I can definitely say, without a shred of shame, that this was my favorite for at least one whole summer. Being a little kid that went to the movie theatre quite a bit was great because the mid 80's were chock full of amazing movies that were tailor made for my often-drifting prepubescent mind. Goonies, Explorers, Last Starfighter, and Flight of the Navigator are just a few of the films from this period that successfully nitro-injected the idea into sugar-addled children that behind every corner or under any rock there was the possibility of a fantastical adventure leading to some type of introspective ephiphane that guides them personal redemption or riches. Space Camp, released in 1986, is no different thematically, but what seperates this film from the rest of the fold is that, to my adolescent brain and others, the fantasy presented seemed very attainable. Space Camp was a REAL THING that exists in a REAL place! You could actually send an application to NASA and with any luck, and unfortunately for my family, a lot of money, you just might end up befriending a sentient robot and accidentally being jettisoned into space! Watching Space Camp is also nostalgically significant to me because it is the first crush I can remember having on a girl. The incomparable Lea Thompson was at the height of her goody girl powers at this time and her cute-with-a-slice-of-sexy farmgirl charisma dominated the screen in her roles for classics like Back To The Future and Howard The Duck. This burning infatuation, coupled with space travel and the fact that these amazing events were happening to people my age, was very intoxicating and inspiring to a young impressionable nerd.
Space Camp was essentially a commercial for the NASA space program, but the powers that be inserted a few tried and true Hollywood techniques to draw in the imaginations of the general public. To begin with, there are no blockbuster fantasy adventure stories without a collection of lovable misfits. There is the smart alecky vagabond with natural leadership skills in blonde hunk Kevin, funky Tish is a free-spirit valley girl who actually is the smartest one in the group, and token race dude Rudy, who is the tragic engineering nerd who is looking to break away from a life of being persecuted by his inner city homies for liking science. The emotional arcs are being carried mostly by Thompson's Catherine, who is a shy upstart student pilot who is constantly confronted with self doubt, and Andie, played by Kate Capshaw, the lone adult on the shuttle crew who is disgruntled over not being included in space missions (presumably because she is a woman) and has a semi-competitive relationship with her husband, who has been to the moon. Ultimately, The entire spirit and commerciality of Space Camp rests with the storyline between its youngest character Max, expertly acted by a young Joaquin Phoenix (here credited as Leaf), and his friendship with a quirky robot called Jinx. Jinx, who is perhaps the lovechild of Johnny 5 and R2D2, has decided that he and Max are "friends forever", and in his cyber-autistic goodwill sneaks into the NASA database and sabotages a routine shuttle test drill into a near deadly authentic space launch, sending his human "friend" and his cohorts hurtling into orbit. Despite its apparent super intelligence and sensitivity, Jinx never thought to make sure that the shuttle had enough oxygen or that there was not adequate communication software onboard, but without these glaring oversights we wouldn't have the legitimately scary adventure that unfolds. The harrowing situations they face while they are in space predate Gravity by almost 3 decades, and the claustrophobic anxiety is comparably horrifying, albeit with a much lighter Disney-like touch. As par the cinematic formula, each character uses each their individual talents to overcome each dilemma, and legendary composer John Williams accentuates each triumph and failure with his famous zeal, pumping every twist and turn with big emotion, characteristics which are a hallmark of the endlessly feel-good eighties summer film. In the end, you might have been scared straight in to not wanting to go up into space anymore, but you do feel kinda mushy inside, which might be the entire point.
Box office-wise, Space Camp was a failure. It's untimely release shortly after the Challenger disaster probably was the reason for this. But to the young me, this was a home run! Phoenix and Thompson are at their iconic best, Kelly Preston is as sexy as ever (before I knew what sex was), and Capshaw continues her great poor-mans Sigourney Weaver routine she perfected in the Indiana Jones franchise. Add a comic relief robot buddy and this should have been unstoppable! Shows what I know...