These Astro-youths Can’t Keep Their Feet on the Ground While Reaching for the Stars



It’s the summer of 1986, and Lea Thompson, Kelly Preston, and Joaquin Phoenix are away at camp. Really, really far away.

Inspired by the real-life Huntsville, Alabama-based astronaut camp for space-obsessed teens, and fully endorsed by NASA, the high-stakes survival/adventure SpaceCamp sees fit to send these budding stars, plus a few more, where no kid has gone before. By the time it’s all over, the reason for such age limits on certain travel will be readily apparent. It turns out that inexperienced youths flying a NASA space shuttle is a recipe for disaster. It also turns out that any kind of shuttle-related potential disaster is the last thing anyone wanted to see in said summer of 1986.

Though by today’s standards a seemingly innocuous bit of 1980s nostalgia, SpaceCamp, all these decades later, remains dogged by the looming memory of the Challenger shuttle tragedy, which occurred in January of 1986. The timetable proved deathly for the film, which was in the unfortunate zone of having been already completed but awaiting its June release. Despite doing it’s darndest to impart a spirit of hope, heroics and adventure, SpaceCamp simply could not soar beyond a culture in which the acronym for the National Air and Space Administration had come to be “Need Another Seven Astronauts”. Clearly, these kids and their teacher (a rigid performance by headlining star Kate Capshaw, angling to demonstrate she’s no Willie Scott) were not going to fit the bill.

Kate Capshaw in SPACECAMP.

At least, that’s the popular legend as to why SpaceCamp sunk like a stone. There is, though, also the fact that it’s simply not that good. Once the kids end up trapped in space, having to face entirely plausible obstacles such as lack of oxygen, heat shield issues, and how to fly the doggone thing, the movie really comes together. But getting to that point is a beast.

Director Harry Winer, hailing straight from episodic television, lacks any sense of visual interest when nothing interesting is happening. When the story picks up, only then so does he.  Along those lines, then, it’s worth noting that for a film that’s all about a group of kids having to get back home after accidentally getting launched into space, it’s noteworthy that the most implausible aspect of the film is the Earthbound chain of events that get them there.

Meet Jinx, a dopey orb of a droid that didn’t meet NASA’s high quality standards. Subsequently, he got relegated to the garage, the a $27 million wrench jockey. Although Jinx resembles BB-8 or V.I.N.CENT from Disney’s The Black Hole, he operates more like Jar-Jar Binks: a well-meaning simpleton who makes all sorts of messes before heroically pulling through in the end. Jinx takes everything literally, rendering him a liability in the field. Apparently that’s a glitch that’s proved too much for NASA.

Leaf (aka Joaquin) Phoenix with pal Jinx.

Jinx befriends Max (a very young Joaquin Phoenix, then known as Leaf Phoenix, in his debut role), a geeky Star Wars-obsessed ten year old with an I.Q. of 180. Max swipes the unloved Jinx, and hides him in a strangely empty upright metal cabinet in his dorm. Jinx’s kidnapping is the most ignored crime on campus (a couple of young co-eds sneaking out at night for some kissy-face gets the powers-that-be far more hackled); his whereabouts the worst kept secret in the facility. (The robot has a tendency to burst out of the cabinet, saying silly things). When, one night the robot overhears a frustrated Max weeping about how he wants to go into space, he takes it upon himself to make that voyage happen.

While the central cast of five students plus Kate Capshaw’s instructor board a prepping space shuttle to experience the cockpit rumble during a routine engine test, Jinx secretly taps into NASA’s main computer system, and forces an actual launch. Suddenly, after a half-hour or so of awkward character building and clunky dramatic set-ups, Max gets his wish – along with the rest of his cohorts.

Lea Thompson and Tate Donovan fly the shuttle.

Although Capshaw and Tom Skerritt get top billing, the film truly belongs to Lea Thompson, who couldn’t be more of a radiant girl next door in the film. Besides Jinx, it’s her character who gets a fully realized arc. Hitting on her and along for the ride is the token teen movie cool kid, played by Tate Donovan. Rounding out the group are Larry B. Scott and Kelly Preston, who is a glittery vision of mid-’80s fashion gaud: extra belts, a wrist-load of colorful watches, and more buttons on her shirt than anyone would ever have the time or motivation to button. It’s a good ensemble, helped along by LOST‘s Terry O’Quinn as a prominent control room guy, and legendary voice genius Frank Welker adding yet another performance to his sprawling IMDb filmography of 800+ entries.

SpaceCamp may be the ultimate ’80s movie field trip, in ways both keen and not so keen. Sure, it was a field trip that everyone skipped back then, but today, thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics, the shuttle is launching anew. Newly recorded interviews with Lea Thompson and Harry Winer are terrific bonuses, each participant vividly recalling the struggles of making the film and how, after spending so much time making a movie containing several not-dissimilar instances (a “no survivors” simulation scene is especially eerie for anyone who was around in 1986), they were impacted by the Challenger explosion.

As a visual effects-driven picture, it must be said that this area is another weak point. No exterior shuttle shot is without matte lines, and at one point, the outer space visual effects are downright unfinished. Having never seen SpaceCamp prior to this Blu-Ray viewing, one can’t say if this slacking was always part of the film, or somehow new to this release. Thankfully though, such trouble is brief.

Audio-wise, the optimistic score soars – fitting, as it’s by none other than John Williams. (Yes, of Star Wars fame. Does Max know about this…?) Likewise, the sampled tunes by Mark Knopfler and Eric Clapton sound alive and ready.

The shortcomings of SpaceCamp are glaringly obvious. The movie racks up flaws on virtually every front. Yet, for all that, it feels wrong not to like SpaceCamp anyway. In the right hands, and under better circumstances, the movie might’ve been remembered alongside of the original Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, instead of winding up relegated to the bin of hazy nostalgia. Just because it aimed for stars but instead only managed to land in green cheese is no reason to hate on it. As it is, SpaceCamp is a harmless bit of decidedly PG-rated family fun that flags up notions of teamwork, responsibility, and, behind the scenes, what can blow up in everyone’s face.