SpaceCamp (1986) — Two geeky ’80s movies for the price of one

“By God… we have liftoff…”

Justin’s rating: 01001010010010010100111001011000

Justin’s review: SpaceCamp. SpaceCamp! SPACECAMP!!!!!! C’mon… it’s SpaceCamp!

Don’t know why, but I just had to do that.

Depending on your generational bracket, SpaceCamp might mean something great or nothing at all. If you were a kid growing up in the ’80s and had a huge passion for the space program, this was one of those defining, unforgettable films that reflected how much we (both kids and society back then) were fascinated and in love with NASA. No matter how nerdy NASA might’ve appeared before or after, SpaceCamp made it look positively cool. Me and my friends were united in dream and purpose after seeing this flick, to go to the actual SpaceCamp and ride in the space shuttle. It’s in the brochure: They have to send you up to at least the moon, or your money back!

Plus, if you ask anyone who was a kid in the ’80s what was the one major historical event that sticks out in their mind, I’ll bet you they’ll say Challenger explosion. SpaceCamp was released a few months after that tragedy, which was horrible timing and meant that the film was quickly buried. But for someone who watched the explosion on the news, seeing SpaceCamp afterward was actually kind of therapeutic — to see a tragedy turned into a victory.

Of course, if you’re not from that particular generation, SpaceCamp will be more of a movie that captures your attention by the interesting casting — including many young actors and actresses that would grow up to be semi-famous — and the psychotic robots that NASA employed in the ’80s. Check it out: You have Kate Crapshaw (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) as one of the astronaut SpaceCamp instructors, Lea Thompson (Back to the Future) as the overachieving control freak, Kelly Preston (Battlefield Earth) as the rebellious chick, and — get this — Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix (Signs, Gladiator) as the rejected little runt Max.

Taking a break from this review, I noticed that the Tootsie Roll company calls their candy “Bite Sized Midgees.” Midgee? Candy companies think they can just reinvent the English language. I do not approve.

Back to SpaceCamp! Any way you approach it, this is a one-of-a-kind flick that is firmly entrenched in ’80s logic. How so? Well, it’s not every film that a bunch of screwballs end up in charge of a space shuttle accidentally launched into orbit with the assistance of a robot’s deranged love of a heartbroken boy. It doesn’t happen that often. It just doesn’t.

SpaceCamp follows around a group of teens, coached by a disillusioned astronaut (She’s not going up on the next shuttle mission, boo hoo, but watch out for Mr. Irony! He’s in town today, for one day only!), trying to prove their worth as a team and not breaking down and resorting to tribal cannibalism. Honestly, the setting and set-up are enough as it is to fulfill most every like-minded teen flick, but SpaceCamp kicks it up a notch (bam!) with the accidental launching of mixed nuts group and instructor during a routine engine burn test. Suddenly, NASA’s gone and got themselves an apoplexy, and we have Ms. Johnson’s 8th grade homeroom in charge of a multi-billion dollar spacecraft. Yippee!

So what’s the deal with the robot, you ask? It’s quite simple, actually. The robot in question, a sphere with gears named Jinx, was programmed by NASA to both fix complicated shuttle parts in space orbit and to seek out small Star Wars-deluded kids in SpaceCamp and befriend them using a Loser Array Subroutine. Then, when Max makes the offhand comment that he wants to be in space — because Max has a death wish and wants his veins to boil and his skin to literally explode — that accesses Jinx’s Genie Program, which gives one free wish of any kind to the variable CHUMP, unfettered by any safety protocols whatsoever. Thus, when Jinx purposefully tampers with highly classified and guarded NASA computer databanks, there’s nothing to stop a BallBot from causing a near-disaster while the SpaceCamp team is in the shuttle, betting on the slim chance that NASA would rather launch a bunch of kids into space, probably killing them, than kill them on the ground, where there’s all that messy clean-up. See? Simple.

What really hit me about re-watching SpaceCamp after so many, many years is the general atmosphere to it. I wish I could easily explain how certain movies from my childhood were able to bottle up precious samples of the feel of the time for us, but you’d have to get in my head, and it’s already too crowded for that, with Fred, Killer Dan, and myself in there. If you were a kid in that era, the clunky techno-look of SpaceCamp, Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future were the foundation of a geek’s growing love of sci-fi that felt like our society was on the edge of achieving. No time machines yet, but we did get the internet and thousands of born-again furries, so it’s progress, just in a very different direction.

It’s a mixed oddity of a movie that’s half-summer camp, half-slavish worship of NASA. For every bad thing (Lea Thompson nearly collapsing from hormonal overload anytime she starts to talk about space, the generally poor special effects), there’s a unique tidbit (such as Crapshaw’s nonstop voice-over highlighting some cool NASA training technology) and then something enjoyable (such as the panicked shuttle launch or John Williams’ amazing score).

The whole idea for the film is kinda interesting, but since it’s angled more toward the smaller people’s market (no, not talking about midgees), a hundred nit-pickable details that would’ve been taken care of in a more serious film are glossed over here. But hey, it’s space in the ’80s, so you get what you pay for: one summer of SpaceCamp, plus near death by lift-off!

Didja Notice?

  • SpaceCamp also features a landing strip for bi-planes
  • Spit it out, Rudy
  • The atrocious “Southern” accent the one girl in the girl’s dorm sports
  • Little kids are able to fix $27 million robots
  • Why go into space? Why, we can start over and “do things right!” Because outer space changes the human condition, fer sure.
  • Jinx has remote control
  • So NASA has no problems with putting a 10 year-old kid inside a space shuttle being tested? Do they offer a babysitting service?
  • For an emergency launch, people in the control room look pretty relaxed about stuff
  • Well, it’s KIND OF important how it happened, don’t you think?
  • Max has 180 IQ… Rich is finally bested!
  • While they are in space, weightlessness only seems to affect their bodies, and Tish’s jewelry, but not their hair which remains hanging as if gravity is still in effect.

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