believe - who urged to make sure that one of the most important NASA missions ever assembled was to go off the ground, no matter what it took or what measures he had to take to ensure it. The one character in the movie I found myself wanting to know more about was Bud Nesbitt, played by Beau Bridges. He was formerly part of the Apollo 13 mission, and some of his actions during then, as he eventually told Fred, could have left the astronauts dead had it not been for their miraculous maneuvers.


As the characters were, they were super standard. Thankfully, however, the actors' performances lent them enough decency and mannerisms to carry them all the way through.

Jessica Lundy managed to convey Julie Ford with some conviction and a slight no-nonsense demeanor to keep her entertaining throughout the movie. William Sadler played Bill Overbeck's no-nonsense demeanor much straighter, though, and his mannerisms suggested some vague interpretations of him acting like an older brother figure to Fred Randall. Jeffrey DeMunn, as Paul Wick, expressed some good facets of a reasonable, if also sneaky and desperate, authority figure who tried to iron things out, whether he acknowledged some of the problems or not. And Beau Bridges helped give Bud Nesbitt more of a likable tough-guy attitude with his dilemmas and a level of hidden tenderness that only started to break through as he and the others progressed through the Mars mission.

Frankly, this leads me to the closest thing the movie ever did to generate any interest from me, just like Bud Nesbitt himself: the work relationship background between him and Paul Wick.

SPOILER ALERT


During the Apollo 13 mission, Bud caught what looked like a small glitch in the tank stirring circuits. Despite his efforts to report it before the mission was given the go-ahead, Paul Wick, under the impression that everything about it was as hunky-dory as he wanted it to be, dismissed him, thinking that he was just paranoid. And this conflict between them surfaced again when Fred caught some scannings of incoming weather on Mars. Their biggest hope was that they would have gone through with their Mars expedition before the incoming sandstorms would've intervened and tarnished it. But according to Fred's latest weather scans, the storms that they hoped would've been above them, and at a particular time frame, were coming much lower and sooner than they anticipated. When Paul Wick learned about it, he dismissed those discoveries, too, once again thinking that Bud was letting his paranoia get the best of him. Though, that begs the question, how come Paul didn't just ask Fred, or Bill, or Julie about the discoveries and hear their sides of the story, and not only Bud's? Part of it may have come from the movie's tendency to portray Paul Wick as a dismissive bad guy out of the blue. Still, personally, that part of Paul's character was not given as much logic, substance, or foreshadowing as it could have needed.

Of course, let's focus our attention on the star of the movie, as well as the #1 reason this movie is such a guilty pleasure for me: Harland Williams and his sense of humor.


Oddball. Out there. Unusual. Out of nowhere. Wacky. Those are the words I would use to sum up Harland Williams's performance and character in a nutshell. I even got the impression that RocketMan might have been greenlit just to give Williams a platform to work out his comedic improvisations.

Many facets of Fred Randall's character left a big impression thanks to his weird little quirks that, on occasion, felt like watching an awkward kid in a candy store. And not just any awkward kid, but a gifted awkward kid. Half of it may have been him showing off extensive knowledge of many space-related topics. But the other half consisted of sudden bursts of laughter, comedic improvisations, physical humor, and referencing pop culture from the 20th century. And even then, I'm just going to say it: half of the things Harland Williams did in this movie as Fred Randall were just hilarious.

There are a few examples that come to mind as I dwell on that. Let's start with the scene where Randall underwent the space training exercises, especially at the isolation chamber. He was placed in one isolation chamber next to a second one where Gordon Peacock rested. But when Randall found ways to entertain himself, he drove his neighbor completely bonkers, and the results were just priceless. I also liked how he took riding the G-force centrifuge like riding a roller coaster, to a point where he requested to go at an even faster speed. That is, until the chair he sat on broke off and sent him flying through the NASA halls and into Gary.


One other thing about Fred Randall that I found childishly humorous was how, in moments where he accidentally caused some physical mishaps, the only thing he said each time was, "It wasn't me!" I think his best one was when he and Bill climbed down the ladder to set foot on the Martian surface. But when Fred accidentally slipped, he slid down the ladder while Bill was still climbing down, technically becoming the first man on Mars, while Bill fell on his back on the Martian surface next. Fred's classic exclamation in that event was funny enough, but once the U.S. papers made a big deal out of it, it became even more bizarrely hilarious.


