Introduction to Space Cowboys
While most of the rest of our Space Movie Extravaganza is a little more grounded in reality, Space Cowboys has some Armageddon in its blood. I saw this movie in the theater, and it’s simultaneously ridiculous and charming. What more could you expect from a movie where people who have no business going to space get to go to space and save the world? With good acting, a solid enough story, and more SPAAAAAAACE than you can shake a stick at, Space Cowboys is at once delightful and sad. And as we all know, all the best things in life are sad.
The Story – Spoilers Abound
Space Cowboys kicks off in 1958 with Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones) and Frank (Clint Eastwood) testing the capabilities of the Bell X-2. In an ill-advised attempt to break a height record, the plane shakes itself apart and Hawk ejects, losing the craft. The pair are called into the offices of Bob (James Cromwell), who informs them of the founding of NASA and that their test pilot days are over.
After a time skip, we learn that NASA and Roscosmos are facing a bit of a crisis: a (former) Soviet communications satellite is in a decaying orbit, and its collision with the atmosphere will render large swaths of the Earth without an uplink. As it turns out, the navigation system for the satellite was actually designed by Frank for Skylab, but the plans were stolen from Bob’s office by the KGB. NASA has no choice but to turn to Frank for help in repairing the system, but he’s only willing to cooperate if NASA allows his original team (Daedalus), which includes Hawk as well as Tank (James Garner) and Jerry (Donald Sutherland), their navigator and engineer, respectively.
Soon, the team is training for their mission, which will take them to space aboard the (fictional) Space Shuttle Daedalus. Bob assigns a secondary crew of younger astronauts to train alongside Team Daedalus, with the intent of replacing the aging crew at the last minute. However, when the press finds out about the team’s training, the Vice President of the United States orders NASA to go with the original plan.
The two teams launch aboard Daedalus and eventually rendezvous with the Russian satellite. We soon learn that, rather than a communications satellite, it is an aging Soviet nuclear weapons platform, and its decaying orbit will cause the system to activate and launch its stock of nuclear missiles at pre-determined targets on the surface. Complications arise when one of the younger team’s astronauts decides to attempt repairs himself, activating the satellite and causing a collision between it and Daedalus.
With the satellite now operational, their only choice is to attempt to push the satellite into deep space, but they need someone to ride the satellite to ensure success. Hawk, feeling that he has little left to live for, volunteers and succeeds in crashing the satellite on the Moon, fulfilling a life-long dream. The remaining crew returns to Earth, heroes all, and we see that Hawk survived the trip, having walked several meters from the crash site to get a good vew of Earth.
What Space Cowboys Did Right
All the technical aspects are great. Effects are as good as you could hope for, the direction is great, acting is great, etc. Not much more to say about that.
The very end is just so very good.
I love SPAAAAAAACE and SPAAAAAAACE movies so it really hit my SPAAAAAAACE craving.
What Space Cowboys Did Wrong
These are very nitpicky things, so don’t assume that they’re more of a criticism than they really are. There’s nothing that’s, like, extremely wrong with Space Cowboys.
Honestly, this is a little too obvious a plot. Considering the time in which it was released, I suppose this isn’t very surprising, but a few more twists and turns wouldn’t go amiss. Still, I love this movie for what it does manage to pull off. And if we’re being real here, Hawk still chokes me up a bit.
The score for this movie, while servicable, is hardly anything to write home about.
I am definitely not a fan of watching even a fictional Space Shuttle get mostly destroyed. And while it’s obviously not anyone’s fault here, the way this plays out juxtaposed with what happened to Columbia just a few years later hits a little close to home.
Space Cowboys is a competent mashup of Apollo 13 and Armageddon, while probably being more bearable to watch than both. It suffers a bit from the lack of plausibility compared to the former, but benefits from not being just absolutely implausible like the latter. If it were made now, it’d probably be derided for its overly dramatic and obvious plot, but given what it was up against, I can hardly fault it for that. Overall, it’s a solid movie that I definitely recommend if you’re a fan of SPAAAAAAACE. Sit back, grab some popcorn, and fly me to the Moon.