Sunday, September 30, 2012

"In Space"... Camp

If there ever was a movie that could force me to overlook the outstanding flaws of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, that movie is Space Camp.  When I first viewed 2001 about a year ago, I was overwhelmed by the incredible boredom it induced and unimpressed by its seemingly outdated effects.  Upon watching Space Camp, I acquired a new appreciation both for the narrative pace of 2001 and the nature of its special effects.

Space Campy, err Camp, is a sci-fi tale that was made in the 80s but resembles a product of the pre-Star Wars 70s.  It documents the adventures of some inept and immature teenagers who all undergo a positive change of character, become adults, and learn the value of teamwork when they are unexpectedly sent into space by a protocol/astromech droid named Jinx.  The basic 5-act plot of the movie is as follows: kids act like kids at space camp, lovable robot sends kids into space, kids run out of oxygen, kids work together to refill oxygen tanks at space station, kids magically turn into responsible adults and pull off emergency landing.  Should you watch the whole thing, you’ll also experience a forced romantic subplot that never resurfaces after the “lake scene”, a disturbingly bestial relationship between a young boy and his robot, some partial nudity in the women’s dormitory, cheesy old-feminism (“I’m gonna be the first female shuttle commander.”), a prolonged sequence in which not one but two people leave the space shuttle to retrieve oxygen supplies, a total of two “mild peril” scenes in which someone drifts away from the shuttle only to be rescued predictably by another astronaut, another scene of peril where someone gets stuck outside the cargo bay doors (she’s rescued later), a crying scene, and a surplus of drama at Mission Control, all accompanied by overwrought, generically heroic tunes by John Williams of all people.

Clich├ęs and stereotypes abound.  We have the nerdy brainiac girl, the arrogant hothead who conquers his pride and learns responsibility by the end, and the young boy who’s obsessed with dreams of visiting the great beyond and fighting a glorious war against the evil Empire (Star Wars is referenced extensively throughout the movie, probably to alleviate the need for the writers to craft their own story).  At the beginning of the movie, a central teenager named Kathryn is put into a simulation machine which is supposed to teach pilots the science of landing a shuttle.  She fails of course, complaining afterwards that she needs another chance.  As I foretold out loud, she gets one in the film’s final ten minutes, when she has to land the real spacecraft.  In an “inspiring” triumph over her former challenges, she somehow manages to land the ship safely, prompting the resounding cheers of those at NASA, who apparently can’t comprehend their legal predicament or the many millions wasted on the shuttle’s fruitless voyage.  The “messages” of the movie are simplistic and typical of a kiddie flick: believe in yourself, follow your heart, and work together.

All this might be forgiven if the movie at least moved at a brisk pace, but Space Camp makes even 2001 seem gripping.   My father has hypothesized that the pacing of A Space Odyssey is supposed to match the film’s theme: long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of intense excitement. 2001 does indeed have flashes of intensity that captivate the audience, e.g. the lethal rebellion of HAL 9000 against his masters and Dave that represents the climax of the film, and thus the movie has some entertainment value.  Space Camp, however, is all boredom, no excitement, despite its strained efforts to inject peril into the narrative.  Never once does one feel concern or anxiety for the lives of the intrepid heroes, because it’s explicit from the movie’s tone and setup that everybody will survive and live happily ever after.

The “special” effects of the movie are scarce and unbelievable.  Unlike 2001, which was almost 20 years old at the time of the former movie’s release, Space Camp fails to create a credible sensation of space travel.  Very rarely does the camera offer a full view of the actors’ bodies, reinforcing the audience’s prevalent suspicion that the characters are just standing on unseen surfaces.  Scenes on the exterior of the shuttle are obviously creations of Hollywood, with a variety of cardboard cutouts substituting in many shots for human actors.  2001, in contrast, employed moving sets, wirework, and clever camera tricks to manufacture an illusion of zero and shifting gravity so authentic it would later inspire the modern cinematic genius Christopher Nolan in his work on Inception.  Space Camp, unlike 2001, was ignored by the filmmaking community and forgotten by the few who saw it.  Additionally the characters of Space Camp possess the unique ability to talk to each other outside of the flying shuttle, which contradicts a wise saying: in space, no one can hear you scream.  Stanley Kubrick averted this problem by ascribing an eerie silence to his space scenes that’s broken only by the hiss of an astronaut’s suit.  2001 strove for realism, while Space Camp elected for fantasy.

The acting in the film is abysmal, which is inexcusable because the dialogue given to the stars is most commendable.  Here are some of the more quotable bits from the movie.

“*Max and Jinx friends, for e ver.*” ~ C3D2
“Why don't you evaporate, laser-brain!” ~ Max
“My philosophy is to sleep late, drive fast, and not take any of this s___ seriously.’” ~ Kevin
“Shut up!   I don't want to hear about it.  I can't hear it - you know why?  Because you're all dead.” ~ Andie

I believe Andie delivers the movie’s best line: “I’m gonna check this mother out.”  I urge my readers to do just the opposite with Space Camp: do not check this mother… out.

Grade: D+ (I reserve my D's for movies that are blasphemous, sadistic, flagrantly indecent, misleading, or anti-American, e.g. Transformers 2, Michael Moore's films,  and all of Pixar's propaganda.)

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