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SPACECAMP

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kate Capshaw, Lea Thompson, Tate Donovan, Kelly Preston, Larry B. Scott, Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix, Tom Skerritt
Director:  Harry Winer
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  None
Length:  107 Minutes
Release Date:  March 2, 2004

“It’s not important how this happened.  What’s important is, how do we get back home.

And we ARE going home.”

Film ***1/2

SpaceCamp has been one of my favorite family films for about 15 years now, but unfortunately, it’s a good little picture that never seems to have found its audience.  It suffered the worst timing of any release in film history…a movie about a space shuttle mishap that sends a group of kids into space, it was superceded by a real life shuttle disaster when the Challenger exploded minutes after takeoff just days before the scheduled theatrical debut.

To make matters worse, what happened to the real life shuttle was eerily similar to what happens to it in the picture.  The movie was pushed back months and months, costing the studio millions…yet by the time it was released, the country still wasn’t in the mood to see it.

Which is a shame, because I’ve always found it an enjoyable film, with a good cast of kids playing characters you really care about.  It’s the kind of picture that can fuel any youngster’s imagination, while at the same time, delivering a strong message about believing in yourself and working together as a team to make the impossible possible.

Much of the movie was filmed at the actual SpaceCamp in Huntsville, Alabama…a helluva place for kids to spend the summer, if your parents have the do-re-mi to send you there.  Owned and operated by NASA, students come from everywhere to get hands-on astronaut training, using complex simulators and machines as well as a full curriculum of math and science.

When astronaut-to-be Andy Berkstroom (Capshaw) learns she has been passed over for a chance to go up, she joins her husband Zach (Skerritt) at SpaceCamp.  There, she instructs a rag-tag group:  Kevin (Donovan), who doesn’t care about the camp, and is only there because his father wants him there, Kathryn (Thompson), the hot-shot studious one who wants to be the first female shuttle commander, Tish (Preston), the airhead with a photographic memory, Rudy (Scott), a young man with a love for science but not quite the aptitude for it, and Max (Phoenix), the youngest and the smartest, with the biggest imagination.

They don’t seem like the kind of group that can or will ever gel, until fate throws them in a situation where they have no choice.  Sitting in the cockpit of the shuttle Atlantis during a routine engine test, a booster rocket failure forces NASA to launch the ship rather than have it crash and burn on the pad.  What started out as a routine day at SpaceCamp for Andy and her kids becomes the adventure of a lifetime…and that adventure is getting back home.

The film is filled with terrific senses of awe and suspense…what kid’s imagination wouldn’t be stirred by the thought of going up in a space shuttle?  But at the same time, we never lose sight of the gravity (no pun intended) of the situation.  The kids have gone up in a craft that wasn’t flight ready.  Their oxygen, and their options, are limited.  It’s the kind of situation that brings out true character…and fortunately, this group, despite their motley appearance, find it within themselves to work as a team and not give up.  Each of them has a talent, even though not all of them realize it.  When they start to practice what Andy has been teaching them, they begin to believe in themselves and their ability to do the impossible.

I’ve always recommended this movie to families, and I still do…it remains one of my favorites.  I’ve seen it many times, and am, of course, much older now, but I still find it an easy movie to slip into.  I know the outcome, yet I still hang on these kids’ fates at every turn.  I credit that to a terrific young cast…had they been just a typically annoying teen-flick crew, who knows? 

But they are a talented and believable bunch, who progress as a group beautifully.  They may start out like a crew with whom you’d never want to fly your space shuttle, but darn it all, if they don’t slowly but surely prove themselves otherwise.

Video ***

This is a good looking disc, despite a non-anamorphic transfer.  I was surprised at how much brighter and clearer the images were than on my old VHS copy…I wasn’t sure SpaceCamp was the kind of film that would get a lot of attention in the mastering process, but I was wrong.  Colors are vibrant and natural looking throughout, with no bleeding or distortions evident.  Space scenes look quite good, save for one or two brief ones (Kevin and Kathryn looking up at the moon early on, for example) that get a little grungy and grainy looking, but these are few and fleeting.

Audio **1/2

The original 2 channel surround track is perfectly fine, if not spectacular.  This is a film that might have benefited from one of the studio’s terrific 5.1 remasters.  Here, dynamic range is fair, with a bit of punch coming from the take-off sequence, and plenty of moments in space where things get very quiet on the other end of the sonic spectrum.  Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and I noticed no distracting noise to spoil the presentation.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:  

If you’re one of the many who has passed on SpaceCamp over the years, the release of this MGM DVD gives you another chance to view this wonderful family film, maybe even with your own kids.  Poor timing may have killed its chance to become a classic, but once you’ve been to SpaceCamp, you’ll definitely make plans to visit there again.