Not, alas, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams in orbit. What stale travesty is this? I’d seen Space Camp before but had expunged the sordid details from my memory, aside from the presence of Lorraine McFly. Perhaps, in another universe, this would have been the kind of towering space hit The Right Stuff wasn’t, a Top Gun for the astral set (possibly why Tom’s double is set on getting out there 4real). As it is, with its firmly TV credentials (ABC Motion Pictures, no less, via TV producer Leonard Goldberg and TV director Harry Winer), this was never going to compete with the big leagues, regardless of touting a prized John Williams score. It also boasts William B Fraker as cinematographer, but his ’80s record, WarGames aside – hmmm, both have run-together titles, both are hi-tech teen pics – is resolutely nondescript.
The most absurd part is that distributor Fox were seriously touting this as their big 1986 summer draw – a strategy devised prior to the Challenger “disaster”, obviously – over the surely no-brainer Aliens. Per JW Rinzler in Aliens, quoting Cameron’s 1986 account “They were putting all their guns on that… They were really pushing it. They pushed the hell out of SpaceCamp and it’s not because they felt they had to back a dog, because that’s not the way Fox works. They had seen a rough cut of that picture long before it was done, before any of the effects were in it, and they honestly thought they had a hit in that film”. Rinzler speculates the running time was a preference factor (it was less than two hours, Cameron was Cameron). There are no sources, it seems, for the meeting where execs switched teams, but I suspect, post-January 28, any other horse would have seemed a safer bet.
SpaceCamp at least had an excuse for its failure then, and could kind of opt out of being accused of predictive programming; that wasn’t the case for The Lone Gunmen, drawing attention to an attempt to fly a plane into the Twin Towers a few months before it happened. Few were up in arms about this “coincidence” because few actually watched (the show didn’t last a full season). One could make a case, however, that both examples are entrenching a lie: The Lone Gunmen ignites conspiracy theories that an actual plane was flown into the Twin Towers (so collapsing them), as opposed to a planned detonation. SpaceCamp’s grand adventure begins with the danger of ignition of one of the boosters killing the entire crew, so requiring lift off (the malfunction of a solid rocket booster is the official explanation for Challenger). The Kate Capshaw-led expedition also highlights the touting of the first civilian in space (teacher Christa McAuliffe).
If 9/11 was a tissue of lies, needing another seven astronauts appears to have been as well. After all, if you aren’t actually sending anyone up there, actually blowing up the ones you aren’t sending up for the sake of some adverse publicity is a little much (but not beyond the bounds of possibility, let’s face it: see Capricorn One for a take on non-compliance). Was it planned that way, or did Challenger just explode on remote? I suspect the former, since there’s much to be reaped from the collective trauma of such events – call it loosh, if you like – and also from the disincentivising “space travel is too dangerous/ expensive which gives us a reason to put the brakes on perpetuating the illusion thereof” (at least, until CGI catches up).
Surprisingly, Miles Mathis didn’t devote an entire essay to this, his favourite topic – the “not-dead-really” one – but he did give it a passing reference in his space shuttle piece. You can, of course, find cased-closed authoritative debunking of the evidence that the shuttle crew are still mooching around under assumed identities. Which is, of course, the best reason to believe there’s some truth to the matter.
One also wonders at the gender specificity here. Kate Capshaw’s Andie Bergstrom, Space Camp instructor and astronaut passed over for a shuttle mission, ends up shepherding the teens launched into space; the Challenger’s big headline grabber was a woman as the first civilian in space. Sure, you’ve got Tate Donovan (annoying cool kid Kevin who learns about responsibility), and Leaf Phoenix (annoying geek kid Max who learns… I dunno, that obsessing about George Lucas fantasy universes is a solid stepping stone to winning an Oscar playing the Joker?) Mostly, though, this is about Andie chaperoning Lea Thompson (Kathryn, who wants to be the first female shuttle commander) to empowered status (we can ignore Kelly Preston’s Tish and Larry B Scott’s Rudy for the purposes of filling space with bimbo subversion but-not-really and token representation).
The biggest problem the makers have – there are four credited writers – is manoeuvring these young pups into orbit in the first place. Droid Jinx was doubtless considered to kill two birds with one stone, as he provides a much-need cutsey-comedy, audience-association factor (you need a cute robot), and the means get them up there. Sure, there also needs to be a contrivance of allowing the kids in the shuttle during a routine engine test, but once you’ve got them there, Jinx can order the NASA computer to announce a thermal curtain failure (one booster will ignite, spelling disaster, so both must be ignited, thereby guaranteeing lift off). This, in order to announce that he is friends forever with Leaf. Adorable, eh? I wonder at what point in the aftermath he was melted down for scrap.
Once that is done, the obstacles to returning are a piece of cake. Not enough oxygen? A detour to the Daedalus space station. Kate can’t reach the cylinder? Leaf has to spacewalk to lend a hand (I’m unclear quite how he’s less bulky than her in an equally bulky adult-sized spacesuit, but let it pass, just to see two people hugging in spacesuits). Kate is injured? The kids must work as a team and learn leadership, responsibility and all that crap in order to land at White Sands. Never mind that the characterisation is lousy and the dialogue rank, Williams is on hand to raise your spirits!
Donovan is given such lines as “Hey! Great boosters” (to Mrs Spielberg) and “It’s not like you’re using it for much else anyway” when Leaf expresses concern at using the vacuum toilet. He’s also there to signal that other make-believe part of ’80s consciousness (“What’s the point? I mean, we’re all going to get nuked anyway”).
On which subject, an opening scene has young Kate yelling “He winked at me. John Glen winked at me!” in 1969. He winked at everyone, Kate, as if to say “You really believing this shit?” In the present, she tells hubby Tom Skerritt “You’re not going to be the only one in this family to walk on the Moon” – so er, in this universe, they’re going back? Wowzas. We’re promised “In space, anything is possible”. Tom knows all about that, especially the screaming bit. Kate warns the youngsters that, when you’re in the vacuum of space travelling at 17,000mph, there’s no room for error, neglecting to add “but every opportunity to believe in absurdity”.
While it occasionally suggests someone else – who wasn’t a TV guy – might have made something of this material (the spacewalk sequences), SpaceCamp has much more in common with such passé fare as Flight of the Navigator than the kinds of Spielberg and Lucas adulterated goodies that really buzzed audiences. Its bombing (less than $10m on a $18m budget, a production schedule that went three months over) was, I suspect, guaranteed, caught as it is between kids’ and teen/family movie, between a reality basis and the need for fantasy to make it land, along with the simple fact that it has zero creative flair behind it. Still none of the cast seemed to have suffered, even Kate got to be beard for the Beard. Not a great year for Lea, admittedly (there was also Howard), but she’d land on her feet. On TV. Where this really ought to have been. I’d like to say SpaceCamp made for solid predictive programming, but it’s fairly subpar even on that score, given the opportunity it had.