Today’s feature is the most famous bad movie to come out of my home town of Huntsville, AL: 1986’s SpaceCamp.
The credited writers for SpaceCamp include producer Patrick Bailey, Larry B. Williams (Friday’s Curse), Clifford Green (The Seventh Sign, Bless The Child), and someone named Casey T. Mitchell, who has very few other credits.
SpaceCamp was directed by Harry Winer, whose credits include a handful of Veronica Mars episodes, a documentary called The Legend of Bigfoot, and House Arrest.
SpaceCamp had two credited editors: John Wheeler (Rocky IV, Star Trek: First Contact, Rhinestone) and Tim Board (Ladybugs).
The music for SpaceCamp was provided by the one and only John Williams, who is perhaps the most recognizable film scorer in the history of the medium. On top of his astounding five Academy Award wins, he has countless Academy Award nominations spanning from 1968 to 2014.
The special and makeup effects team for SpaceCamp was made up of Zoltan Elek (Timecop, Double Team, Street Fighter, Leviathan), Katalin Elek (Double Team, Rocky V, Legend, Leviathan), and Chuck Gaspar (Waterworld, Mitchell, The Exorcist II).
The visual effects work for the movie was provided by a massive team that included Tom Anderson (Dune, Philadelphia Experiment II), Jeff Burks (Trick or Treat, The Abyss), Charles L. Finance (Battlefield Earth, Leviathan, Dune), Jammie Friday (Robot Jox, Apollo 13), Rocky Gehr (Face/Off, Over The Top, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Jingle All The Way), Robert L. Johnston (1941, Die Hard), David S. Williams Jr. (Leviathan), Christopher Nibley (Predator 2), Mark Stetson (Leonard Part 6, On Deadly Ground), Richard Malzahn (Trick or Treat, Leviathan, Suburban Commando), Peter Montgomery (Mortal Kombat), Barry Nolan (Leviathan, Maximum Overdrive), and Doyle Smiley (DeepStar Six),
The cast of SpaceCamp includes Kate Capshaw (Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom), Tom Skerritt (Alien, Top Gun, Poison Ivy), Terry O’Quinn (Lost, Primal Fear, Tombstone), Lea Thompson (Howard the Duck, Back To The Future, Jaws 3-D, Left Behind), Kelly Preston (Jerry Maguire), Larry B. Scott (Iron Eagle), and Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator, 8MM, Inherent Vice, The Master, Walk The Line, Her), credited under his childhood name of “Leaf.”
The young attendees of a space camp find themselves in space for real when their shuttle is accidentally launched into orbit.
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger tragically broke apart barely a minute into its flight, killing the entire crew aboard. At the time, SpaceCamp, which prominently features the looming threat of a shuttle disaster, was scheduled to release within weeks. Wisely, the studio chose to delay the film’s release to the summer, but it flopped at the box office none-the-less.
In early drafts of the story, SpaceCamp was to have a Rocky IV-style ending, in which a Russian shuttle (piloted by children) is dispatched to rescue the American kids stranded in space, signifying a new, post-Cold War era of peace and harmony.
SpaceCamp was the feature film debut of Joaquin Phoenix, whose older brother, River, broke out due to his role in Stand By Me, which also released in 1986. Joaquin is credited under the name “Leaf,” which he took on early in his childhood, but shed in his teens.
The budget for SpaceCamp has been estimated to have been between 18 and 25 million dollars, on which it only took in less than 10 million dollars on its lifetime theatrical run. The reception to the film was less than glowing: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.6, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 40% from critics and 50% from audiences. In spite of the poor returns and reviews, SpaceCamp received a spiritual remake in 2013 in the form of Space Warriors.
The Huntsville, AL location of Space Camp (The US Space and Rocket Center) that features in the film doesn’t have an actual space shuttle or a launch pad: it only has a mock up (Pathfinder) that was used for basic testing purposes. Even then, it wasn’t on display at the Space and Rocket Center until 1988: two years after this movie’s release. This makes the entire premise of the plot of SpaceCamp even more impossible that it was to start with.
Obviously, the plot of SpaceCamp is beyond preposterous. NASA didn’t have any hyper-intelligent robot friends in 1986, Space Camp attendees aren’t the same thing as astronaut trainees (and go nowhere near functioning shuttles), and, in spite of a mixed track record, we’ve never accidentally shot a shuttle into space. All of that said, SpaceCamp seems to relish in its obliviousness, and seems shocking uninterested in the fantastic reality of space flight, choosing to substitute in a bizarre, fictitious world in its stead. I can only imagine how disappointed an entire generation of kids were when they discovered that Space Camp doesn’t turn children into astronauts, and no adorable robot companions were included in the program.
Thanks to the utter ludicrousness of the screenplay, SpaceCamp holds up as a charmingly inept love letter to a scientific pursuit that was far beyond the writers’ comprehensions. I would pay good money to watch this movie with a panel of physicists and astronomers (cc: Phil Plait), because I can only imagine the mix of guffaws and exasperated head-shaking this screenplay would incite from them.
SpaceCamp is an under-appreciated bad movie classic if you ask me. You don’t see it covered very often by the big b-movie reviewers, but this flick is the perfect mix of a financial failure, a recognizable cast, an utterly inept screenplay, a high dose of nostalgia, and maybe the worst cultural timing of any movie release in history. I might be a little biased given it is a hometown feature for me, but I implore any detractors out there to give this movie another look. Watch this film today, and try not to laugh at it. I dare you.