A couple of weeks ago, the final space shuttle mission launched, and by the end of this week, it will have landed, ending a 30-year era of space exploration for the United States. It goes without saying that this is the end of an era. The first space shuttle launched when I was 3-1/2 years old, and I (unfortunately) rank the Challenger Disaster as one of the most important moments of my childhood.
I wanted to post something about what I thought about the space shuttle saying farewell; however, I don’t know if I would have anything to say that hasn’t been said already, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep whatever I wrote within the confines of my “pop culture” subject matter. I thought of the Young Astronauts Challenger Commemorative Packet that I got when I was in the fourth grade and I also thought of writing about the time I put together one of those Revell space shuttle kits and got glue all over my hands, paint all over the place, and never got the decals to go on correctly (seriously, did anyone?). But then I thought of what nobody is probably talking about as far as the space shuttle is concerned, which is the biggest (and well … kind of only) space shuttle movie there is: SpaceCamp.
Starring Kate Capshaw, Lea Thompson, Kelly Preston, Joaquin Phoenix (back when he was known as “Leaf”), Tate Donovan, and Larry B. Scott (a.k.a. Lamar from Revenge of the Nerds), SpaceCamp is one of the few science-fiction (although in a way, this is more “science” based) movies from the late 1970s and 1980s where aliens do not attack and lay waste to the Earth, nor do they mate with, possess, or disembowel anyone. In fact, SpaceCamp doesn’t have any aliens. Unfortunately, its tension is tepid enough for a teacher to show an elementary school class.
Capshaw (about a year or two removed from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) plays Andie Bergstrom, an astronaut who, when she sits on her family’s farm in 1961, sees John Glenn’s capsule fly through space and says proudly to her dog, “I’m goin’ up!” (a line delivered in the cheesiest manner possible, btw). More than two decades later, she has received the umpteenth notification that she will not fly on a shuttle mission–Atlantis, which is scheduled to launch within a couple of weeks. Her husband, Zach (Tom Skerritt, who would be Viper in Top Gun the same summer), then coaxes her into being an instructor at Space Camp, which for plot reasons is held at Cape Canaveral and not in Huntsville, Alabama (a Space Camp was opened in Florida in 1989, but this came out in 1986). She reluctantly takes on the “blue team” of Space Camp students, who are …
… a group of stock characters. Kevin (Donovan) is the arrogant screw-up guy and we know that because when we meet him, he’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt and rocking out in his new Jeep; Kathryn (Thompson) is an overachiever who is already a pilot, and we know this because she flies a WWI-era bi-plane to the parking lot; Tish (Preston) is a mall ditz who possesses the ability to memorize just about anything she reads, and we know this because she cinches her flight suit with a stylish red belt; Max (Phoenix) is the annoying kid genius who everyone will pick on, and we know this because everyone picks on him; and Rudy (Scott) is … well, the only one without any issues.
Needless to say, the kids don’t get along. Kathryn wants to be the first female shuttle commander but Andie makes her the group’s pilot and makes Kevin the shuttle commander, and she deals with it at first but then is pissed off after he takes her out at night and they get caught (she’s not one to get in trouble). Rudy basically does things right but winds up having Kathryn push him aside so she can be a control freak. Tish acts like a ditz. Kevin acts like a moron. And Max? Well, in the most insipid point of the plot, Max befriends a sentient robot named Jinx who was supposed to be used on shuttle missions but proved “too unpredictable” and became a handyman.
It should be easy to ignore the Max/Jinx part of the movie, but Jinx winds up being the reason that these kids wind up in space. Basically, Jinx really takes it to heart that he and Max are “Friends for-ev-er” and because they are “Friends for-ev-er,” wants to help Max go to space. So on the day the campers are allowed to sit in Atlantis while Mission Control tests the engines, Jinx screws with the shuttle computers, causing one of the boosters to overheat and that forces Zach to launch the shuttle.
This, by the way, is completely implausible and I am sure that the FOUR people who were credited as writers could have come up with a better way to get five teenagers and Kate Capshaw into space, because a) I can’t imagine that NASA would let a group of teenagers sit inside the shuttle while they were firing the engines, even if it was a test; and b) every time Jinx is screwing with the computers it’s in some dusty, empty room that is always unlocked.
So once they’re in space, things should actually be okay because NASA can control the shuttle remotely and get them to Edwards Air Force Base in 12 hours. Only problem? Well, there’s not enough oxygen on the shuttle, so unless they figure something out, the kids and Andie are going to die.
From here on out, SpaceCamp becomes a “fiasco” movie. I mean, it’s a fiasco at this point anyway, but what I mean is that one thing after another goes wrong so that each of the campers can overcome whatever problems they were having earlier during one of the movie’s “space tutorial” montages. Because Andie is with them and is a shuttle pilot herself, she’s the one to naturally take the lead, especially when they realize that they can get oxygen tanks off of the not-occupied-yet Deadalus Space Station. She’ll do the space walk, bring them back and then pilot them in for the Edwards window.
But … she can’t reach the tanks and Max has to help her! Then, after she hooks the first tank up and begins hooking up the second tank, she gets knocked to the back of the cargo bay and is unconscious! Then, NASA takes control for the landing and closes the bay doors, seemingly trapping her out in space, tethered to the shuttle! Then, the kids override the shuttle controls to get her back in and realize they have to land it themselves! Then, they miss the Edwards window! Then, one of them realizes that they can land at White Sands in New Mexico because that’s where Columbia landed once! Then, Kathryn has to land the shuttle herself, which she couldn’t do when she was in Space Camp!
OH THE DRAMA!!!
You know, the thing about this film that disappoints me the most is that I loved it when I was nine years old. I saw it in the theater and I was in complete awe of how awesome it was that a bunch of kids got to fly the Space Shuttle. I mean, I was the kind of kid who lived for the old-school “future world” portion of EPCOT Center, and spent what seemed like hours gawking at the rockets and other exhibits at the National Air and Space Museum (I have yet to go to the annex out near Dulles and may do so in a year or two when my son is old enough to spend time in a museum just so I can see the Space Shuttle). Plus, while I had already seen her in Back to the Future, this is where I developed an enormous crush on Lea Thompson (stop laughing), which is probably another reason I loved SpaceCamp so much. So to watch this movie again, 25 years later, and see how everything from the opening titles to the blue screen effects is just awful is really kind of painful.
I should have known, though, even when I was that young. When the movie came out on video, I think I was the only one of my friends to profess to liking it; in fact, my friend Tom thought it was so bad he threw up both times he attempted to watch it. Granted, the first time he threw up, he was pretty sure he had food poisoning, but the second time he was sure that the movie was just that bad.
After all, it’s really not my intention here to completely crap all over the not-so-great stuff I write about. But SpaceCamp? You make it really hard. Granted, even my nine-year-old self thought that the Max/Jinx stuff was horrendous (and I’d seen Short Circuit multiple times), but it was the grandeur of space flight and … well, during the film’s last act I found myself wondering out loud, “Oh shit, what ELSE is going to go wrong?!”
Which, from what I gather, was pretty much the story behind the movie as well. Apparently, SpaceCamp was completed in 1985 and scheduled for release in early 1986, but it wound up being delayed after the Challenger exploded, and then only made about half of its budget. And while it didn’t kill the “non-alien, mild-mannered space exploration drama” genre, I can’t think of any other movie aside from Apollo 13, like this. I guess it’s for the better and if you want to want to be in awe of a shuttle launch, there are plenty available via both NASA and YouTube.
I’m going to miss the shuttle … but not SpaceCamp.