SpaceCamp (The Movie) Turns 35

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The Facts:

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

Rated: PG

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ping Pong Summer

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Synopsis: A family vacation during the summer of 1985 changes everything for a teenage boy obsessed with ping pong.

Release Date:  June 6, 2014

Thoughts: Though it looks like it could be a terribly cloying affair, Ping Pong Summer does have two (okay maybe three) things going for it that has caught my interest.  The first is a tonal similarity to the best film I saw in 2013, The Way Way Back with a teen coming into his own during his time at a summer beach house.  The second is star and real life ping pong aficionado Susan Sarandon (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Robot & Frank) who seems to make every film better with her wry delivery and eternal MILF-iness.  I love a good retro cinematic set-up so the mid 80s locale could also be a plus if it isn’t all neon shirts and Reagan-era wink-wink dialogue.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Jaws 3-D (1983)

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jaws_3d

I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Jaws 3-D (1983)

It had been five years since JAWS 2 was released to boffo box office so the time was probably right for Universal Studios to revisit its popular franchise.  What started as a second sequel intended to be more of a comedy, ala National Lampoon, turned into something different but no less silly.  I have a certain fondness for JAWS 3D with its ugly grainy picture and lame-o 3D effects…maybe it’s because it’s so earnestly goofy now or maybe it’s because JAWS: The Revenge was so much worse but the film has a certain (albeit resistible) charm.

I remember seeing this teaser trailer when YouTube first went up and thinking it was well done.  1983 was the year of the 3D resurgence and I’m sure audiences were unnerved not only about having another reminder about what dangers look in deep water but also wondering how the technique was going to bring that mean ‘ole great white shark into another dimension.   I’m not sure how well the movie played in theaters but having only ever seen it in 2D, I think the intended effect has been lost.

Bonus! 

Check out the teaser for the final nail in the coffin of the Jaws franchise:

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

And check out my reviews of the full slate of Jaws films : JAWS, JAWS 2, JAWS 3-D, JAWS: The Revenge

Missed my previous teaser reviews?  Check out my look at Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, and Jurassic Park!

31 Days to Scare ~ Jaws 3-D

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The sons of police chief Brody must protect civilians at a Sea World theme park after a gigantic 35-foot shark becomes trapped in the park.

Stars: Dennis Quaid, Bess Armstrong, Simon MacCorkindale, Louis Gossett Jr., John Putch, Lea Thompson, P.H. Moriarty

Director: Joe Alves

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s not that hard to see that this was originally intended to be a comedy in the National Lampoon vibe and titled Jaws 3, People 0.  The trouble is, when the producers got cold feet and went back to making a more serious-minded film, no one told the shark because it gets its fair share of laughs.

One of the first films in the early 80’s to employ the revitalization of 3D technology; I still wouldn’t mind seeing this second sequel in the Jaws franchise the way it was originally projected in the summer of 1983.  Maybe hiding behind some cardboard 3D glasses a more enjoyable film would have emerged because stripped of this gimmick, the movie sinks pretty fast as so many similarly released 3D films did in that era.

The one interesting thing about this entry is its setting.  Moving away from the fictional New England set Amity Island, Jaws 3D takes place at Sea World.  Yeah, you read that right…it’s not Sea Park or Ocean World or something that suggests the famous theme park but the big girl herself.  Nowadays, this kind of movie would never be allowed to film in a place that relies on benign tourism to stay afloat.   What goes on in this film would send a modern mom and dad from Utah running back to Dollywood for their summer vacation.

Directed by Joe Alves who served as the production designer on Jaws and Jaws 2, Jaws 3D once again follows members of the Brody family (sons Michael and Sean) as they happen to be in the very same place where a great white shark gets loose in and around the lagoons of Sea World.  Dennis Quaid (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) and Bess Armstrong are likable enough in their lead roles but it’s strange to see Oscar winner Louis Gossett, Jr. hemming and hawing as the blustery owner of the property.  He’s not required to do much and he does that just fine.  Lea Thompson and the late Simon MacCorkindale are also on board to add a few colorful touches…not that the film’s gaudy color palette needed them.

The way the movie was filmed with 3D cameras spells trouble when viewing the film in 2D because it’s a rather ugly looking movie that shows its age in nearly every frame.  It’s no wonder this was the first and last film Alves directed, but it’s not so much a failure on his end but rather on the studio itself for making the unwise decision to take the shark out of its familiar surroundings in the first place.

I’ve seen clips of the movie in 3D on YouTube and while some of the effects might have been nice projected 30 feet high, seen on the small screen in 2013 they are not that far removed from a school cut and paste project.  Won’t some local theater dig up a print of this and have a screening so fans of the series too young to  have seen it in theaters can experience it for themselves?  The film won’t magically get better just because the shark will come out of the screen in 3D…but there’s something to be said for seeing a movie as it was intended to be shown.

Until then…I’ll keep watching Jaws 3D and lamenting its poor choices, decent performances, corny effects, and serviceable shark.