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.

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Carol Anne is staying with relatives in a high-rise building and the supernatural forces that have haunted her previously follow her there.

Stars: Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Lara Flynn-Boyle

Director: Gary Sherman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: The best thing that can be said about Poltergeist III is that at least it’s better than its predecessor…though the bar was set so low by Poltergeist II: The Other Side that that’s not saying much.  The third sequel to one of my all-time favorite films had a troubled production and limped onto the screen amidst a cloud of doom.  Still, it has one or two interesting sequences and is more than competently made…but fails to deliver on anywhere near the same level at Poltergeist.

Young Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has been sent to live with her aunt (Nancy Allen, Carrie) in a new high-rise apartment building in Chicago.  She’s there to attend a school for the gifted but it’s clear that it’s maybe more to give her beleaguered family some distance from the girl that attracts ghosts…and most likely because JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson wanted nothing to do with the movie.  Her aunt lives with her new husband (Tom Skerritt, Steel Magnolias) and stepdaughter (Lara Flynn-Boyle) in a gloriously late ‘80s mirrored apartment…a perk of his job as one of the developers of the building.

It’s not exactly clear how it happens but somehow the vengeful spirit of Reverend Kane wasn’t totally vanquished in the previous film and has tracked Carol Anne down with the intent to finally take her to the other side.  This traveling ghost takes a page from the shark in JAWS: The Revenge and travels out of his comfort zone to lay claim to the girl that got away.  Over the course of an evening, Carol Anne and her family are hunted by Kane and his minions of spirts throughout the building, from the parking garage to the swimming pool.

Now I firmly believe that a good movie could have been made of the material here…but director Gary Sherman was either too limited by the paltry budget or his imagination to deliver a worthy film that wound up putting the final nail in the Poltergeist coffin.  Not that he was helped by the numerous maladies that seemed to plague the film…chief being the tragic death of O’Rourke before the film was finished.

Performances are all over the board here with Skerritt and Allen showing up for their paychecks (though Allen seems to have fun with how alarmingly insensitive she is to her niece) and O’Rourke improving slightly on her dreadful previous performance as Carol Anne.  It’s nice to see Flynn-Boyle’s first screen appearance but stormy weather arises when Zelda Rubinstein shows up to preside over a master class of bad acting.

A film that’s literally just smoke and mirrors, it’s a shame that Poltergeist III couldn’t make something of material that should have worked better than it did.  With multiple deaths associated with the series that came to be known as the Poltergeist Curse, it’s no wonder the studio took one look at the finished project and anemic box office returns and decided to call it quits on future installments.

 

Down From the Shelf ~ The Dead Zone

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A man awakens from a coma to discover he has a psychic detective ability.

Stars: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Colleen Dewhurst, Martin Sheen, Herbert Lom

Director: David Cronenberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I find it difficult to think back to a time when films made from Stephen King novels weren’t saturating the cineplexes.  For a while, the author’s novels were brought to the screen with frightening regularity…even if more than a few of the books and short stories didn’t exactly lend themselves well to the big screen treatment.  Still, for every turkey like The Lawnmower Man and Thinner audiences struggled through there were a healthy dose of winners.  Even though it’s not exactly what you’d expect from a King novel, The Dead Zone remains a qualified success thirty years after it opened.

Released in 1983 (the same year as Cujo and Christine), The Dead Zone is more thriller than horror with a strangely episodic nature for a genre film.  It’s no wonder the source material was turned into a successful Canadian television series for several years because it’s easy to see how King’s general set-up (man wakes from a coma to discover he has psychic powers) could lend itself well to weekly self-contained storylines.

Opening with Michael Kamen’s haunting score over picturesque views of the small New England town the film takes place in, it’s not long before quiet schoolteacher John Smith (Christopher Walken, A View to a Kill) meets the business end of a runaway semi and winds up in a five year coma.  Awakening to a changed world, he has to adjust to a life that’s moved on from him.  His girlfriend (an underused Brooke Adams, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) has married and had a child so there’s not a lot John has to live for or look forward to even though he now possesses a powerful gift of second sight.

It’s in these first forty-five minutes that The Dead Zone really makes its mark on the audience.  There are several chilling scenes of John foreseeing danger coupled with his sadness knowing what awful things await his loved ones.  Director David Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method) isn’t afraid to take time with our introduction to the characters, only to rush through the final hour of the film with several storylines that feel like a mash-up of scripts intended for sequels.

These storylines involve John helping a local sheriff catch a rather benign serial killer, his tutoring of a young boy with a sinister father, and his crossing paths with a rising political candidate (Martin Sheen) John knows has dangerous ulterior motives.  Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam manages to overlap these threads believably but none of them wind up feeling fully thought out or adequately resolved.

Though it may not have the true horror aspects associated with King, The Dead Zone does manage to maintain its momentum, however fractured the narrative continues to become as the film progresses.  It’s not concerned with the blood and guts that make up the flashier later adaptations but wants to look more into the psyche of the characters.  For that, I find it one of the best adaptations of King’s work to date featuring fine performances and appealing production values.  Worth revisiting.

