The 1986 movie SpaceCamp is one of those fun little movies. Hardly a masterpiece of factual information, hard science, or acting, it was simply a fun kid adventure movie, like 1985s The Goonies. And it has a young Joachim Phoenix (credited as “Leaf” while he was mimicking his siblings more nature-related names), and a robot named Max…what more could you want? Unfortunately it was doomed before release…
Scheduled for release in early 1986, the release was put on hold due to the Space Shuttle Challenger accident which occurred on January 29th – which ironically was caused by a failure of a solid rocket booster that was similar to a situation in the film. When finally released in June, it took in less than $10 million. I don’t think people were ready for this movie just yet.
And it certainly had plenty of issues of its own. About the only reality of this movie is that there was (and is) a real SpaceCamp, where kids can learn about the space program and take part in programs and simulations like an astronaut. And scenes are actually filmed there, in Huntsville, Alabama – but the movie has it placed right at Kennedy Space Center. A SpaceCamp opened there some years later (and closed several years ago). And its just one improbable/impossible situation after another. Honestly, who puts emergency oxygen tanks where you can’t get them?
The film centers around a group of kids at SpaceCamp – Kevin (Tate Donovan, The O.C.), a misfit who doesn’t want to be there ; Kathryn (Lea Thompson, Back To The Future), an overachiever who wants to be the first female shuttle commander ; Tish (Kelly Preston, Jerry Maguire), a valley girl with a photographic memory; Rudy (Larry B. Scott, Revenge Of The Nerds), who loves science although he isn’t very good at it; and Max (Joaquin Phoenix, Walk The Line), a Star Wars nut who really wants to get into space.
Along for the ride is Andie Bergstrom (Kate Capshaw, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), astronaut and the first credited female shuttle pilot and SpaceCamp instructor who has been waiting for her chance to actually make it to space; Zach Bergstrom (Tom Skerritt, Top Gun), Andie’s husband and camp director; and Jinx, a robot with its own AI designed for use on the space station, but has a few bugs to be worked out. Sharp eyes may also spot Terry O’Quinn from Lost as the launch director.
PLOT SPOILERS: The kids acted as a dysfunctional team – not able to do anything right, with Kathryn (assigned as a pilot by Andie) trying to exert control, Kevin not caring, etc. After Kevin berates Max after getting caught out after curfew, Max runs off and says how he really wished he was in space – which is overheard by Jinx, who has become Max’s friend. Jinx works out with the NASA computer on a scenario which would launch Max into space – a “thermal curtain failure” during a main engine test which would ignite one of the solid rocket boosters. In order to prevent a catastrophic failure, both boosters would need to be ignited and the shuttle launched.
The team is “chosen” to site in the shuttle Atlantis itself during the main engine test, along with Andie. During the test, Jinx initiates the simulated failure, and launch control has to launch the shuttle into space, which is successful – but it wasn’t launch ready, with minimal oxygen and a incomplete communications. How will they return?
I wouldn’t call any of the acting award worthy. In most cases, where you are familiar with the actors, they pretty much acted the way you expected – nothing new out of these roles. Phoenix seemed over the top with some of his lines – especially a slow, drawn out “What is hap-pen-ing” when the cargo bay doors were closing. Thompson was in her slightly geeky, slightly meek, “pretend I’m not as pretty as I really am” mode. Tom Skerritt was Tom Skerritt, as always – the father-authority figure.
From a serious standpoint, it was if they took the plot from something a kid had written up about a team of kids in space, fleshed it out, threw in a lot of NASA stuff (ESPECIALLY the abbreviations) and make a feature film out of it. But from just a mindless enjoyment standpoint, it suffices.