There's another scene in the movie where he and the rest of the crew were gearing up for their eight-month-long hypersleep, only for Ulysses to steal his bed and force him to take Ulysses' much smaller bed. This made Randall wake up after sleeping for a measly thirteen minutes, leaving him with the rocket, the Aries, all to himself for the next eight months. And the ways he made the most of all that spare time were as wild and outlandish as you'd expect from someone like him.

When Fred, after his laxative affair - I'll talk about that shortly - spoke with the President on live TV, he talked about how it felt to watch the world from so high up that he could hold it in his hands. Then, he engaged in a singing routine of 'I Got The Whole World In My Hands,' complete with him inviting the viewers and the President to sing along. He even asked peoples of different nationalities to sing along, too, even though his ways of singing them in his requested languages were way off. It was unusual yet pretty quirky, funny to see, and catchy to hear.

Oh, and let's not forget how Fred Randall reacted when the head of NASA, Ben Stevens, announced him as the replacement astronaut for the manned mission to Mars. He screamed like he was out of his wits and yet can't help himself in his excitement. During that scene, his voice was as irresistibly humorous to hear as his reactions were to see, as were those of the NASA personnel, plus Ulysses, who were all like 'Lord help us.' I remember reading that Williams improvised this whole reaction and did it in one take. That only makes this scene feel even funnier.


Now, a good part of his humor involved toilet humor, but even that, I think, was done very nicely. There was one scene where Fred and the crew were eating dinner before their broadcast with the President when they discovered that they were eating different things from their tubes. Julie ended up with toothpaste, Bill ended up with hemorrhoid cream, and Fred unknowingly ate laxative. It sent him stumbling to the toilet, and after engaging in some unintended mishaps with it, he emerged from the bathroom half-soaked in blue liquid for the President and the whole world to see. And Bill and Fred's communications about the hemorrhoid cream were just the cherry on top.


There was one scene with Fred and Bill on Mars, as far as toilet humor is still concerned, that really took the cake. They both linked their astronaut suits together after a leak was found in Bill's oxygen tank. After Fred experienced some intestinal cramps, he started letting it all out, inflating his astronaut suit and filling both his and Bill's suits with his fumes. This was so funny that even the NASA personnel who caught the methane levels in their suits cracked up over it. This is what I call providing extra amounts of oxygen, even if it was not the kind you'd want to breathe in your suit.


Okay, come to think of it, this looks like more than half of his comedic antics being funny. But who cares? They're still funny!

I don't know if it was the absurdity or the timing, but Harland Williams' humor was just a sack full of unexpected comedic surprises that would leave you unsure whether to cringe over it or end up howling with laughter over it. It felt both so awkward and so sidesplitting all at the same time.

By the time the movie wrapped up, the movie was even nice enough to fittingly throw in Elton John's classic tune 'Rocket Man' for the end credits. Along with The Lion King, this jumpstarted my budding interest and taste in Elton John's music, and I thank the end credits of RocketMan for doing this for me.

It's no Apollo 13 or For All Mankind, but I know as well as you do that it isn't supposed to be. It's supposed to be just a goofy space comedy with lots of pratfalls and comedic slapstick.

For me, I enjoyed the humor in the movie more than most other people might. Something about the space environment just made the comedic situations, especially from Harland Williams as Fred Randall, feel that much more impactful in its tickling of the funny bones. And though the story and characters, I agree, could have been better, they still left small, solid impressions in the movie in a way that complimented Harland Williams's talents. And what it lacked in substance, it made up for with the humor, outlandish as it may have been.


A screwball comedy of galactic proportions, with one Astro-nut to make it all happen. Who would not say 'yes' to that?

My Rating: C+



Additional Thoughts

—I caught one other thing from the movie that felt intriguing but not executed well enough. When Fred got set to venture off to Mars, Bud Nesbitt encouraged him by giving him a gold coin that signified bravery. After keeping it with him for some time, he accidentally tossed it into the rocket toilet. When Fred reached in to try and get it, he was instead sucked halfway into the toilet, making it look like the coin was gone forever. But then, at the end of the movie, just before he and the Aries team crashlanded on Mars, he whipped out that gold coin to jam it into the rocket system and get it in good enough working order. It was a relief to see that Fred succeeded in getting the coin back, but a little foreshadowing or explanation of how he retrieved it would've been nice.


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