The mid-1980s was a special time for movies. The Star Wars trilogy had wrapped up. We had two films with Indiana Jones. Ghostbusters was huge. Back to the Future. Revenge of the Nerds.
The back half of the decade got decidedly darker, though, starting with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Perhaps that should have been a sign that it wasn’t the greatest idea to debut a film just a few months later about a bunch of kids at Space Camp being forced to launch aboard Atlantis, and then worry about oxygen and getting home — but it happened. Someone made a decision, and SpaceCamp hit theaters on June 6, 1986.
The premise: A handful of kids at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. — a thing that you can still go to today, actually — accidentally on purpose get launched into space and have to learn to work together to get home.
Nearly 40 years later, that’s not really most the amazing part of what wasn’t (and still isn’t) a particularly great film. The story is as predictable as it gets, and there are plenty of tells to point to the danger to come, and how to get out of it.
But for all its faults — and they are so many — SpaceCamp still manages to give you the same feeling that so many space movies manage, whether it’s (spoiler, but not really) Mark Watney getting saved at the end of The Martian, or the more bleak but no less human ending to Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone in Gravity. Or, in real life, the modern marvel of seeing a SpaceX rocket land itself over and over again.
That’s all basic storytelling, though. What really stands out about SpaceCamp all these years later involves the availability (or lack thereof) of the movie, the unexpectedly stacked cast, and one major musical surprise.
First, and this may be the more important, is that the movie has fallen into a digital black hole. You can’t buy it unless you want to go the optical route, and while I like SpaceCamp a lot, this isn’t a movie worth $30-plus on DVD. You can’t stream it anywhere. You can, however, find the full thing on something that rhymes with TooYoube, but that’s not really an avenue we can endorse. That’s annoying and seemingly a bit weird given that FAST services like Tubi have all kinds of old movies.
Then there’s the casting. SpaceCamp is loaded with talent. Ridiculously so.
Start with the grown-ups — Tom Skerritt as Zach Bergstrom, an astronaut who now runs Space Camp. (We’ll withhold judgment on whether that’s a demotion or not.) Skerritt, by the way, had another movie still in theaters when SpaceCamp was released — a little Navy action flick called Top Gun that came out just weeks before.
Kate Capshaw is Zach’s wife, Andie, in a sadly stereotypical role that sees her character plenty competent, but still awaiting a ride to space. Capshaw’s Texas accent comes through plenty, and she’s still recognizable despite having lost the blonde hair she sported a few projects earlier in a little sequel called Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
And that’s just the start of it. Consider:
- Lea Thompson, in her second film since Back to the Future landed a little less than a year earlier. (She’d pop up again a year later in the so-bad-it’s-good version of Howard the Duck.)
- Joaquin Phoenix, the outstanding method actor who might have been 11 years old when SpaceCamp was shot. He’s a brilliantly annoying 12-year-old here, to the point where you’re not quite sure if he actually believes he’s living in the Star Wars universe. More amazing was his current stage name at the time — Leaf.
- Kelly Preston, with a handful of strong TV appearances under her belt, and a ton of movies (and a marriage to John Travolta) ahead of her.
- Tate Donovan, who’s had a perfectly remarkable career despite never quite becoming that huge 1980s star you could tell someone was trying to make him.
- Larry B. Scott, a couple of years past Revenge of the Nerds and The Karate Kid, and fresh off Iron Eagle. (Which came out 11 days before the Challenger disaster.)
And don’t blink or you’ll miss super-early appearances of Terry O’Quinn (Lost, The Stepfather, and so much more), Barry Primus (Cagney & Lacey), and Mitchell Anderson (Doogie Howser, M.D., Party of Five).
That’s one hell of a cast in any year of the 1980s.
And, finally, toss in some outstanding music. It’s a little wild to recall hearing three major 1980s hits in a movie too few remember or have seen at all. But, yes, that’s Eric Clapton’s Forever Man teamed up with Dire Straits’ So Far Away and Walk of Life. Bangers, all — but still not the biggest musical surprise of SpaceCamp.
The score for SpaceCamp was from none other than John Williams. That’s perhaps not particularly surprising given that dude had been scoring movies and shows for 20-something years by that point, and Hollywood’s maybe not that big a town. But that also puts SpaceCamp in the same conversation as the first two Indiana Jones films, the Star Wars trilogy, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both Jaws flicks, The Towering Inferno, The Sugarland Express … we could go on. (And if you haven’t spotted the Steven Spielberg throughline by now, there it is.)
SpaceCamp had all the makings of a perfectly good-bad movie, and there were plenty back then. Maybe it really was the timing that doomed it. Losing Challenger — especially the reason why — shattered the carefree nature of the first half of the decade.
But there’s no denying the star power and the musical talent, both of which elevate the material. The story’s not great — and pretending that you can get from Space Camp in Huntsville to the space shuttle launch pad on the beach in a mere 15 minutes is damned near unforgivable — but it’s entertaining enough. (And you have to root for Jinx, the friendly self-aware robot, who’s actually the cause of everyone’s problems.)
It’s just a shame that you can’t easily (or ethically) watch it anywhere.