St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

RocketMan (1997)

Undermining Toxic Masculinity by Making Stupid Noises With Your Lips

RocketMan title card.

I’ve always thought Disney’s film RocketMan (1997) was a massively underrated masterpiece. No, not the Elton John film — before that, in the mid-90s when Disney released a hit animation every couple of years but sandwiched between those were some dire live-action movies that kept trying to make Jonathan Taylor Thomas a thing. In among the dregs was a surprise gem that no-one saw at the time and no-one has seen since. RocketMan is about NASA’s first manned mission to Mars, during which they have a last-minute problem that requires them to sub in Fred Randall (a one-man Chernobyl) as one of their astronauts. I would never say that this is a smart film. It’s a kids’ movie and it’s goofy as all get-out. We’ve got a main character who spontaneously busts out an impression of the Cowardly Lion; an extended fart-in-a-spacesuit routine; and a cringeworthy, contrived catch-phrase: “It wasn’t me!” It’s not exactly Crime and Punishment, but there are a ton of good reasons to like it. Despite its silliness it is genuinely witty. The jokes work, partly due to a snappy script, but in no small part thanks to the enormous comic talents of its star, Harland Williams, who could have been the next big thing if this movie had taken off the way it should have.

Harland Williams as Fred Randall.
Harland Williams as Fred Randall.

On a recent rewatching I realized that Fred Randall isn’t just a man-child and a schlemiel. He operates with his own definition of masculinity that stands in opposition to the joyless, cruel, and military machismo of the NASA test pilots — and in every case Randall’s masculinity is shown to be superior. In this way I think the movie reads very similarly to something like Steven Universe; its purpose is to show us a more healthy masculinity and to demonstrate the failings of the toxic kind. It’s hard to imagine anyone sitting at a Disney typewriter in 1997 and setting out to write an indictment of traditional masculine values. More likely they were just trying to do “Goofy in space”, but the way they consistently frame Randall as effeminate in opposition to a square-jawed foil makes the message hard to escape. You get the impression that maybe one of the writers was one of us — always picked last for the football team and now having his little revenge against the jocks.

Randall pretending a biro is a spaceship.
“Commander, are you sure we’re headed towards the planet Earth? It looks a heck of a lot like the sun.”
“Of course I’m sure, you fool! How dare you question my authority.”

The first thing adult viewers will notice is that this a take-off of The Right Stuff (1983) and space disaster movies like Apollo 13 (1995). RocketMan’s astronaut training scenes are a direct parody of the training that military test pilots underwent as part of the early space program, and the atmosphere at NASA seems soaked in all the virtues you’d expect from the American air force — they are hard men doing a hard job, arrogant and alpha, the finest specimens of masculinity the military has to offer. Randall, on the other hand, is the opposite — immature, goofy, sensitive, nerdy, and firmly beta. He sits behind a desk and programs computers all day instead of going out and doing anything. The first half of the film, then, is a gleeful exercise in setting up every macho test that you’d expect from an astronaut training movie and then letting Randall demolish them, humiliating his seemingly more capable opponents in the process. He weathers a long isolation test by putting on a sock-puppet play and refuses to be taken out at the end of the test because he’s “just started the third act.”

By contrast the astronaut Randall is replacing was originally “injured while proving himself wrong” — too arrogant to admit he made a mistake, resulting in a skull fracture from an out-of-control lander model. Randall’s competition for the vacant position is a military type but seems more like a sickly Victorian child; he throws up on the centrifuge that simulates the launch acceleration, and gets driven crazy by Randall’s incessant blithering in the isolation chamber. Not only does Randall inexplicably seem to do better on the tests than his opponent, he also beats the records set by the head of the Mars mission, Commander Overbeck.

Commander Overbeck.
Commander Overbeck.

Overbeck is our typical manly man. He’s military, square-jawed, and traditionally handsome. He can hold his alcohol. His humour is cruel and joyless. He displays casual misogyny (referring to Randall and co-astronaut Julie Ford as “ladies”). His purpose in the mission seems to be some degree of personal glory, like a colonial explorer planting his flag in a new territory. Randall, on the other hand, is a dorky mummy’s boy with no discernible jawline (Williams once joked that a female celebrity had the roll of fat removed from her stomach and grafted to his neck). He can’t hold his liquor. He screams like a girl. He sings in a falsetto. He takes joy in nearly everything, pivoting his head like an overstimulated squirrel, and seems endlessly capable of making his own fun with only socks and a biro. But when Overbeck, at the end of his rope, jeopardises the mission for his own vainglory, it’s Randall who rushes out to save him, and what’s more sacrifices his own air supply to save the mission’s chimpanzee from suffocating. The film feminises Randall beautifully in the scene where he saves Commander Overbeck, who has been trapped under an overturned moon buggy: “They say that when a mother’s child is trapped, the rush of her adrenaline gives her the strength of twenty men. Hurry, commander, call me mommy. Call me mommy now. Say it like you love me. Mommy’s coming, little Billy! Live, child, live!” Randall’s femininity is also (literally in this scene) his strength, the same way that Steven Universe’s embrace of his feminine side gives him the empathy and emotional maturity that are his advantage over the people who just want to fight him. Steven Universe will happily drag up for pop song (“Haven’t You Noticed”), and Randall will bust out the Jiminy Cricket. It’s his beautiful falsetto rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star” that first attracts Ford’s attention. She’s not wowed by Overbeck’s “frat-house” style of partying, but she is attracted to Randall’s sensitivity.

Randall on a staticky video screen.
“Mr. Wick, this is bad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before. It reminds me of a French Canadian…[static]…a tennis racket stuck to the back of…[static]…bubbling out of my sister’s…[static]…Brazilian donkey. I don’t think I can make myself any clearer.”

Running parallel to the storyline between Randall and Overbeck is the tense working relationship between two NASA co-ordinators, Paul Wick and Bud Nesbitt. Wick is the co-ordinator of the current mission, while Nesbitt has been sidelined for years because of his role in the Apollo 13 accident (“Oh sure it was [an accident], just like the captain of the Exxon Valdez didn’t see Alaska floating there right in front of him.”) Here we get the same juxtaposition of arrogance opposite humility and honour. Nesbitt takes responsibility for Apollo 13 because it was his call, even though it was really Wick who insisted there was nothing to worry about. Now on the Mars mission Wick refuses to listen to anyone else and has eyes only for his own reputation. It’s Nesbitt taking responsibility and working with the astronauts that winds up saving the mission.

A painting of Randall as God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
“Turns out Ulysses is one of those rare genius painting monkeys.”

Am I reading too much into a movie that is largely carried by Harland Williams making stupid noises with his lips? The way Randall and Nesbitt are characterised as effeminate or failures in contrast to the big dick energy of Overbeck and Wick says it all. Our villain here isn’t power-hungry, dangerous, and threatening like Scar from The Lion King or camp and witchy like Ursula from The Little Mermaid. What’s cast as negative in RocketMan are arrogance, selfishness, and casual cruelty; the inflexible adherence to traditionally masculine values; and the rejection of other modes of masculinity. That’s why I keep rewatching this movie. That and the stupid noises.