Synopsis: To be an astronaut is the dream of thousands of young people around the world. It is this dream that leads a diverse group of young Americans to enroll in Space Camp for the summer, totally unsuspecting that their “Space Play” will turn into a real mission aboard a Space Shuttle.
Stars: Kate Capshaw, Lea Thompson, Kelly Preston, Joaquin Phoenix, Larry B. Scott, Tate Donovan, Tom Skerritt, Terry O’Quinn
Director: Harry Winer
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Like many kids growing up in the 1980s that hadn’t hit puberty yet, there were two things that I was constantly thinking about: space and movies about space. I wasn’t quite into the physics and science involved with the exploration of space, but the possibility of it all was of great interest to me and I definitely fell asleep on more than one occasion thinking about what it would be like to achieve liftoff from Earth on the Space Shuttle. My view of outer space had been molded by science fiction that was clearly meant as entertainment but also in news reports about the evolving space program that was making continued strides forward with renewed public energy after a period of dormancy. It just all stimulated my young mind, and I’d jump at every chance I’d get to soak up knowledge, whether at our local Science Museum of MN, in an episode of NOVA airing on PBS, or, yes, even cracking open a textbook or two in school.
The epitome of all knowledge regarding space for a child of the ‘80s was SpaceCamp in Huntsville, Alabama and while I never attended, oh boy did I try to persuade my parents to make it happen. By the time it was my turn to venture out to test the waters of overnight camp, I was a tad too young to make the journey that far south and so my summer experience was limited to the YMCA camps in the (admittedly gorgeous) North Woods of MN. It was actually at one of these camps a few years later that I learned a movie about SpaceCamp was made and let me tell you, time practically stood still for my remaining stay until I could get home and make it to my local video store to claim my VHS copy and see what I had been missing.
I couldn’t have known then when I saw SpaceCamp for the first time all the circumstances that surrounded the film which contributed to its poor reception, dooming its scheduled summer release ever since that fateful day on January 28, 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger experienced its fatal accident 73 seconds into its journey. Killing all seven crew members aboard, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, the launch had been broadcast on television as many had been before, so the world got a real time view of the disaster. Along with people remembering where they were the day Kennedy was shot and during 9/11, I remember being in school and hearing an announcement over our PA system about the incident. Our teacher tried to offer some explanation for our first-grade hearts and minds to take in but how do you explain that to such young souls?
With a finished film about a crew of young kids accidentally blasted into space and put into numerous scenes of peril, ABC Motion Pictures was left with a huge dilemma of what to do with their movie. At a cost of 18 million dollars to produce and a plum June release date, it wasn’t something they could just write off; but could they still release a film that, while not entirely similar, had overlapping themes with the Challenger accident? Unlike today where a streaming service may have stepped in to offer a smaller tiered release, the studio had little option but to release it and, as expected, the film was shunned by critics and audiences who felt it infringed upon the mourning the country was still experiencing. Judging the film by that criteria isn’t very fair because it was wrapped long before the seven brave souls boarded the Challenger that January morning. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of reason to take SpaceCamp to task for its numerous implausibilities and clichéd dialogue and over time the film has lived and died in the public eye on its own merit. The journey out from under that shadow wasn’t easy, though.
How is the movie, celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2021, you may ask? Though it enjoyed many multiple night stays in my home between 1987-1990, I hadn’t seen the film in probably a decade or more and it didn’t take long for the nostalgia of it all to kick in. The movie wears its Reagan-era influences like a badge of honor with hairstyles, clothes, and soundtrack all turned up to 10. Thankfully, the performances don’t follow the garish design or music choices and I was surprised by what a solid acting ensemble director Harry Winer put together.
Aside from Kate Capshaw (Dreamscape) and Tom Skerritt (Steel Magnolias) as the requisite adults, there’s good work from Lea Thompson (JAWS 3-D), fresh off of Back to the Future as an ambitious go-getter, the late Kelly Preston (Twins) playing a free spirit that’s all glitter and glam, Revenge of the Nerds’ Larry B. Scott as a nerd that tends to fold under pressure, and Tate Donovan (Rocketman) appearing in his first role as the trust fund brat about to learn a lesson in working as team. True, it’s a check list of types and personalities along with their expected hang-ups, but it’s a far cry from the clear equality by design method employed today. This group is supposedly matched at random and it looks that way. Yes, that’s a very young Joaquin Phoenix (here credited as Leaf Phoenix) as the junior member of the squad, long before he would win an Oscar for his own shoot-for-the-moon performance in Joker.
Chances are if you’ve read this far you know a little something about the plot of SpaceCamp, so I won’t go too much further into it, only to say that watching it now it’s pretty pointless to hold it to any kind of scientific fact checking. We’ll overlook some patently deadly gaffes, like the young team wearing what appears to be astronaut/motorcycle helmets with face shields that are up for the entire blast off and other key moments of their unplanned voyage into space. There is no mention of needing oxygen to breathe during their transition from the Earth into orbit…until they start to run out and need to make a daring connection with the space station, resulting in a tense space walk that has its own set of head shaking (as in “no”) sequences. The no-gravity scenes are kind of a hoot too, with some wires either evident or the actors doing their best to wave their bodies and arms from side to side to simulate the anti-gravity of space. Let’s not also forget the entire reason they are in space is because a rogue robot that Phoenix befriends takes it upon itself to reprogram NASA’s computers to force the Space Shuttle into a launch or else the fuel tanks will explode. Never mind that if the robot calculated wrong, he might have killed his human friend in the process of helping him reach the stars.
For how silly the entire business is, I don’t think you can watch the film (now or then) and not say that it isn’t captivating or successful in keeping your engagement for much of the duration. This is owed to the cast taking the material seriously, not so serious it turns campy, but serious in that they don’t let their characters come off looking like goofballs for being invested in having the knowledge to navigate through a crisis. Preston initially is introduced as wanting to be a “the first cosmic DJ” and Scott wants to open an intergalactic chain of restaurants. That might get some chortles now but back in 1986…who knew what the future held the way things were headed? Capshaw helps to keep everything grounded and for my money is the true MVP of the show. Clearly the 107 minute adventure is obviously targeted at teens and Capshaw’s brittle teacher who hasn’t gotten her own shot at full-fledged astronaut isn’t intended to be the central figure, but when I watch it now, she leaves the biggest impression. While she’s mostly Mrs. Steven Spielberg now, Capshaw was a reliably dependable actress in her day, and this is quite a good example of how warm she could be even when playing cold.
Over the last three decades since it played in theaters, SpaceCamp has found its way out of the gloom and doom it opened under back in the summer of 1986, but the memory of the Challenger is hard to shake off even now. In the special features on the BluRay that was released several years back, both Thompson and director Winer speak about experiences they’ve had where fans of the movie have told them how seeing SpaceCamp served as the inspiration for their own journey into the field of science and that’s worth noting. Even a cheesy teen sci-fi adventure that I can imagine was originally designed as little more than an advertisement for a NASA-affiliated summer camp can have an impact all these years later. With its rather beautiful score by multiple Oscar winner John Williams (Jurassic Park), more than serviceable direction from Winer, and strong performances from its cast of seasoned veterans and newcomers, SpaceCamp might be held together by duct tape at times but it has weathered the last 35 years well.