SpaceCamp (1986)

9 Mar

joaquin phoenix SpaceCamp

Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“SpaceCamp” had the misfortune of being released around the time of the tragic 1986 Challenger accident. The movie features a group of kids accidentally sent into space after a failure engine test on a shuttle, and the movie handles it very tensely so you couldn’t help but have flashbacks of that terrible occurrence with the Challenger. So the film wasn’t necessarily dead on arrival, but it certainly was doomed on arrival.

But how does the film itself hold up nowadays? Better, but that’s not saying much.

The movie is about a group of teenagers at NASA Space Camp. On a roll call by their astronaut host Andie (Kate Capshaw), there’s Kathryn (Lea Thompson, “Back to the Future”), a space enthusiast who really wants to be shuttle commander for the camp’s shuttle simulation, but is shifted to pilot; Kevin (Tate Donavan), a ne’er-do-well slacker who only signed up for Space Camp for his own Jeep, and has the hots for Kathryn; Tish (Kelly Preston), a new-age girl with a photographic memory; Rudy (Larry B. Scott) who lacks confidence; and Max (Joaquin Phoenix), the younger kid who is also a “Star Wars” fanatic and loves to spew its references.

In the first half of the movie, we see them go through the standard Space Camp procedures, though not standard to most of us watching it. Actually, this is one of the pleasures of the film—watching certain detail of the technical aspects at this camp has a real appeal. In particular, there’s a flight simulator and a pilot mechanical chair that spins about. I would have liked to see more of these elements, but they make way for moments of teenage melodrama, including a romance between Kevin and Kathryn that isn’t as interesting as what they’re going through with the camp activities.

I’ve heard arguments that the kids aren’t very bright and they make many mistakes. Well…some of these kids are first-timers. What do you expect? But then again, Andie puts a lot of pressure on them, like she expects more from them after what I guess is a week! No wonder they mess up badly in the simulator.

And if you can believe this, the Camp thinks this group is the right one to actually sit inside an actual shuttle during an engine test. How they were chosen after the washout simulator test is beyond me. And on top of that, why would NASA allow real kids to sit inside a real shuttle while real rockets are being fired? Shouldn’t they have taken into consideration that something could go wrong—something like, say…thermal curtain failure?

For those who don’t know, the movie explains that thermal curtain failure is very rare and it means that only one rocket will launch the shuttle and cause it to crash. Surely enough, through the efforts of an annoying robot (voiced by Frank Welker) befriended by Max that takes everything too literally, the thermal curtain does fail and NASA is forced to launch the shuttle, lest the shuttle crashes with the kids inside it.

So the kids, along with Andie, are thrust into space. At first, it seems like a dream come true. In a marvelous scene, we see them float around the cabin and get a great view of the sun setting on Earth. But there’s the issue of getting home without burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. There’s no radio contact and there’s only one tank of oxygen left that won’t leave enough time for them to make the nearest window home. Luckily, Andie is an experienced astronaut and there’s a currently-under-construction space station that’s nearby with plenty of oxygen tanks.

The film has its share of chilling moments that should have been exciting. For a family film, this conflict is too heavy. We have many scenes that come across as unsettling. Like, how about we let the little boy out into space to help get the oxygen tanks from the unfinished space station?! Let’s have him suddenly lose control and fly out into space so Andie can save him! Then let’s have the conflict of hooking up the tank the right way! Then let’s have the final climax in which Kathryn must get the shuttle through the atmosphere without incinerating everyone on board! This is supposed to be a high-powered family adventure, right?

So I’m guessing people didn’t like “SpaceCamp” because it reminded them too much of the risks of being in space rather than being bewildered by the amazing emptiness of it all, not just because of the Challenger accident. While the special effects are impressive and the acting isn’t so bad (Kate Capshaw stops whining for once and Lea Thompson shows a sense of conviction to her role), “SpaceCamp” isn’t as wonderful as we’d like to think a movie about kids going into space would be. Maybe if it was just about a group of juvenile space nuts and their lives at space camp—learning all the technical aspects while also adjusting their social lives—it would be a nice, entertaining movie. As it is, it’s a half-baked adventure.

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