Thursday, June 22, 2017

B-Movie Review: 'SpaceCamp' (1986)

You know exactly what America needed right after the Challenger disaster? A movie about goofball teenagers accidentally being sent into space by a robot that hacked into the NASA mainframe. 

By: Jimbo X

If you're looking for reasons why NASA ain't doing much of shit anymore, Jan. 28, 1986 is your answer.

That morning, the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after takeoff, killing all seven people on board. Strangely enough, one of the people who was originally slated to be onboard was the bitch who played Big Bird on Sesame Street, and the only reason why she wasn't was because NASA couldn't find a helmet big enough to fit her big fluffy head.

The administration didn't even bother launching anything for another three years, which coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union, pretty much ended the great Space Race. Business picked up a little in the 1990s, but when history repeated itself with the Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA more or less packed it up and hasn't tried to do anything ambitious with live crew members since.

Pictured: something no one has ever fapped to.
Now, I wasn't around back then, but to say the Challenger disaster really fucked with people back in '86 would be an understatement. For 30 years the space program had been one of the nation's greatest symbols of pride, a testament to American technology and our engineering ingenuity. When those seven people got blown the fuck out (literally), all of a sudden we had to come to grips with the fact that - maybe - we weren't the mechanical masterminds and aerospace whizzes we thought we were. Remember, this happened right around the same time Japan started to eat us alive with electronics tariffs while rice burner sales slowly began eclipsing American-made rides. For three decades we thought our superior intellect and unparalleled craftsmanship would give us an eternal leg up on our Asiatic competitors, but as soon as the panels started flying off the shuttle, all of a sudden we just knew we weren't the industrial (or aeronautical) titans we had convinced ourselves we were. 

Which, naturally, made the timing of SpaceCamp about as unfortunate as finding poison gas Pokemon Go monsters running around at Holocaust memorials

In the mid-1980s, Patrick Bailey and Larry Williams wrote a book about the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. (more on that in just a bit.) ABC Pictures thought the premise of kids getting accidentally launched into space and having to learn to work together to survive interstellar death was a dandy idea for a feature and groundwork on the feature film began in 1985. A June 1986 release date was targeted, with the filmmakers expecting it to be the family-comedy breakout hit of the summer.

To say the Challenger disaster put the brakes on the project is kinda' like saying the JFK assassination kinda' hurt Kennedy's chances of re-election. Since the film was almost 100 percent done at the time of the shuttle explosion, the studio felt it was too late to yank the plug on the $25 million movie, so despite the deluge of bad publicity, the film was released as planned that summer. 

Pictured: something everybody has fapped to.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the movie was a colossal box office dud, failing to earn back even $10 million. Thanks to endless repeats on Saturday afternoon cable throughout the 1990s, however, the film has since gone on to become something of a minor '80s cult classic, with enough people having seen it to garner at least one or two passing gags on Family Guy.

But does the movie have any sort of intrinsic value beyond rudimentary nostalgia? Well, how's about we fire up our old VHS cassette and see for ourselves ...

The movie opens with a little girl in a cornfield wishing on a shooting star. She says it's like John Glenn is winking at her from space and shes' destined to become an astronaut. Well, flash forward 20 years and she's all grown up and played by Kate Capshaw and married to Tom Skerrit. She's pissed because she just got turned down for an astronaut gig because she's a woman (probably) and has to operate a junior cadet space camp alongside her hubby for the summer.

The kids show up and it's your usual grab-bag of multi-ethnic teens (and LULZ a plenty when they assign the Asian kid to the yellow team.) So we get some exposition on the history of the space camp (it's a real place in Mobile, Ala.) and then we're introduced to Kathryn, this dorky girl (played by Lea Thompson) who knows everything about the lead space camp woman and kinda' idolizes her. And of course, the token black kid yells a lot, and displays several tendencies that suggest he is literally mentally retarded. We also meet Tish (played by Kelly Preston) who looks like your basic valley girl and says her dream is to become an extra-terrestrial dis jockey. Then this annoying ass white guy named Kevin (played by Tate Donovan) pretends he's the Asian guy so he can be on the same team with Tish, prolly because he wants to hump her and stuff.

The adults show off the shuttle simulator and here's where Jinx - the film's iconic robot - makes his debut. The crew refer to it as a "$27 million handyman" while the kids simply refer to it as "an extra-terrestrial midget." Then this one little kid (played by Joaquin Phoenix, back when he was trying to convince everybody to call him "Leaf" instead) starts complaining about how badly he wants to move up from the cub scout program to the teen cadets, while the  girls talk about the size of all the boys' hands (get it, because it's an allusion to their penis sizes!) Kathryn and Tish start to bond and as it turns out, Tish is actually something of a savant with an encyclopedic memory of everything, including piloting controls, for some unexplained reason. She then tries to convince Kathryn to let her give her a makeover while "Walk of Life" plays in the background.

