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Space Cowboys (2000)

[Space Cowboys] Space Cowboys
Clipsal Films, Mad Chance, Malpaso Productions, Village Roadshow Pictures, 2000
Rated: PG-13 in North America, PG in the U.K.
Running Time: 130 minutes
Director: Clint Eastwood
Producer: Andrew Lazar
Amazon.com: NTSC DVD, NTSC VHS
Amazon.ca: NTSC DVD, NTSC VHS
Amazon.co.uk: PAL DVD, PAL VHS
Suggested by: Greg Slade

I include this film on this site, not because it is terribly deep or meaningful, but because one of the title characters (played by James Garner) is a test pilot who has become a Baptist minister. Since that character is such a big part of the plot, it might be reasonable to assume that some discussion of Christianity would play a role in the story. On the other hand, Hollywood has never been notorious for being a reasonable place.

The story opens with four members of a U.S. Air Force test pilot team called Daedalus, testing "X-Planes" during the race to get a human being into space after the Soviet Union launched "Sputnik", the first artificial satellite, in 1957. At the time, the Air Force was leading the U.S. space effort, but the creation of NASA pushed the spaceplane efforts to the sidelines in favour of rockets, and the first "American" in space turned out to be, not an Air Force pilot, but a chimpanzee. Segue to 40 years later, when a huge Soviet communications satellite's orbit is decaying. The guidance system, which appears to be an exact duplicate of the guidance system from the U.S. SkyLab space station of the late 70s, has stopped working, and the satellite is no longer responding to commands. As a gesture of goodwill towards the Russians, who are now partners in building the International Space Station, the Americans agree to send up a team to repair the guidance system and boost the satellite back up into geosynchronous orbit. As it turns out, the designer of said guidance system is one of the members of Daedalus, and he refuses to help save the satellite unless the whole team is allowed to ride along on the shuttle and, finally, make it into space.

This is a big budget flick, with a cast of stars, and a big budget for sets and effects. (The shots of the shuttle during re-entry are particularly cool.) Unfortunately, none of that budget seems to have been spent on technical advisors, so the only way to suspend disbelief is to forget everything you've ever learned about orbital mechanics (in both senses of that term), not to mention Soviet spacecraft design (or any spacecraft design, for that matter), simple arithmetic, and even the names of NASA's shuttle fleet. The loss of the Columbia during re-entry makes the re-entry sequence, which happens to be one of the climactic sequences in the film, less believeable (and a good deal less fun) than might otherwise be the case, but that is hardly the fault of the filmmakers.

If you were hoping that the personal elements of the story would redeem it ins spite of the sloppy science, I'm afraid that's not on, either. Most of the main characters get off some nice zingers, but the interaction between the two central characters, while fun, is pretty formulaic, and nobody else is given much of a chance to develop. Tank, James Garner's test pilot become preacher, is a case in point. I just never bought him as being religious in any meaningful sense of the word, at any point in the story. (At one point, he is shown delivering an incredibly inept sermon, presumably to demonstrate that he should have stayed as a test pilot. It's more than a little insulting, both to pastors and to church members, that the members are not shown as noticing that this performance is in any way out of the ordinary.) Neither do the assorted themes touched on in the story (such as post-Cold War relations between the U.S. and Russia, the bitterness on the part of the test pilots of having been pulled out of the space race, trust, loyalty, friendship, and aging) get a chance to develop beyond running gags. In short, this is a star vehicle, not science fiction. Replace the space shuttle with a covered wagon, and it would have made just about as much sense.

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