In honor of the space shuttle program’s last flight…currently scheduled to land today…I figured SpaceCamp would be the most appropriate next “good” bad movie to review.
It’s hard to remember the hype for this movie, if any, when it first premiered in 1986. But, given the cast, I have to assume the hopes for this gem were high. Lea Thompson was just coming off the huge success of Back to the Future. Kelly Preston had established herself as a young sex symbol with her role in Mischief. Kate Capshaw jump started her career with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984…and it didn’t hurt her career that she met and started dating future husband (and later ex-husband) Steven Spielberg while working on that blockbuster. And the musical score was done by John Williams…someone who did other relatively well-known scores for movies you may have heard of…such as Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc. Of course, none of these individuals can be blamed for this turd of a movie, but the investment of talent and the June release date suggests an expected summer blockbuster.
Yet, during its opening weekend, SpaceCamp grossed only $2.9 million…opening at #6. Certainly it had its competition. Top Gun was still number 1 in the theaters…a juggernaut that would be tough to top. But SpaceCamp trailed other movies such as Raw Deal, Cobra, Poltergeist II and my last blog’s subject, Short Circuit. Yikes!
How much of a bust was SpaceCamp? Overall, it grossed less than $10 million in theaters. And its budget was more than $20 million. Ouch! But, before ripping into SpaceCamp, I do need to preface that the movie faced a major marketing nightmare. It opened 5 weeks after the Challenger disaster. So few kids were dreaming about heading into space on the shuttle at that point. And, besides that, the premise for the film just could never work in this environment. It details several potential brushes with death for the main characters. Way too fresh in the public’s mind to compel moviegoers to attend.
But hey, many good movies haven’t made a dime in the theater. And this movie qualified as bad regardless of timing of its release and subsequent failure at the box office.
So did SpaceCamp really have a chance? No. The premise is just way too stupid to ever work. Even if the timing was perfect and the best director was on the project leading the most talented pool of actors, it doesn’t change the fact that a group of kids get on the space shuttle for an engine test and a free-wheeling NASA robot named Jinx has the ability to launch them into space – over-riding all of NASA’s systems and failsafes – because it somehow has an electronic man-crush on the youngest SpaceCamp participant, Max (Joaquin Phoenix). That’s right – perhaps the biggest star in this movie was a young child actor just getting his feet wet. Fortunately for him, he had the amazing foresight to be credited by his given name, Leaf Phoenix. I’m guessing SpaceCamp doesn’t make Joaquin’s selected works list.
I will give the writers of SpaceCamp some credit that they really didn’t have a chance to make this work. The premise of the movie is that a group of space camp participants somehow accidentally get launched into space and they must all use their newly learned talents to get back home. I tried thinking how this could ever happen and it’s just impossible. Think of all the preparation that goes into a space shuttle launch, and typically the multiple delays and rescheduling. Yet, during a simple routine engine test, the shuttle is somehow prepared enough to take a crew of 6 into orbit. I know, I know – it’s just a movie – and no-one wants to watch a bunch of kids just attend classes at space camp, but come on!
Now, SpaceCamp does try to attribute for this fact by presenting certain challenges. For instance, there is only one tank of oxygen on board the ship because it was never geared to be “flight ready.” So, drama ensues as the young crew tries to figure out a way to get more oxygen. That’s all fine and good. But if the people preparing the shuttle for this simple engine test didn’t include a full compliment of oxygen, why on earth was the shuttle completely fueled to make the trip to space? It’s not mission ready…but fortunately there are two space walking suits (with oxygen tanks) available on board…one with a fully-fueled jet pack. I mean, this is not like going on a camping trip and realizing you still have supplies to make s’mores left over from the previous trip. This is the freakin’ space shuttle. Nothing enters or leaves that vehicle without a reason. And if NASA didn’t plan to fly a mission, they wouldn’t stock it with a hodge-podge of supplies. It wouldn’t have any supplies!
Speaking of space suits and jet packs, there is a scene where Kate Capshaw conducts a space walk in order to grab oxygen tanks from a space station to save the entire shuttle crew from impending suffocation. But…oh no…her helmet won’t fit through the trellises of the space station in order to reach the oxygen tanks. So, little Leaf Phoenix is fitted into the spare suit on the shuttle and Kelly Preston lends her belt to squeeze the suit in tighter to his body so he can better fit through the confined space station structure to do what Kate Capshaw can’t. First off, when you watch this scene, note that Preston’s belt goes from a size 22-inch waist to something that can wrap around Phoenix longways about 6 times. But the bigger problem with this premise is the fact that Capshaw couldn’t reach the oxygen tanks because her helmet was too big. So…why would Phoenix’s helmet be smaller? Even if he is a smaller person, the helmet doesn’t change shape. Unless they had a suit designed for kids on board, and again that begs the question, why would that be packed and not another tank of oxygen?