Holy shit, the black kid says his big plan is to open the first outer space McDonalds. Then Kevin tells him "not to take any of this shit seriously," because this is an edgy family-friendly adventure-comedy, that's why.

And it's still not as high as his brother River was in 1986.

The little kid hides Jinx in the closet and the older kids start bullying him. Then he hears somebody say "shit" and the robot starts talking about solid waste disposal. The kids quickly realize Jinx literally does anything you tell it to and after a series of contradictory orders, it malfunctions. So, yeah, I guess that makes it the world's first autism-bot. The little kid repairs Jinx, so now it says "yo, man" as a greeting, then calls all the older kids "jerk-offs" and "monkey-glutes" for messing with him. He attempts to convince the robot to not take things so literally, but since it's a robot, it clearly don't give a fuck what some eight-year-old thinks.

Time for a montage of cadets testing out equipment. Man, those blue tee shirts are bitchin'!

Kathryn the nerd girl can't figure out how the gyroscope stabilization thing works (you know, that giant, spinning hamster ball thing from The Lawnmower Man) and feels bad. Kevin tries to reassure her and gives her a ride out to the lake in his jeep to look at the stars. His pick-up line: "so, you're really into this space stuff, huh?" She talks about watching the sky as a kid and how she couldn't wait to grow up. The romantic tension is so taut, even my fucking TV is sweating right now.

Jinx tells the adults the two kids snuck out and they catch Kathryn and Kevin making out by the waterfront. Kate Capshaw gives 'em a stern talking to and says she sees a lot of herself in Kathryn and that she has a lot of potential and she better not screw this up. Then the little kid starts crying, because he wishes he was in space instead of on Earth. Goddamn at the angst, ehSo Jinx takes over the control room and starts talking with NASA's mainframe. He LITERALLY puts the kid in the astronaut database, because he takes everything literally, remember?

Later, the kids go through a mechanical spacewalk simulator and rush through a power failure drill. Kevin does a Cheech and Chong impersonation when the adults tell him to take over. And he keeps telling more bad jokes while they simulate crashing and burning. 

Naturally, Kate chews the kids out for not taking all this make-believe space shit serious enough. Meanwhile, Jinx is still finagling with the NASA super computer to put an eight-year-old aboard the next shuttle. And OOPS! Jinx unwittingly manages to convince the computer to LAUNCH while the kids are doing a test run inside it! Despite the fact it just sentenced half a dozen tenth graders to certain death, Jinx rationalizes his actions by declaring he and the little kid are "friends forever" and that by causing a thermal curtain failure, he's actually giving the kid everything he's ever dreamed of. 

Thankfully, Kate's character remains aboard, so naturally, she screams "we're going to explode!" when the shuttle starts taking off, because that sure as sugar won't scare the dookie out of a bunch of 14-year-olds already crying their eyes out. So, to avoid a very Challenger-esque mishap, ground control has no choice but to send Kate and the kids into orbit. 

After some stock footage plays, the kids continue to panic and say very adult words like "shit" and "goddamn." Still, they can't help but "ooo" and "aww" when the window panels open and the see the curvature of the Earth. And just like that, the pants-pissing horror of literally two minutes ago is supplanted by joy and mirth as the kids point out Africa and the Swiss Alps.

Huh. Who'd thunk the people who made Mega Man would've had a direct line to NASA headquarters?

Back on terra forma, Tom Skeritt says the president wouldn't believe him if he told them they just launched his wife and five kids into space, so NASA - rather realistically - decides to keep this one mum. Now, as to how D.O.D. radar, civilian aerospace monitoring systems, Soviet detection modules and everybody within a 50 mile radius of the goddamn launch site wouldn't realize a shuttle just took off with no explanation nor warning, of course, is never diegetically addressedIn orbit, the kids realize they have 12 hours worth of air, but oh shit, they're going to need at least 13 to survive re-entry. So they decide to hook up with a space station that's conveniently right beside them to get more oxygen. And of course, Kevin the comedian is still making jokes about 7-11, despite the fact there's a 99.999999 percent chance he'll be dead as shit in half a day's time.

