Most of the film was shot in rural East Tennessee, including Oliver Springs, Harriman and Kingston in Morgan and Roane counties. The movie received a positive critical reception and is still celebrated in the regions of its setting and filming.
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" 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. Most people in the town work in the coal 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.
Initially, his family and classmates think he has gone crazy and is wasting his time, especially when Homer 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 continued support from their science teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), the four begin serious construction and launches of small rockets.
While their first launches are failures, they experiment with new fuels and rocket designs. After they complete several successful launches, the local paper runs a story about them.
However, the next day, they are arrested – accused of having started a forest fire with a rocket that went astray. After John picks up Homer from the police station, Roy Lee is beaten up by his abusive stepfather, Vernon. John intervenes and rescues Roy Lee, warning the drunken man that he will protect him as Roy Lee's late father would have.
The arrests, along with John's lack of support, crush the boys' dream, and they abandon rocketry. That night, after a mine disaster, John is injured while rescuing other men. The victim who is killed is Ike Bykovsky (Elya Baskin), a machine shop worker who let Homer use the shop to build his rockets, then transferred to the mine for better pay. Homer has no choice but to drop out of high school and work the mine to provide for the family while his father recovers.
Then, at this darkest day, 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. He and Quentin use what he learns to locate the accused and unrecovered "rocket" launched by the boys. Finding the rocket proves that it could not have caused the fire, as it was unable to travel that far. The boys present their findings to Miss Riley and the school principal, Mr. Turner (Chris Ellis), who follows up and looks more closely at the rocket that caused the fire and identifies the offending projectile as a flare from a nearby airfield.
Homer returns to school by special invitation, and the boys return to rocket making, and win the school science fair. This wins them the opportunity to participate in the National Science Fair in Indianapolis, Indiana. As they learn only one of them can go there, they choose Homer to do so.
Later that night, the workers' union opts to go on strike against Homer's dad. While the family eats dinner inside, John goes to the kitchen. A car pulls up outside, and a bullet is shot into the house. It misses John, and he realizes that the shooter was Vernon. Homer and Jim express their concern to their father, but John dismisses their fears. Fed up, Homer confronts his father, and a heated argument ensues. The mines are set to close down and there is nothing but trouble and no future for Homer in the mines. He resents his father's pressures to follow in the near-extinct mine work. Homer storms out of the house, vowing to never return.
At the national science fair, Homer's display is received very well. After a scheduled few days show, the prizes are to be awarded, and Homer enjoys top popularity and some sightseeing. Overnight, someone steals his machined rocket part model – the de Laval nozzle – as well as his autographed picture of Wernher von Braun. Homer makes an urgent phone call home for help. His mother, Elsie, implores John to end the ongoing strike so that Mr. Bolden (Randy Stripling), the machine worker who replaced Bykovsky, can use the mine's machine shop to build a replacement nozzle. John 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 he has gone.
Homer returns to Coalwood as a hero and visits Miss Riley, who is dying of Hodgkin's disease. A launch of their largest rocket yet (called the Miss Riley) is the last scene of the film. John, who never attended the launchings before, arrives this time, and from Homer's hands, is given the honor of pushing the firing button. The Miss Riley reaches an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,100 m) – higher than the summit of Mount Everest. As the crowd (and the rest of the town) looks up to the skies, following the fine progress of the rocket, John slowly puts his hand on Homer's shoulder and smiles.
At the end of the film, a series of vignettes reveals the true 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." 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, the train used in the scene was former Southern Railway 4501 relettered as Norfolk and Western 4501. Filming concluded on April 30, 1998.
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.
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.
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. The critic's consensus states: "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." Metacritic gave the film a 71 rating with these being dubbed "Generally Favorable Reviews" based on 23 professional critic reviews of the movie.
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."
Joe Leydon of Variety reviewed the film and called it, "Immensely entertaining and unabashedly inspirational."
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." 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.
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.
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
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".
Homer Hickam Jr's father was not named John. This was changed in an effort to keep the audience from being confused.
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.
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
Homer never dropped out of school to work in the town's mine. He did, however, work in the mine the following summer, as described in Hickam's book Sky of Stone
Homer never met Wernher von Braun- he left the room and von Braun was gone when he came back
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."