`SpaceCamp' zooms confidently into hokey orbit. Enthusiastic acting among film's assets

It's surprising that Twentieth Century-Fox has gone ahead with its release of ``SpaceCamp'' in the wake of the recent Challenger space-shuttle tragedy. If the American space program were still racing ahead with the vigor it had a few months ago, one could imagine countless moviegoers lining up for an adventure-comedy about a summer camp that gives astronaut-type training to rocket-struck youngsters.

But with space exploration pretty much on hold, under a cloud of failed launches and uncertain plans, a movie that takes a starry-eyed and wholly optimistic view of space travel -- and space shuttles -- must be considered an iffy prospect at best.

``SpaceCamp'' is a likable picture, though, and has the courage to indulge its rosy views without hesitation or apology. It's naive and silly, but it's also kind of sweet. And that's what summer movies are all about, isn't it?

Not that ``SpaceCamp'' is a major-league epic. The first half fizzles like a skyrocket with a damp fuse, laboriously setting the scene and introducing a mob of too-familiar teen characters: the smart aleck, the princess, the bossy girl who's really insecure, the precocious kid everyone makes fun of, and so on -- a lackluster crew for a movie that has the cosmos on its mind.

Things don't improve when the big plot twist comes along, sparked by a little robot that's shamelessly patterned after Artoo-Deetoo of ``Star Wars'' fame. It turns out he has a design flaw: He takes everything he hears in the most literal way. So when an unhappy youngster wishes aloud that he were ``in space,'' the idiotic android puts him there -- by plugging into NASA's master control and engineering the ``accidental'' launch of a shuttle, which the SpaceCamp gang just happens to be visiting.

It was at this point, around halfway through the movie, that I started warming up to ``SpaceCamp'' despite the ballast that weighs it down.

If the screenplay was willing to rig things so outlandishly in its struggle to come up with some excitement, who was I to point out how hokey it all was? Having suspended disbelief, and logic, and conscious thought, I sat back and began to enjoy the ride -- which got wilder by the minute, as the kids coped with an unplanned voyage in a shuttle that wasn't ready for launching in the first place.

Besides that zany storyline, assets of ``SpaceCamp'' include energetic performances by some of the young cast members, and seasoned work by Kate Capshaw and Tom Skerritt, the grownup leads. There's airy camera work by veteran William Fraker, and director Harry Winer keeps the action coherent, if not exactly credible.

Since it doesn't manage to be as smart, exciting, or dazzling as it would like, I doubt if ``SpaceCamp'' will blast off at the box office, especially in today's space-program doldrums.

But with its affection for the romance of space travel, and its message that youngsters always have a right to aspire to the stars, it's a refreshing antidote to recent events.

Here's hoping audiences give it a chance in the hotly competitive summer-movie sweepstakes.

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