Well folks, I have good news and bad news on the space shuttle front this week. The good news is that the orbiter Discovery and the prototype/test vehicle Enterprise were successfully handed off at Dulles Airport recently – Enterprise, which had previously been on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum annex, was flown to New York City where she will be housed in a brand new facility at the Intrepid Museum in Manhattan. Discovery is already on public display at the Air & Space Museum annex, so those of you in the D.C. area should go pay her a visit.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is that I watched SpaceCamp.
Year of Release: 1986
Genre: “A bunch of kids save the [whatever]!”
Starring: a slew of familiar faces from ‘80s movies – Lea Thompson (Lorraine McFly), Kate Capshaw (Steve Spielberg’s wife/Indiana Jones’ shrill ex-girlfriend), Larry B. Scott (the gay kid from Revenge of the Nerds), and Tom Skerritt (some guy from Top Gun), to name a few. Also, a young Joaquin/Leaf Phoenix is in there!
Hook: A ragtag group of youngsters gets more than they bargained for when their astronaut training excursion somehow gets them and their instructor launched into space.
Why The Hell Did I Watch This Shit? Probably most Americans who were children between 1986 and 1996 have seen this movie at some point (most likely on video).You know, it’s one of those bland, inoffensive movies that you can sit a bunch of summer camp/afterschool kids in front of on a rainy day. I saw it when I was 12 and I remember it really pissing me off because of how inaccurate it was WRT the space program, common sense, etc. So I thought I’d revisit it now that I’m older and snarkier and see if it’s still as shitty as I remembered.
“Anybody see Tom Hanks yet? What about Kevin Bacon? Or Bill Paxton, I’d settle for Bill Paxton at this point.”
Plot Summary: Astronaut Andie (Capshaw) has been getting rather frustrated lately. Even though she was selected to be the first female space shuttle pilot, she keeps getting passed up for assignments. Her also-astronaut husband Zach (Skerritt) doesn’t mind so much, though, because this means that Andie has plenty of time freed up to help him out with the “clean-cut, all-American” kids at Space Camp! Oh joy. Under Andie and Zach’s tutelage are biplane-flying astronaut hopeful Kathryn (Thompson), stock ‘80s Wrangler-driving douchebag Kevin (Tate Donovan), valley girl Tish (Kelly Preston), spazzy science geek Rudy (Scott), and precocious wunderkind Max (Phoenix), who speaks entirely in Star Wars references. It’s gonna be a great summer!
The Hope Of Our Nation’s Future.
Things get off to a rocky start for our intrepid youngsters: Kevin doesn’t even want to be there to begin with, but his parents bribed him with a new Jeep (SpaceCamp AND a new Jeep?! Seriously? When did they stop making parents like that?). So his head’s not exactly in the game. He even manages to get goody two-shoes Kathryn to break curfew with him one night to “look at the shuttle” (never mind the orbiter, he really just wanted to show her his solid rocket booster, if you know what I mean). The team doesn’t get along too well in their first few rounds in the shuttle simulators. And Max befriends a state-of-the-art anthropomorphic robot named Jinx, which despite costing NASA over $20 million in R&D, just sort of hangs around Space Camp handing socket wrenches to maintenance workers and is left under such low security that a 10-year-old is able to sneak him into the camp bunks. And nobody really seems to care that Max does.
There’s a reason they didn’t send your pal up to the space station, Max. Just sayin’.
But Jinx isn’t like all those other super-high-tech robots designed for use in space stations (and not just because he has wheels, which he probably won’t need in the weightless environment of low Earth orbit). He and Max are BEST. FRIENDS. FOR. EV. ER. And best friends would do ANYTHING for each other. Which is why when Max, upset and despondent one night because no one appreciates his Star Wars chatter, says offhand that he wishes he were in space, Jinx takes this like any creepy stalker friend with supercomputing abilities would: he arranges a “thermal curtain failure” on the space shuttle while Max and the other campers are sitting inside of it, which forces Mission Control to ignite the solid rocket boosters and launch the shuttle to avoid its destruction. Their communications with NASA severely limited, Andie and the kids Endeavour to get the shuttle safely back to Earth.
Heheheh, get it? Endeavour? Little space shuttle joke ther-…ehh, fuck it.
