Awfully Good: SpaceCamp Movie with Joaquin Phoenix

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

SpaceCamp Movie, Joaquin Phoenix

With NASA and SpaceX launching the first human spaceflight in a decade AND the release of Steve Carrell's SPACE FORCE, this seems like a good week to revisit…


SpaceCamp (1986)


Director: Harry Winer
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Lea Thompson, Kate Capshaw


A rogue robot hacks in to NASA and launches five kids in to space.

What if I told you there was a sci-fi movie from the 1980s with an all-star cast and a score by John Williams that you've probably forgotten about completely?

"I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it's a fucking comedy."

That movie is SPACE CAMP. And if you're wondering how a film with such an impressive pedigree could slip under the collective radar, it has to do with a serious case of unfortunate timing. This two-hour advertisement for NASA and American scientific supremacy was released a few months after the tragic Challenger space shuttle explosion in early 1986. A family-friendly adventure about a potentially deadly space disaster was understandably a hard sell and it bombed critically and commercially. Pretty much everyone just agreed to pretend this movie didn't exist.

Which is not to suggest that SPACE CAMP is some forgotten classic of unparalleled quality. It's a campy, often laughable movie of its time—one that's meant to inspire audiences and promote the ingenuity of the U.S. space program (filmed on location at the real Space Camp in Alabama), but doesn't seem to grasp just how inept it makes everyone look. There's a certain charm to how confidently misguided it is, not to mention the level of 80s cheesiness present. There are plenty of worse movies from the decade that get ironically appreciated. And those don't feature a 12-year old Joaquin Phoenix and his robot sidekick.

Everybody looks ahead with hope and optimism at the careers ahead of them. (Not so fast, everyone-except-Joaquin Phoenix.)

The future JOKER Oscar-winner, then going by the name Leaf Phoenix, plays a STAR WARS-obsessed child prodigy who talks his way in to the Space Camp program despite being woefully under-qualified and a decade younger then everyone else. Phoenix gives a fine performance for a child actor, and it's fun to spot some of the same acting choices and facial expressions his famous future self would make.

In addition to Phoenix, the film also stars:

  • Lea Thompson, fresh off BACK TO THE FUTURE, as a straight-laced, hardcore space camper, who the film continually criticizes for not being fun (i.e. being smart and wanting to work hard)
  • Kelly Preston (a.k.a. Mrs. John Travolta) as a new age hippie who wants to be a scientologist the first radio DJ in space
  • Tate Donovan, who was clearly already in his 30s, as the bad boy of Space Camp, who pretends to be Japanese student Hideo Takamini (?) the entire summer to pick up girls
  • Larry B. Scott, best known as Lamar from REVENGE OF THE NERDS, who goes to Space Camp to escape his home life and finally be himself—a nerd.
  • Tom Skerritt and Kate Capshaw play the camp counselor astronauts responsible for almost killing five children
  • And just for fun, a young Terry O'Quinn a.k.a. John Locke from LOST shows up as an employee named Launch Director.


You haven't been a kid in 10 years, Tate Donovan.

The SpaceCamp Movie and that Darn Robot

Honestly, SPACE CAMP wouldn't be a real candidate for this column if it wasn't for the explanation of how the campers get stuck in space. There are a number of legitimate reasons that something as complicated as a space shuttle launch could go wrong—a technical glitch, equipment malfunction, human error, etc.

Not high on that list? A sentient robot and computer scheming together to sabotage the U.S. space program.

If you do remember anything about SPACE CAMP, it's probably the wacky robot janitor named Jinx. Yes, in the world of this film, there is a autonomous robot working as a handyman at NASA that does literally anything anybody tells it to, to an alarming degree. If you tell Jinx to shake a leg, he'll vibrate one of his metal appendages. If you say "holy shit" in front of him, he'll give you a lecture on how to use the bathroom in space. And if you make a joke about getting even with space camp bullies, he'll immediately run off to electrocute them with his built-in stun gun. (Which is apparently something they decided this helper robot needed.)

If the inevtiable LOST reboot isn't titled LOST: SMOKE MONSTER IN SPACE, then count me out.

Why would NASA build a robot like this? And then leave it unsupervised around children? Or even worse, give it complete, unfettered access to every part of the NASA facility, including the control room during a space shuttle test launch?

They learn this lesson the hard way when, one day, Jinx overhears his "friend for-e-ver" Joaquin Phoenix crying and wishing he could go in to space like a real astronaut. So the robot sets out to make that a reality. Not by talking to his young friend about working hard and following his dreams, but by wheeling himself in to the computer mainframe room and having an actual audible conversation with the other computer equipment and convincing them to help. Together the artificially intelligent machines decide that the easiest way to get Phoenix in to space is to purposefully sabotage the upcoming test launch so that the crew will be forced to launch for real or else the entire space shuttle will explode and rain fiery death upon Space Camp. (Remind me again, how is this not a horror movie about the robot apocalypse?)

SPACE CAMP SPACECAMP Joaquin Phoenix Star Wars
Joaquin Phoenix in a STAR WARS movie. Your head explodes.

Even if the entire crux of the plot didn’t rest on the cold steel shoulders of a sentimental droid, SPACE CAMP has enough other problems. For starters, there’s absolutely no scenario in which NASA would put five random kids on a space shuttle and fire the rockets just for fun. But even assuming everyone in the government was an idiot and loved wasting money (well…), it truly is funny how little NASA does in this movie. With its patriotic theme and message about teamwork, this film could almost be a commercial for the agency—that is until they nearly kill all of the children and nobody on the ground has any idea how to save them. Since it was only meant to be an engine test, the shuttle has no food, no water, only one tank of oxygen and zero communication capabilities, so all of the country’s best space scientists and engineers spend the movie literally just sitting around waiting. It’s like the exact opposite of APOLLO 13.

For the sake of fairness, there is an adult onboard when the kids get launched. (If not, the second half of this movie would be a teenage snuff film.) But Kate Capshaw's astronaut character is almost just as worthless as the space campers. Her plan to get them more oxygen fails, and it's up to a 12 year old boy to go out in to outer space alone to rescue her. (If you ever wondered what GRAVITY would be like if a young child got shot in to space instead of Sandra Bullock, I have good news for you.) And then as soon as they're back on the ship, Capshaw gets knocked unconscious, leaving the kids to land a space shuttle all by themselves with about two weeks worth of training.

“We need one crew member to go on a dangerous mission outside. Just onnnnne crew member. Anybody. Anybody? Which one should we pick? Honestly, nobody stands out to me…”

Even at it's worst, SPACE CAMP still has an inspiring John Williams score to fall back on, which really almost tricks you in to thinking the movie is a lot better than it actually is. And obviously it has a happy ending, with all the underage astronauts making it safely back to Earth. But I would've loved to see a sequel that dealt with the fallout of something like this—the public relations nightmare at NASA, the years of therapy the traumatized kids would need, the Senate hearings where everyone has to testify that the robot was responsible for this catastrophe but only did it out of love… Queue up John Williams and that's a movie I'd definitely watch.

Joaquin Phoenix's obsession with STAR WARS, the comedy stylings of one Tate Donovan, and more.

The "best" of Jinx the robot.

Unless you have a spacesuit fetish, no.

Blast off! It's party time! Buy this movie here!

Take a shot or drink every time:

  • There's a STAR WARS reference
  • Lea Thompson micromanages someone
  • Someone says, "Yo Jinx" or "Yo Max!"
  • There's bad 80s music or fashion
  • Someone struggles with a space toilet

Double shot if:

  • Someone says, "Friends forever"


Thanks to Scott for suggesting this week's movie!


Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email and give him an excuse to drink.


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