Saturday, November 25, 2023

#2,937. SpaceCamp (1986) - Random Musings


In my review of 1987’s Project X, I said how the final scene of that movie was “so outlandish that you could only find it in a Hollywood movie”. But as I pointed out, Project X was a Hollywood movie. “And because we like the characters”, I continued, “it wins us over, no matter how over-the-top or unlikely its grand finale might be”.

With 1986’s SpaceCamp, a family adventure directed by Harry Winer, we know after seeing the trailer that the film’s entire premise is going to be outlandish, unlikely, and over-the-top.

And, yes, it is also a Hollywood movie.

Still, I went in wondering if I could overlook its ridiculous story, or if I’d instead be rolling my eyes throughout SpaceCamp.

Set at an actual facility in Huntsville, Alabama, the film is about five kids and their incredible experience during a summer at Space Camp. Wise-ass Kevin (Tate Donovan) never wanted to go to Space Camp in the first place, but agreed to do so after his dad bought him a new jeep. Kathryn (Lea Thompson) dreams of being the first female commander of a shuttle mission, and takes the training very seriously. As does Rudy (Larry B. Scott), who gets teased at school because he loves science. Tish (Kelly Preston) is your typical teenager with one exception: she has a photographic memory, and can remember everything she’s ever read; while 12-year-old Max (Joaquin Phoenix, billed here as “Leaf Phoenix”, making his big-screen debut) is a Star Wars afficionado who longs to experience space travel.

Their instructor is astronaut Andie Bergstrom (Kate Capshaw), who laments the fact that, unlike her husband, NASA specialist Zach (Tom Skerritt), she has never been to outer space.

Initially, the group has trouble working as a team, and young Max finds his only real friend is a malfunctioning robot named Jinx (voiced by Frank Welker), which takes everything it hears literally.

One night, after being chastised by Kevin, Max runs away crying, saying to himself he wishes he could live in space. Jinx overhears this, and the next day, when all five students and Andie board the Space Shuttle to experience a test firing of the rocket boosters, Jinx arranges it with the NASA computer to force an error that will result in Max and the others being launched into space!

Stuck in orbit with a group of frightened kids and cut off from NASA (because it was a test launch, long-range communications had not been installed), Andie must do her best to pilot the shuttle and bring everyone home safely.

Crazy, right?

Hard to swallow? Of course.

To make matters worse, SpaceCamp was also the victim of terrible timing. It was released to theaters less than six months after the 1986 Challenger tragedy, when that shuttle exploded soon after lift-off, killing everyone aboard (including school teacher / observer Christa McAuliffe). With accusations that the movie was trying to capitalize on the tragedy (it was actually written and shot well before the disaster), SpaceCamp proved a box-office flop.

But that was then. How does SpaceCamp hold up today?

Yeah, I did roll my eyes a few times, and the first half of the movie, devoted to building the characters and their relationship to one another, is as routine as they come. No surprise that the five kids, with their differing personalities, worked poorly together during their training, making mistakes and constantly bickering with one another (which begs the question: why was their team, and not one of the other half-dozen or so, chosen to sit in on the shuttle's firing test?).

Once in outer space, though, I forgot my initial “yeah, right” reaction to this amazing turn of events, and found myself actually getting into the movie! Writers Clifford Green and Casey T. Mitchell concoct a number of tense moments - from lack of oxygen to missing their window for re-entry - that keep the viewer biting their nails throughout. Yes, far-fetched things happen in space as well, but by that point I was invested, and wasn’t worrying about how preposterous it all seemed. Hell, there were times the tension was so unbearable I found myself talking to the screen!

All this, plus another rousing score by the great John Williams, made SpaceCamp a lot more fun than I ever expected.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

1 comment:

unknown said...

Omg. I know my comment has nothing to do with your review. But I just wanna congratulate you for achieving the challenge of 2500 movies. It's very laudable.