The kids eat some tube food and come up with this convoluted plan to communicate with ground control by Morse Code. Kate puts on a space suit and seals up a loose hatch. Then she does a full suit space walk and is absolutely awestruck looking at the Earth. As in, it literally sounds like she's orgasming while looking at it. Unfortunatley, she doesn't have a jetpack and can't reach this satellite thingy she's trying to get to. So - naturally - they put the little kid in a space suit to save her. Of course, he starts freaking out once he's out there, but then Kevin starts doing an Obi-Wan Kenobi impersonation and that inspires the little twat to rescue his adult supervisor "using the force."

I ain't bullshitting you when I tell you the rescue sequence goes on for about 20 minutes. The kid eventually lets go of a sandbag anchor and goes flying off into space and Kate isn't even that concerned at first. Shockingly, the greenscreen effects aren't that bad for a mid-80s production. Of course, she manages to save him, because the idea of leaving a child to suffocate all alone in the vacant nothingness of space is probably too much for a PG-13 movie. 

The black kid is tasked with connecting the oxygen tubes to the shuttle. Kate lets him know if they connect the wrong tubes, the whole thing is going to explode. He and Kathryn bicker back and forth whether the red wire or the yellow wire is the right one. Anyhoo, the black kid was right, which means that if the nerdy white girl had the final say, she would've been responsible for a sextuple fatality space explosion. The moral of the story? Never trust women with math.

God damn it, now Kate gets hit by the runaway sandbag and the little kid has to rescue her. A bunch of dudes smoking cigarettes at NASA headquarters tell them to get out of there, but the crew says "fuck that" and do a manual override to open the cargo doors. Kevin takes the lead as shit gets real and he pulls her back into the pod. Now the nerdy girl is kvetching to Kevin about not being as good a captain as he is - you know, right in the middle of a life or death struggle for space survival. Kate, who is still passed out from spinning around in space for so long, is wrapped in duck tape to keep from floating around the shuttle bumping into things and the kids decide to land in the middle of the desert because ... well, I don't know why, to be honest.

Now Jinx relays the Morse Code back to NASA (remember that plot point from like 45 minutes ago?) and Tom says he is going to "treat him to a can of oil" for his good work (even though the entire situation is solely the result of his up-fuckery.) He then lets them know about an alternate landing site in the desert, then Annie wakes up. The kids prepare for re-entry. The nerdy girl takes the controls and has to stabilize the craft. Hey, just like that exercise she couldn't do in the movie's first act! She has a flashback of Annie's pep talk from earlier, and re-entry begins. Unfortunately, it's too little too late and they all crash and die. Nah, just bullshitting 'ya, they survive unscratched. Everybody celebrates not getting blown to smithereens and that, kiddos, is all she wrote ... no Goonies-esque post-climax character resolutions or  resolved subplots or nothing, just the shuttle hitting the tarmac and the credits a-scrollin'. 

The most advanced artificial intelligence lifeform ever designed, and the government is using it as a janitor at a kids' summer camp. Welcome to Reagan's America.

You know, I always wanted to see a sequel with everybody at NASA losing their jobs for child endangerment and Jinx being declared an enemy of the state for hijacking federal I.T. Alas, fortune never smiled upon us, and regrettably (well, no, not really) we never got ourselves a SpaceCamp 2: Space Harder

If you're looking for the definition of "a mediocre movie," I think SpaceCamp is the perfect bellwether. It's not good, it's not bad, it's just kinda' there. About half the movies you'll watch in your lifetime will be better than this, and about half the movies you'll watch in your lifetime will be worse. It's the most average movie I've ever seen - one sans any notable qualities, nor any notable defects. It exists in an impenetrable sac of absolute, total and perfect unremarkableness ... being asked to give an opinion on the overall objective quality of the movie is akin to being asked to write an essay on how water tastes.

I don't hate SpaceCamp, I don't love SpaceCamp, I can't find anything to praise SpaceCamp for and I can't find anything to condemn SpaceCamp for. It's a movie forever vacuum-sealed in its own meager existence, and in that, assigning it any kind of value judgement is pointless. Some of you may really, really like the flick and some of you may really, really dislike it, but being the peculiar jumble of particles and protoplasm I am, I just can't muster enough psychological energy to describe the film as anything other than "meh."

Really, all I can tell you is that the name of the guy who directed it was "Harry Winer," which is really, really phonetically close to sounding like "hairy wiener." And according to the iMDb, the original ending had the kids being rescued by a Russian shuttle, which ... hold on to your panties, M. Night ... was manned by a bunch of Soviet children. And, perhaps most importantly of all, that I still would like to fuck Kelly Preston, preferably missionary style. 

And in a nutshell, that's all I've got to say about SpaceCamp ... and just as a general rule of life, be wary of anybody who's got any more to say about it than that


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