John Williams has done so many film scores over the years that it’s no surprise some have fallen through the cracks. One example is his score for the 1986 film SpaceCamp, which in my opinion is one of his more underrated scores mostly because very few seem to know it exists.
For those who don’t know, SpaceCamp is a space adventure film that follows a group of misfit kids at (you guessed it) Space Camp. The adventure revolves around an incident that leads to the kids and their instructor being trapped in the Space Shuttle when it’s suddenly forced to launch (I’m oversimplifying but that is in essence what happens). The shuttle launch scene is one of the big moments of the film, and I wanted to talk about the way John Williams scores this moment (cue starts around 1:17 and stops around 2:25).
The first thing to note is that there is no music whatsoever before the cue in question starts. The only major background sound comes from the rumble of the booster. As the second booster is ignited to initiate launch, the background noise “crescendos” as the launch system activates, with the music beginning the moment the shuttle lifts off the pad.
Listen carefully to the music as the shuttle lifts off, because I think what Williams is doing here is brilliant. This is a layered situation, and the music reflects it perfectly. On the one hand, now that the shuttle has launched, it’s important for the launch to go perfectly so it can reach orbit. But on the other hand, the shuttle has launched with a bunch of kids on board and there’s a general feeling of “oh my God what did we just do?” Williams reflects both sentiments in this single cue: it starts with what I can only describe as a “moody” trumpet fanfare (well, fanfare is admittedly a stretch but I can’t think of a better word) as liftoff commences. It’s the type of music you’d expect to hear when a space shuttle launches, because it’s admittedly an awe-inspiring sight. But the normally triumphant music is almost immediately dampened by a minor-sounding intrusion (after the line “My God, we have liftoff”) that reminds us that, while beautiful, this launch shouldn’t be happening.
This is one of my favorite musical moments in the entire film, and I love how Williams funnels several conflicting emotions into a single cue. I’ll conclude with a bit of bonus trivia: Max (the littlest kid in the shuttle) is played by Joaquin Phoenix (credited here as Leaf Phoenix) in only his 2nd film appearance.
Let me know what you think about SpaceCamp (and the launch scene and its music) in the comments below and have a great day!
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