Movie review: ‘SpaceCamp’

scnewThe January 1986 tragedy of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger dominated the news throughout the year and cast a pall over our nation for just as long. So, in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, the arrival of the movie “SpaceCamp” that summer wasn’t a fortuitous coincidence. It was too bad since “SpaceCamp” is actually a decent little film. However, current events can overshadow Hollywood … even though Hollywood wishes they didn’t.

‘Space Camp’
(1986; 107 minutes; rated PG; directed by Harry Winer and starring Kate Capshaw, Lea Thompson and Kelly Preston)


(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion and updated links on Dec. 5, 2015.)

The film “SpaceCamp” looked to have it all: a space story, kids, a snarky robot, some adult actors (Kate Capshaw and Tom Skerritt) and good young talent (Joaquin Phoenix and Kelly Preston). Producers had to have believed it would do well at the box office and all the post-production expectations were rosy, too.


However, the tragedy of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986 visited a bucket of cold water on the movie. The real-life tragedy had an effect on people wanting to see a space film where a movie shuttle is launched into space by accident less than five months after the Challenger put a nation in mourning.

If you go back and watch “SpaceCamp,” you’ll find a solid youth-oriented film that plays pretty well today (if you don’t remember the retirement of the shuttle program and the U.S. dependence on the Russian rockets). You’ll find a bunch of stereotypes here (cool kid, over-achieving kid, smart kid, rebellious kid, etc.), but “SpaceCamp” actually pulls it off.

It’s the story of a group of kids coming to Space Camp, where they get training as if they were going up into space on the shuttle. Each brings his or her own baggage to the camp and has to sort it all out by the end.

The “boy” lead “Kevin Donaldson” is played by Tate Donovan, the cool kid who is a natural leader, while the “girl” lead is played by Lea Thompson, the actual pilot who aches to be an astronaut. Toss in Preston as “Tish” with the eidetic memory and Larry B. Scott as the science-loving “Rudy” and you’ve nearly completed the cast.

Phoenix, who is credited as Leaf Phoneix, is in his first big-screen role at age 12 in “SpaceCamp” after 11 roles on TV shows and TV movies. His character “Max” is a somewhat obnoxious kid who has moved up to big-kids camp and has a bad case of “Star Wars-itis.” He bonds with “Jinx” the snarky robot whose is voiced by Frank Welker, who has 725 movie and TV credits for his voice work.

Capshaw is the lead adult as “Andie,” a NASA pilot who just missed out on being named to the next shuttle mission and now must spend the summer with her husband (played by Skerritt), a former moon-walking astronaut running the camp.

Donovan establishes his cool by parking in an official spot at the start of the film while Eric Clapton’s “Forever Man” blasts on his new Jeep’s stereo (it’s a bribe from his parents to get him to go to Space Camp … not bad) and telling Capshaw she has “nice boosters.”

Capshaw rides Thompson hard because she wants her to succeed as an astronaut and only needs a riding crop and say “sweet pea” several times to reprise Louis Gossett Jr.’s role in “An Officer and a Gentleman” (just kidding!).

The plot then follows a predictable path as the group implodes and through fate and some hijinks by “Jinx” are sent up into orbit aboard the shuttle. Some critics derided the premise. Really? So, all films have to have a completely technically accurate plot? How about just suspending your disbelief and enjoying it?

The predictable plot plays out to a predictable end, but you won’t mind. It’s a solid job. Not Olivier at the Globe, but entertainment.

The film uses the shuttle Atlantis for its vehicle and the actual shuttle has a great history being the fourth shuttle built and the last into orbit. Click here to read about it.

By the way, the real United States Space Camp continues operations. Click here read about it on Space Camp’s official website.

On the most somber note, it’s easy to see why the film would have been somewhat chilling directly after the Challenger tragedy. At one point the young crew is pronounced dead after a failure in the simulator and they are launched into orbit because of a “thermal curtain failure” faked in the computer system by “Jinx.”

Space Camp” raked in only $9.6 million in 1986, according to Box Office Mojo, and was 74th grossing film of the year (on a budget of $18 million to $20 million). The No. 1 film was Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun” with $176.7 million. Other films from the year that I have reviewed include:

Here are some cast notes (via

  • Capshaw is best known as the wife of Steven Spielberg, having starred in the second “Indiana Jones” film in only her second big-screen film role.
  • Skerritt landed the role of “Duke Forrest” in the film “MASH” in 1970 after nearly a decade in mostly TV roles (this is the official name of the movie; the asterisks were added for the movie poster). He has since had a long career as a supporting character in films such as “Top Gun” and “Tears of the Sun” and dozens of TV roles such as “The Good Wife.”
  • Preston’s real name is Kelly Kamalelehua Palzis and she will have been married to megastar John Travolta for 24 years this September. She has done excellent work in roles including in “Twins” with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito (click here for my review) and “Jerry Maguire” with Tom Cruise. Plus, she was the only character not to get bloody in Robert Rodiguez’ “From Dusk Till Dawn” gore-fest. Also, she has won one “Razzie” for worst supporting actress with Travolta in his “Battlefield Earth” super-stinker and was nominated for two more.
  • Scott has had an impressive career including iconic roles such as “Lamar” in the “Revenge of the Nerds” films (click here for my review of the original) and in such notable films as “The Karate Kid” and a string of TV episodes. His latest film will be with the release this year of “Spring Break ’83” in which he plays “Lamar” as a group being picked on by college students. I cannot be sure if it somehow is linked to “Nerds” and I’ll have to wait to find out if it is since I won’t be watching it.
  • There’s no presence of a connection to “The Love Boat” among the main players (or secondary cast for that matter). Too bad. To alleviate your disappointment over this fact, click here to read my review of the series.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2015.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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