Judge Eric Profancik's indignation at the flimsy science in this '80s movie threatens to launch him into space.
Our review of SpaceCamp, published February 26th, 2002, is also available.
"Max into space."—Jinx
Over time, a lot of things change in your life; then again, a lot of things don't change either. For me, this movie hits the mark on both of these statements, as its dredges up memories and wistful thoughts of "what if?" As the old joke goes, I don't know what I want to do when I grow up. Yes, I am grown up, have earned my B.S. and M.B.A., and work in the financial sector. But at the back of my mind I still wonder "what if?" What if I had gone to a different school and followed that fleeting thought of studying astrophysics? Where would I be today? I have always had a love of and fascination with space, and I do still dream of the "what if?" Just the other day, I googled my old college roommate and discovered he's now Dr. Kulesa at the Steward Observatory. He followed his dream and is now studying the universe. That could have been me.
Because of my fondness for space, I always thought it would be cool to be an astronaut (or captain of the Enterprise). As such, I remember seeing SpaceCamp back when I was only fifteen and thinking, "I wish that were me." What a grand opportunity, though courtesy of Hollywood. At least, maybe I should have tried to go to the real Space Camp in Alabama.
Facts of the Case
At Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, young adults from around the country come to learn what it takes to become an astronaut. They are put through a rigorous battery of tests, both mental and physical, to see if they're up to the challenge of being one of the few lucky individuals to make it into space.
Andie Bergstrom (Kate Capshaw, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom), has once again been passed over for the next shuttle flight. Instead, her husband, Zach (Tom Skerritt, Contact), recruits her to help him out at Space Camp for a couple of weeks. While Zach is in charge of the whole project, Andie has been given responsibility over Blue Team. This ragtag bunch of kids includes Kathryn (Lea Thompson, Back to the Future), an eager and enthusiastic young woman who wants to be the first female shuttle commander; Kevin (Tate Donovan, The OC), a young man who doesn't want to be at camp; Max (a startlingly young Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator), a precocious and lonely young boy who loves Star Wars; Tish (Kelly Preston, Jerry Maguire), a ditzy but brilliant young woman; and Rudy, a young man who loves science although it doesn't love him back.
As the Blue Team members begin to go through the classes, they have a hard time gelling and becoming a team. Each is very strong-willed, which leads to many failures on the simulators. Outside of class, Kevin begins to make some moves on Kathryn, while Max befriends Jinx, a $26 million robot that hasn't lived up to NASA expectations and is allowed to roam around the camp doing odd tasks. As Kathryn begins to warm up to Kevin, Max and Jinx become friends. Max tells Jinx he wishes he could go into space for real. Being a robot, Jinx interprets Max's comments absolutely literally and begins to work to find a way. And it does.
For the first time ever, a team from Space Camp will be allowed to sit in the Shuttle Atlantis during an FRF, a rocket booster test. Because of Jinx, Blue Team wins the lottery and gets the honor. Furthermore, Jinx has determined that a thermal curtain failure during the test will force a shuttle launch, and Max will get his wish. And so it goes that Jinx causes the thermal curtain failure and Andie and her team are sent into space. Now in space, they must come together to find a way to survive inside the shuttle, which was far from flight ready. Can these kids form a team and get home safely?
Things change. When this film was released in 1986, shortly after the real Challenger shuttle tragedy, I liked it. It certainly wasn't great cinema, but just the potential opportunity to be in a shuttle…to be in space! Wow, that was awesome stuff for a teenager back in the day. Seeing the movie for the first time in many years, I find it's changed: It didn't quite live up to the memory, but I knew it wouldn't. I knew when I put the disc in that SpaceCamp would not elicit the same strong positive feelings as it had in the past. But you know what? That's okay.
SpaceCamp doesn't work that well for me anymore because of two intermingled facts: I'm older, and I know better. This movie is laser focused for young adults, but young adults of a decade back—back when space was still of interest to kids. Today's teenagers don't think much of scientific pursuits, in between their iPods and computers and Xboxes; they revel in the technology but not in the science. I still revel in the science and the technology, so I know better. And because I know better, I just can't swallow the absolute ridiculousness of the film. From Jinx to Daedelus to oxygen-tank capacities, I just couldn't let go and be absorbed by the illusion this time. The utter preposterousness of the fake science just kept it all too grounded for me, and I didn't believe.
But still, when the kids are in Atlantis and Jinx causes the thermal curtain failure…well, there was a twinge there. The sheer impossibility of the moment is outweighed by the "what if?" That moment of joy is almost enough for me to forgive the rest of the film, if only for a moment, to let go and believe such things are possible, to live out a dream. I did forgive the film, let down my guard, let science be damned, and just enjoyed the scene. I enjoyed the unbridled possibilities of one improbable moment.
This sappy, crappy film comes to us via our friends at MGM. The video is non-anamorphic 1.85:1 (which took me a minute to figure out, being quite accustomed to rightly anamorphicized prints), and it's all a touch on the soft side with murky details, lackluster colors, and subdued blacks. For the audio, you're treated to a pretty good Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that almost feels like 5.1 at times…except for the few instances it went in the opposite direction and sounded hollow. The disc sports nary a subtitle or bonus feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
SpaceCamp is replete with problems, beyond the muddling of science fiction and science fact:
• Max and Jinx. Did we really need the feisty young kid and the
silly robot? Did we need the forced sentimentality of "Max and Jinx,
friends forever"? Are we really supposed to believe that NASA would let a
$26 million prototype be usurped by a kid at Space Camp? It's all too fake and
It's never too late to discover "what if?" There is an adult program at Space Camp, and I do have several vacation days left at work. Maybe I should give it a try, just to satisfy that lifelong nagging. Maybe I'll get a small slice of what I've missed.
As for SpaceCamp itself, I would tend to believe that most of you would fall into the same category that I do: slightly jaded. You may have enjoyed this film when you were younger, but the passage of time won't allow you to be suckered again. It has a moment or two sprinkled throughout, but it's not enough to balance out the bad dialogue, cheesy acting, and abundance of science fallacy. Add to that a mediocre disc with no bonus items and it equates to staying on the store shelf. Don't buy this one, and don't rent it. At some point, it will pop up on TV.
SpaceCamp is found guilty of an early ohm burn and is sentenced to three months of remedial science.
Max is found guilty of horrific overacting. Just because you're in space does not mean y-o-u t-a-l-k l-i-k-e y-o-u a-r-e i-n s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n.
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