The concept is simple: fifty movies, one a week for each of the fifty U.S. states. This time, however, we’ll be focusing on one very special decade, a time when tackiness was such a part of the American culture that a B-movie actor was elected president — twice! Whether you love the `80s, loathe the `80s, or can’t remember the `80s (because 1. you were too young or 2. you were too stoned) — join me now, as we embark on a strange and mystifying journey to an era when crap was king.
#1 – Alabama, SpaceCamp
The plot: A collection of `80s teen archetypes (the smart girl, the pretty girl, the bad boy, the kid, the token minority) attending NASA’s SpaceCamp young astronauts program – along with their program instructor – are launched into space by a sentient robot. To get home safely, the group will have to put to use the skills they learned at SpaceCamp, as well as look to their camp counselor for guidance – who happens to be a trained astronaut, but – until now – has never been part of a genuine space mission.
SpaceCamp is based on and shares its name with a real-life program to teach kids about astronomy. Founded in 1982, Space Camp is based out of NASA’s headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama. SpaceCamp, however, is not based on a true story. Neither is it “inspired” by a true story. The premise of SpaceCamp is so unbelievably ludicrous that only an insane person could watch SpaceCamp and mistake it for fact – an insane person, perhaps, or maybe just a normal kid growing up in the `80s. Sadly, without the internet to teach us about life, we – the children of the 1980s – were a somewhat naive generation. It’s no surprise that attendance at SpaceCamp grew significantly after the film’s release. Perhaps these kids who hoped they too might have the chance to be involved in an outer space adventure not unlike that portrayed in the movie. Just picture the disappointment when these campers – these SPACEcampers – realized that SpaceCamp was not going to give them the opportunity to climb inside a functioning space shuttle. Nor was it going to allow them to make friends with a chatty and amicable robot with seemingly human-like ability to understand and converse with real people and other robots.
Yeah, SpaceCamp – the movie – has a robot. His name is Jinx. Jinx is part of an `80s movie trope we’ll call “magic robot.” Magic robot is when a movie which is supposed to be somewhat true-to-life and set in the present includes a robot “character” far too technologically advanced to actually exist. Examples include Paulie’s robot from Rocky IV and basically all of the robots in Short Circuit. Short Circuit was smart enough to make the lifelike traits of its main robot Johnny Five the whole point of the movie. SpaceCamp‘s Jinx is probably intelligent enough to go head-to-head with Johnny Five in a debate and – AND — can even understand concepts like gratitude and friendship and revenge.
So you’re willing to believe that a robot can think and talk like a person. Fine. You’re an idiot. But, let’s just say you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. What about when you get to the part where the robot launches the campers into space? Was there even a point where the screenwriters took a step back and though, “Maybe this isn’t a very plausible scenario. Maybe we can find a more believable way to get the kids into space. NAH … let’s just have the robot do it!”
Jinx sends the campers into space as a favor for Max, the young camper who befriends Jinx (played by Joaquin Phoenix, credited as “Leaf” Phoenix) and isn’t at all freaked out – as he should be — by a robot that can hold a conversation, crack jokes, etc… When Max saves Jinx from a group of campers who gang up on the loveable droid and cause him to have the robot equivalent of a brain aneurism, Jinx offers to repay Max. Max wants to go to space. Jinx decides to find a way to send Max to space, because Max and Jinx are “friends forever”. Really?
While Jinx is finding a way to bypass NASA’s what-turns-out-to-be remarkably easy to bypass security, the film makes a sad attempt at character development with our group of happy campers. For some inexplicable reason – other than the fact that it’s another `80s movie trope (real-life trope?) — the good girl, Kathryn (played by Lea Thompson), falls for the bad boy (Tate Donovan). Meanwhile, Kate Capshaw’s character – Andie Bergstrom, the group’s camp instructor and astronaut – treats Kathryn like she’s completely inept. When Kathryn finally has had enough and asks “What’s up?”, Andie gives her some sort of reasoning along the lines of “When I look at you, I see me when I was your age.” Gee… thanks. When I look at you, Kate Capshaw, I see Steven Spielberg’s spoiled wife whose crowning achievement is playing the role of one of the worst sidekicks in movie history.
There’s more. Kelly Preston’s character is pretty, but also a genius with photographic memory. No guesswork there. She comes right out and tells Kathryn. Rudy, Larry B. Scott’s character and the token black guy, wants to open the first fast food restaurant in space. At least they didn’t have his character say he wants to open the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in space. Because, you know … that might be construed as racist.
Unbelievable plot? Check. One-dimensional characters? Check. When this group winds up being launched into space, it’s hard to really give a damn if they make it back alive; but let’s talk about it anyway.
You’re probably wondering how does Jinxy get Max and friends up in space? Piece of cake. As part of their camp experience, the campers get to climb on board a real space shuttle. Jinx overrides the controls and overheats one of the rocket boosters so that the only option is for the ground crew to proceed with launch, lest the young campers be disintegrated. That last point is what made SpaceCamp such a fiasco at the time of its release.
SpaceCamp had the misfortune of being released five months after the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Challenger exploded shortly after taking off on January 26, 1986, killing all seven members of the crew on-board the shuttle. Millions of children watched in horror as the Challenger crew died a fiery death – the launch was broadcast to schools across the nation because of the participation of Christa McAuliffe. McAuliffe was a Connecticut teacher and selected as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space program. Needless to say, after the Challenger disaster, the whole premise of SpaceCamp went from being implausible but potentially exciting adventure to absolutely terrifying. That might be a moot point today if SpaceCamp was a half-way decent movie, but it’s not. Even with their forces combined, SpaceCamp‘s talented cast of young actors and actresses can’t breech the impenetrable wall of Clifford Green and Casey T. Mitchell’s brainless script and Kate Capshaw’s listless “acting”. Not even the appearance of Tom Skeritt can redeem SpaceCamp. I would recommend rounding up every copy of this movie and launching the entire lot into space, if not for the fact that the cache might be discovered by extra-terrestrials and used as evidence that Earth is void of intelligent life.
From the soundtrack – “Walk of Life” by Dire Straits
Next week: Alaska
Follow Matt on Twitter at @CM_MattDunn.