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SPACE COWBOYS

SPACE COWBOYS

Review by Jerry E. Smith

 

This appeared in slightly shorter form in Nevada Territorial News, Vol. 1, No.14, August 24, 2000, and in Nonstop Fun Is Hard On Your Heart, No. 2, August, 2000.

 

 

 

If you like essentially mindless entertainment you will enjoy Space Cowboys. There are a few meaningful, thought provoking subjects brought up, but they are so glibly skipped over that no real blondes in the audience should fear being accidentally forced to think. The dialog is arguably the best part of Space Cowboys. It is quick, smart and funny. The rest is, well, "The Ripe Stuff."

 

Space Cowboys stars Clint Eastwood (who also directed) as a aging engineer who was a test pilot back in the black-and-white-film days of the "X-2" experimental aircraft. Other members of his pre-NASA team are played by Donald Sutherland (who sort of grew up to became a womanizing designer of roller coasters), James Garner (who became a minister) and Tommy Lee Jones (the never really grown-up crop-dusting stunt pilot character from every film like this ever made). The acting by these stars is all good; Donald Sutherland's performance was, in fact, very good. Sutherland is worth the cost of a matinee admission alone. James Garner's character is a hoot. Tommy Lee Jones turned in his usual good work but, his stereotypical character was the sort of thing he could have faxed over to the studio without bothering to get dressed -- what is the opposite of a "stretch"? Similarly, Clint Eastwood is VERY convincing as a Clint Eastwood cardboard cutout - yup, you can almost hear him invite NASA to make his day.

 

The film starts in the past with the "X-2" team played by young actors who look so much like their older selves it is truly amazing. The voices of Eastwood, Sutherland, Jones and Garner are dubbed flawlessly over their younger incarnations cluing in the audience, and wowing Yours Truly. Space Cowboys has my vote for the Best Casting Director Oscar.

 

The situation: A Soviet "communications" satellite with a faulty guidance system is about to fall back to earth. Letting it fall isn't an option, it HAS to be serviced and sent back into space. But, nobody in Russia can fix it because its ailing guidance system was stolen from NASA! NASA can't fix it either, because it was designed before micro-processors -- nobody working there today knows that ancient technology. So, they have to tap its designer, who is Clint Eastwood's character. When NASA asks him for help, after telling them to go to hell, he blackmails his old boss from the X-2 days, who is now a NASA big-wig, into putting him, and the rest of his team of aeronautical has-beens into space.

 

Complications: the old guys gotta pass the physical to fly (how many times has that plot gimmick been used?); and the Soviet "bird" isn't a communications satellite, either... Surprise! it's an orbiting space platform with six nuclear missiles on board, all aimed at American cities -- and if it doesn't get fixed real soon its going to auto-launch.

 

The plot (such as it is): four old geezers who washed out of the space program even before there was one, go to Space Camp, appear on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and somehow find love while overcoming incredible, and predictable, obstacles, to fly a Space Shuttle into space and Save The World. Not that there aren't plenty of bits and pieces of sub-plots floating around (like escaped urine in zero-gravity), its just that they seem to exist solely to provide a basis for the snappy dialog, quick quips and occasional NASA hardware.

 

If there were such a thing as the Science Police, they would have pulled Space Cowboys over about an hour in. Mostly Our Heros do things that they could not possibly have known how to do -- which is not nearly so bad a transgression as, say, Armageddon, where they, and the universe, do things they could not possibly have done. Nice special effects, but, they'd have to be in this day and age, eh?

 

Space Cowboys is no more "science fiction" than Marooned was. Its an action-comedy buddy film that doesn't take itself too seriously. It almost achieves a Seinfeld-like "show about nothing" quality, despite the sinister back-story. The questions of "how" and "why" behind the highly illegal Soviet space platform, and the theft of NASA secrets, both very real possibilities for actual events in the world we live in, never got answered, and in deed, barely got asked.

 

Perhaps its just my suspicious nature, but I suspect this movie of being intentional government disinformation to stifle any real discussion of the highly probable existence of such a Cold War Era "relic." On the other hand, this film could be Eastwood's way of slipping such a discussion into the mainstream without the watchdogs for the spooks realizing it. Rumors about such space weapons platforms have circulated since the 1970s. The space shuttle was designed to service military space assets first, conduct science second. Does the Former Soviet Union, or the United States, possess such treaty violating hardware? If so, what can we do about it?

 

Other than that, I liked it. Space Cowboys is a fun movie. 3 1/2 stars.


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