So five kids in NASA’s summer youth program, along with their instructor, are unexpectedly launched into space and must use what they’ve learned to return to Earth before they run out of oxygen. If this sounds too absurd to entertain, please read me out. As funny as it is to say, in order to fully appreciate “SpaceCamp,” you must consider the context in which it was made.
Behold the early-mid 1980s! It was Reagan’s America, where Hollywood bombarded the public with Cold War-colored cinema. Many of those movies (“Red Dawn,” “Rocky IV,” etc.) used the theme of combat to inspire Americans to divorce themselves from any positive thoughts about Communism. But thanks to Hollywood in the 1980s, Americans learned that, if we weren’t careful, a ‘roided-out Russian would kill your cocky, but washed-up, friend…or Superfly might parachute into your high school parking lot and enslave your parents.
But “SpaceCamp” went in a slightly different direction. Director Harry Winer used the international space race to say that hope for the future is in the hands of the children…and those hands are good. And with the fine young actors cast, it is hard to deny the already accessible and timely archetypes they portrayed: the all-American, tall, blond dude who couldn’t care less about space (Tate Donovan), a nerdy black guy committed to proving himself despite his limitations (Larry B. Scott), a ditzy savant with a great face (Kelly Preston), the girl-next-door who can fly airplanes (Lea Thompson)…and the kid who’s too young, but won’t go away (Joaquin Phoenix, then Leaf). With a team like that, what other outcome can you have besides complete success? Exactly!
Throw in Kate Capshaw, Tom Skerritt, and Terry O’Quinn (‘John Locke’ has always been old, apparently) as the adults-in-residence, and this unprovoked—and unanswered—even-our-kids-are-better-than-you statement to the Soviets demonstrates how thoroughly Hollywood did its part to crush the hammer and sickle with a wave of the stars and stripes.
So in 2010, does “SpaceCamp” sound pretty silly? Of course it does. Between the realization that a space program is a gross misappropriation of funds and an ever-declining educational system, no one wants to imagine tax dollars sending children to space—even on purpose—when they are worried about whether they will have jobs next week. But for a look down memory lane, to a time when America wasn’t more hated than Ivan Drago, “SpaceCamp” is a light-hearted suspense adventure worth checking out.