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Space Cowboys, written by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, directed by Clint Eastwood, 2000, 130 min.

Be careful what you ask for. I have often complained about the Hollywood problem, particularly found in big budget science fiction movies: special effects become the only area of excellence and all other aspects of film-making suffer. Eastwood's film, Space Cowboys, has some fabulous special effects that are integrated seamlessly into the story -- exactly as it should be. Unfortunately, the time spent on characterization and plot development became tedious because of the clichéd nature of what was created. Yes, it was refreshing to see older characters triumph in the context of our youth-obsessed culture. But the movie was definitely still the boy's club of flying fast, pummelling one another, clenching your jaw, and going to space. Yes, some people go to space (with some gorgeous special effects), but they're all men. The gender inequality is not very reflective of today's reality at NASA (see the Women in Space section of the NASA website (www.nasa.gov)). Worse, the male characters in the movie have no idea about how to treat women in professional roles. More on this in a minute.

The movie begins in the 1950s, and a test flight with some members of Project Daedalus. The opening scenes have a sepia colour scheme, which apparently indicates the era of the 50s (reminding me inevitably of Calvin & Hobbes, where Calvin's father explains that the entire world was black and white in the old days, and gradually gained the attributes of colour). Two hapless actors portray Corvin and Hawkins, the roles later taken on by Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones -- they are handsome, clean-cut young men, with voices dubbed in by Eastwood and Jones, which I found to be disconcerting and strange. The Daedalus team members get frozen out of the early spaceflight tests by the evil team leader, Bob Gerson. Cut to current day, where NASA has a problem and Gerson sends for help to Corvin. Why? Well, a Russian satellite is in a decaying orbit, and for some strange reason, it has an ancient navigational system designed by an American, Corvin himself. Why is it so important that the satellite be restored to a proper orbit? We aren't told immediately, but the Russian general and the evil team leader exchange significant glances. So it's not much of a surprise later that the satellite turns out to be a launch platform for nuclear missiles. Primed for launch at American cities if contact is lost! Seldom has a doomsday device been treated with such a sense of "Well, what else is new." Corvin and friends get attached to the mission of course; the part the audience has been waiting for, the launch and what happens in space, only starts an hour and a half into the film. The closing forty minutes of Space Cowboys are exciting and well-filmed, if rather telegraphed from the beginning.

The members of Project Daedalus are portrayed in a thorough, if typical, manner. They are old men, they grumble, they rebel against their age, and so on. The depiction of women is also typical, unfortunately, and a little offensive. Corvin's wife seems nice -- she's his own age, which is a nice change. But she gets to stay behind as the men fly away, stay behind and wave goodbye and get all weepy while watching the transmission link go blank during a crucial moment. Etcetera. All very standard. There are two women at NASA, one is the engineer (played by Marcia Gay Harden) given higher billing. But she turns out to be romantically involved with Hawkins, who is 30 to 40 years her senior, and she does almost nothing in the way of engineering. When the four old men are going for their physical, they are all shocked when a female doctor comes in. Well, Donald Sutherland's character is not shocked, but the reaction is inappropriate in the opposite direction, and played for laughs. These attitudes are non-professional, and perhaps we are supposed to see that these four men are dinosaurs. Too bad that the film feels too much like other men-in-space films, none of which have caught up with reality.

As I've said, the sequences in space that compose the final third of the movie are flashy, yet well-integrated. They are far more interesting and exciting than the flights of fantasy in Armageddon. There might still be errors in Space Cowboys not obvious to me (never having been on the Space Shuttle personally), but at least the underlying attitude is not of glaring disrespect for science and logic.

Space Cowboys is a mildly entertaining film, when taken on its own ground. It has some problems with characterization and pacing, and while it's a welcome change from the MTV-science-fiction movies like Armageddon, it's not perfect. Certainly a gesture in the right direction.

DVD Note: Space Cowboys on DVD has four behind-the-scenes featurettes, two of which are fairly straightforward and deal with the editing and effects of the movie. "Back at the Ranch" is a 30-minute making-of feature, and talks about how the movie was put together in a more general sense. "Tonight with Leno" is a hoot, as it expands on the one-minute clip in the movie where the four astronauts appear on the Tonight Show; this features the whole session, with the actors cracking jokes in character. The DVD also has various trailers and promotional items.


First posted: October 27, 2000; Last modified: March 30, 2004

Copyright © 2000-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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