Another aspect that ruins this movie premise in my mind is Jinx the robot. At one point in the film, it’s established that Jinx is a $27 million NASA robot that turns out to be an over-glorified mechanics’ assistant. So what do you do with such an investment? Well, you let it wander around the premises and befriend Leaf Phoenix (Max)…who then proceeds to store the robot in this closet. There is a scene where the space camp powers-that-be spot Jinx in Max’s closet, but don’t do anything about it. Ok, so here’s a 12-year-old kid with a NASA-owned $27 million piece of technology. No one has a problem with this investment being in the possession of a kid? And there’s another scene where Max takes Jinx apart and puts him back together again to repair a problem. Ok, so this type of investment is being repaired by the youngest kid at space camp? No wonder we’re cutting funding to NASA!
Like Johnny 5 in Short Circuit, SpaceCamp continues the dippy tradition that robot voices must be stupid…and that robots somehow have the ability to learn human emotions. Several times in the movie Jinx exclaims “Max and Jinx -
Friends Forever!!!,” which made me die a little bit inside every time I heard it.
The dippy dialogue doesn’t end with Jinx. In a scene with Lea Thompson and her love interest, she is staring up at the stars and exclaims, “it’s so beautiful up there. I wish it was like that down here.” Which part does she want? The lack of oxygen? The cold black void of nothingness? Then she quickly follows this statement up with, “in space, everything is possible.” Ok Lea, go up there and try breathing.
Then there’s poor Max (Joaquin Phoenix). It’s established earlier in the film that he has a 180 IQ. Also, he’s been coming to space camp for years, so he has been through the program several times. And, as mentioned earlier, this kid is so smart that he rebuilds Jinx, the $27 million robot. Yet, when trying to return to earth, Kate Capshaw’s character starts talking about the importance of reaching the re-entry window, to which Max queries in a the most dopey fashion, “there are windows in space?”
Overall, SpaceCamp plays out like one of those “incredible voyage” type films where a bunch of animals go on a quest and each has a unique ability that is crucial to its success. We have Tish (Kelly Preston) who is your typical dingy Valley Girl, but remembers everything she reads. And fortunately, she had once read a book about Morse code – obviously, a typical casual reading selection for any teenage girl – and this allows her to communicate with mission control about a potential landing site. (Oh yeah, forgot to mention that the shuttle also was only fitted with a short-wave radio since it wasn’t flight ready. I guess when the shuttle is on the ground, they remove the regular radio communications system for some reason.)
Then there’s Kevin (Tate Donovan) who is the kid who doesn’t care about anything…or does he? Whereas it seems he offers nothing to the crew, he eventually comes through as the responsible leader that pulls everyone together.
Kathryn (Lea Thompson) is the straight-as-an-arrow, studious type who has always dreamed of being a space shuttle pilot…and it’s her innate skills that pulls the shuttle out of a dead spin when attempting to approach the re-entry window.
Rudy (Larry Scott…best known as Lamar from Revenge of Nerds) is a guy who loves science and comes through with the right way to hook up the oxygen tanks to the shuttle so breathable air is pumped into the hull, rather than explosive pure oxygen. Sadly, Rudy’s role in the movie is a bit more of a politically correct maneuver as he’s the only African American in the cast. Heck, even in the scenes where one sees a bunch of the extras at space camp, Rudy is the only minority represented. Of course, SpaceCamp goes a bit further and makes Rudy the street-wise type. Oh yes, nothing like 1980′s Hollywood to perpetuate stereotypes.
And, lastly there’s the already mentioned Max (Joaquin Phoenix) who offers the value of being small so he can reach the oxygen tanks. I will admit this one is a bit of a curveball. Max is the most intelligent kid on-board, but his value to the group comes from his limited physical stature.
Overall, SpaceCamp will leave you with several seat-squirming moments of embarrassment. You know the feeling. It’s where you actually feel embarrassed for the actors in the movie. Or, even though you may be watching alone, you look around the room a bit to make sure no one happens to be passing by to witness how you’re spending your time. But, it also provides countless opportunities to talk back at your tv – ripping on the idiocy of the concept. And that officially qualifies it a “good” bad movie.