Timing Is Everything, Mostly: With its grandiose “our nation’s young people will lead America to space and/or other exciting new frontiers” theme, you get the feeling that SpaceCamp was supposed to be THE high-concept “our future is now” family flick of the ‘80s. Unfortunately, it was slated for release in early 1986, just a few weeks after the tragic space shuttle Challenger disaster. Although its release was ultimately pushed back a few months, this was still too soon for most people to want to watch a lighthearted space shuttle movie, and as a result, SpaceCamp bombed at the box office (although it may well have bombed anyway, considering that Star Trek IV, a far superior space-related movie released the same year, did gangbusters. Maybe if SpaceCamp had had a whale or two in it, things would have been different).
How Do You Get To The Launch Pad? Just Drive Through The Plot Hole: One night at Space Camp, which is in Huntsville, Alabama, Kevin and Kathryn sneak off to view the space shuttle, which is at Cape Canaveral. This whole episode takes place over the course of maybe an hour. Hey, Kevin? I take it all back, dude. That is one tubular Jeep Wrangler your parents got you. It can, like, bend the space-time continuum and shit. That’s kickin’ rad, man.
Or perhaps that magnificent sweater is the source of his powers.
As Seen On The Disney Afternoon: Upon viewing this film, you may ask yourself, “wait a minute, didn’t this exact same thing happen in that one episode of Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers?” Why yes, this exact scenario DID happen in that one episode of Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers, in that our protagonists start out having a spazzy time in an astronaut training-type place, accidentally get launched into space for real, and end up having to land the space shuttle/cartoon ”Space Plane” when the actual trained astronauts get incapacitated. However, the Rescue Rangers arguably handled the situation a bit more accurately:
SpaceCamp: a bunch of kids are somehow given security clearance to sit INSIDE the space shuttle during an “engine test”. They are accidentally shot into space during an unplanned launch due to the interference of a high-tech robot trying to please a 10-year-old.
Rescue Rangers: Chip and Dale are unknowingly loaded onto the “Space Plane” inside a space suit. They are accidentally shot into space during a planned launch with actual astronauts.
SpaceCamp: once everyone arrives in space, some shit floats around like it would in a weightless environment, but some of it – hair and jewelry, especially – still hangs down like it would on the Earth’s surface.
Rescue Rangers: once everyone arrives in space, all the shit floats around like it would in a weightless environment.
SpaceCamp: to retrieve a crucial oxygen canister, young Max somehow fits into a space suit that was designed for a full-grown adult.
Rescue Rangers: Gadget knows her size limitations and builds her own correctly-proportioned space suit out of a glove and a caviar jar.
She got crazy skillz.
Who Do You Root For? This was another movie where I initially struggled with who to like. Kathryn is a decent enough protagonist, as she’s the smart girl with ambition (she wants to be the first female space shuttle commander). She falls for douchebag Kevin, though, for no discernible reason, so I do question her judgement. I kinda liked Kelly Preston’s valley-girl-with-photographic-memory, and she makes an amazingly astute saving throw to help the impromptu shuttle crew solve a major problem (she figures out how to communicate with NASA via Morse code when the radio fails). And even though his subterfuge involving Jinx the robot leads to the big final act crisis, little Joaquin Phoenix IS pretty cute.
Grown-up Joaquin didn’t turn out too badly, either.
Production Values: Pretty high, actually. They filmed this at the real Space Camp facilities, and got freakin’ John Williams to do the score. The cast is of the caliber you might expect for a middling ‘80s family movie – no huge name stars, but a few who were at least B-list at the time. The zero-g “effects” include a little bit of wire work to give the illusion of “floating”, but it still looks fairly cheesy (some objects don’t behave as they would in zero-g, as mentioned above).
Should YOU Watch This Shit? SpaceCamp did not quite get my hackles up as much as when I first saw it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good movie, either. The acting is stodgy and wooden, the characterizations are one-dimensional, and the plot is rife with implausibilities. And you might think, “well come on, it’s just a movie”, but the dramatic moments feel pretty cheap as they revolve around ridiculous plot devices that were shoehorned in expressly for that purpose. It’s not enough to have one of the kids have to don a space suit and help out the actual astronaut, for example; it HAS to be that little moppet Max. Anyway, this movie is not entirely offensive as it at least doesn’t look terribly cheap. It’s just not particularly exciting if you’re over the age of six. And, more importantly, it’s not quite hammy enough to be ironically enjoyed properly.
“We’re currently trapped in low Earth orbit in a vehicle that wasn’t flight-ready at launch and has only a few hours of oxygen left and we have no contact with Mission Control. Now who’s up for some freeze-dried ice cream?”
On the Hodgson-Nelson Scale of Bad Movie Watchability, I give SpaceCamp 5 Hamdingers out of 10.