In Praise of Teasers – Alien (1979)

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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.

Let’s start?  Shall we?

I’m going big right away…my numero uno favorite.

Alien (1979)

Besides being one of the best movies ever made, Alien from director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) boasted a truly kick-ass  trailer that only hinted at the terror to come.  While it’s a bit longer than a traditional teaser, the absence of any narration or dialogue and quick edits of scenes/characters that would soon become part of movie history help to make this one for the record books.  I especially like how the edits get faster and more intense until all hell breaks loose.  How could any sci-fi/horror fan see this trailer in the theater and not get a little tingle of excitement?  It’s not only one of the best teasers ever…it’s one of the best trailers ever.

Bonus fun – check out the teaser poster above.  Though Alien would eventually run with the famous tagline “In space no one can hear you scream” there’s something equally ominious about “A word of warning” that’s used on the early promotional poster.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Steel Magnolias

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Revolving around Truvy’s Beauty Parlor in a small parish in modern-day Louisiana is the story of a close-knit circle of friends whose lives come together there

Stars: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott

Director: Herbert Ross

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Like the film adaption of A Few Good Men, the movie version of the play Steel Magnolias has ruined me for any future stage production.  Playwright Robert Harling brought his auto-biographical play to the screen with a script that took the ladies out of the beauty salon and added male characters without sacrificing any of the charm, humor, and emotion that made the theatrical work so popular.

It can be a tough chore to adapt a play for film without making it seem too stagey or confined but Harling and director Ross (The Turning Point) avoided these pitfalls with ease thanks in no small part to a slam-dunk sextet of females in leading roles.  It’s clear that the women enjoyed working together because their warmth and easy-going vibe really elevates the film from being a sappy Southern fried weepie to a memorably classic tearjerker.

I’ve seen Steel Magnolias on stage several times (even on Broadway with Delta Burke, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen, and the Noxzema Girl) and the shadow of the movie always loomed large…I know it’s unfair to make comparisons but it can’t be helped with a cast of this caliber.

It’s lovely to see the journey Roberts (coming off good notices in Mystic Pizza) takes as a young Southern belle.  Earning an supporting Oscar nomination for her work here, she’d follow this up with a Best Actress nomination for Pretty Woman a year later.  She fits in well with other Oscar winners Dukakis (for Moonstruck), MacLaine (for Terms of Endearment) perfectly cast as funny biddies and Field (two time winner for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart) as her kind but overly protective mother.  They’re joined by a surprisingly effective Hannah as gawky Annelle and the still underrated Parton (Joyful Noise) as salon owner Truvy.

Though the film has several scenes throughout that may get you misty, it’s Field’s breakdown near the end of the movie that chokes me up each and every time I’ve seen it.  There’s something raw and real about the internal struggle that manifests itself in a powerful cry for answers that hits a nerve within me.  The beauty of the film, similar to Terms of Endearment, is how it injects humor in all the right places so just when the tears start to flow you find yourself laughing.

Yeah, one could describe Steel Magnolias as chick flick and it absolutely is – but more than that it’s notable for its strong performances, gorgeous score (by Georges Delerue), and sensitive direction by Ross (though it’s widely known that Ross was a real devil to work with – he hated Parton and was especially hard on Roberts).  Tearjerkers don’t always come in this easily accessible a package.

Mid-Day Mini – Ice Castles

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young girl is on top of the world until a tragic accident dashes her hopes and dreams of becoming a world-class figure skater.

Stars: Lynn-Holly Johnson, Robby Benson, Colleen Dewhurst, Tom Skerritt, Jennifer Warren, David Huffman

Director: Donald Wrye

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Oh boy, Ice Castles is a movie I avoided for the longest time because it looked like another of those 70’s romance filcks that was light on plot and heavy on schmaltz and for the most part it is.  A great deal of the 108 minute running time is devoted to overly sentimental situations involving a girl from a small town with dreams of becoming a famous figure skater.  Her coaches (Dewhurst and Warren) believe that she has what it takes but her father (Skerritt) and boyfriend (Benson) can’t get behind her to give her the support she deserves.  The film hinges on the young athlete bouncing back from an accident that sidelines her and that’s when something curious happens…it gets good.

Though star Johnson (For Your Eyes Only) tries to thwart the film with her painfully off-key line readings, Ice Castles has one of the better third acts in sudsy romance outings culminating in a final scene set to the Oscar nominated tune “Through the Eyes of Love” that had this reviewer going from dry-eyed to red-eyed in about 4 seconds.  It was then that it became clear why people consider this worthy of making a tearjerker list.  Don’t get me wrong, the bulk of the film is poorly acted and feebly constructed but the finale makes it all worth it. 

Benson was arguably the big star at the time and he receives top billing here though the film tends to rest too much on the uneven shoulders of Johnson.  It’s always nice to see Skerritt and can anyone match the rich, gravelly tones of Dewhurst?  If you can’t make it through Ice Castles, I suggest trying out Disney’s 1991 film Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken which essentially is the same story presented in a much more well-constructed package.