1986 in Film – SpaceCamp

Release Date: June 6th
Box Office: $9,697,739

Timing, as they say, is everything. Picking the right actor just as he’s about to hit the big time, the right story to capture the audience, the right script to change the zeitgeist when it needs changing.

In the mid 80s NASA was hugely popular. Whilst we hadn’t been back to the moon for nearly a decade, the Space Shuttle had captured the imagination of the public. A film, then, about NASA would be good. Set in their Space Camp, with a group of kids accidentally shot into space who have to work together to get back home. You’ve got the popularity of NASA and the family adventure concept that was so popular at the time, hell lets chuck in a talking robot to keep everything on trend.

On January 28th the space shuttle challenger launched and everything changed.

SpaceCamp (1986) was already deep into production. Not that it had been an easy ride beforehand: the cast spent all their time in a cramped Space Shuttle set, suspended on wires, trying to move like they were in zero gravity, getting maybe a shot or two a day. It was a hard, tough slog with the spectre of the Challenger disaster hanging over it.

Perhaps why the film ends up feeling like the life has been sucked out of it. What should be a thrilling take of a bunch of kids at NASA summer camp accidentally being blasted into space ends up as a bit of a chore.

You get the usual group that pops up in 80s films: the smart one; the cool guy who doesn’t try enough; the socially awkward one; the ditzy one; a kid and his robot friend.

That last bit deserves expanding on. There seemed to be this trend, I guess because it was the 80s, of putting random robots in films. You have Paulie’s robot Sico in Rocky IV, Tom Selleck’s house robot in Runaway (1984) and a meal serving robot in Flight of The Navigator (1986). This makes the appearance of Jinx in SpaceCamp almost make sense. Almost.

Design wise he could almost be a distant ancestor of the iconic BB8: they share the same circular body only Jinx has three spindly legs sticking out the side that he uses to get around. This doesn’t look great, and nether does the square head which kind of rises out the top of his body.

There is no real reason for him to be in the film. All he’s there to do is to get the kids into space albeit through one of the most convoluted sequence of events you’ll see: he befriends Max, the youngest of our group of characters. When the training doesn’t go well he gets upset, proclaiming that he wished he was in space. Jinx hears this and taking it literally decides to get Max there. Wouldn’t you know it the next day the group are allowed to sit in a shuttle whilst it undergoes an engine test so Jinx manages to talk the NASA computer into causing the rocket to be launched.

Yep, talks the NASA computer into it. Considering that both Jinx and the computer are, well, computers you’d have thought that they could just link together and sort thing out that way. Nope, in a computer sequence rivalling Superman III (1985)‘s OVERRIDE ALL SECURITY computer hacking, Jinx basically asks it out loud “How to get Max into space” to which the computer replies (because all computers can talk) “like this”.

Putting to one side the fact that strapping a load of kids into a shuttle for a live engine test seems amazingly negligent, take Jinx out and the film still works. Only, instead of a ropey computer sequence, the kids get blasted into space by accident. Still a bit ropey but at least it’s a touch more plausible.

The human cast, when not trying to act like they’re in zero gravity, aren’t too bad. Kate Capshaw is the sole adult NASA person who goes into space with the kids, Tom Skerritt is her husband in charge of mission control so both do their usual decent jobs. The kids are headed up by Lea Thompson (Marty’s mother in the Back To The Future series) and Tate Donovan. They carry the love story part of the film (such as it is) and everyone else gets to look worried whilst they run out of oxygen in space. The main part of the casting that tends to get the film mentioned in trivia quizzes is the casting of Max; he’s played by Leaf Phoenix, who would later return to his birth name of Joaquín. Yep, the future Emperor Commodus was once best friends with a robot.

So the film is pretty ropey and saddled with the after effects of a national disaster. It wants to be his big adventure film and ends up being a slog through a pretty cliched story. This isn’t to say that the film never connected with people, in an interview Lea Thompson spoke of meeting fans years after the film was released who said that it inspired them to follow science as a career.

Is that SpaceCamp doing that? Or more the fact that NASA is a pretty inspirational concept, something that is strong enough to survive going through the wringer of a sub par family film of the mid eighties?

Think we might already know the answer to that.

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