If you were asked what job requires the absolute highest calibre of human being, in terms of physical capability, mental stability and intellectual capacity, the answer would have to be an astronaut, wouldn’t it? Successful candidates for this job must understand high-level concepts about physics and mechanical engineering, to say nothing of their ability to solve problems related to both under pressure. Successful candidates must have bodies capable of withstanding the extremes of space travel. And successful candidates must be rock solid, mentally and emotionally, under the most dire circumstances.


The candidates for the astronaut training program in the new Amazon movie Space Cadet – or ASCANs (pronounced “ass cans”), as the movie calls them with a juvenile chuckle – have few if any of these qualities. And that’s not just the lead character, Tiffany “Rex” Simpson (Emma Roberts), who is supposed to be the unusual one because she had to forgo a full scholarship to Georgia Tech after her mother became sick and died, in a chain of events that led to her becoming a bartender. We can almost forgive the way the movie portrays Rex, because every underdog movie needs an underdog – even if she calls everyone “dude” and wears bejewelled jean jackets, instead of trying the least little bit to comport herself according to the expectations of this opportunity.

No, the real issue with Space Cadet – one of many – is that everyone else associated with NASA is also an idiot. The head honcho (Dave Foley) is a bumbler who makes bad jokes when he isn’t seeming confused. The hunky program director (Tom Hopper) is a tongue-tied British twit. The really aspirational one, played by Gabrielle Union, celebrates victories by busting out dance moves, and talks in slang that a woman in her station would have forcefully repressed.

And this is just the people who already work for NASA. The other ASCANs are a nervous hypochondriac who writes space romance novels (Kuhoo Verma), a moustachioed blowhard you wouldn’t trust to lead a hunting trip (Andrew Call), a walking gay stereotype (Troy Iwata), and others whose inappropriateness for the job defy a brief description. In fact, the only ASCAN who actually seems right for a mission to the International Space Station – she’s in peak physical condition and can already speak Russian – is portrayed as a stuck-up asshole. (She’s played by Desi Lydic.)

You probably can’t go into a movie like Space Cadet hoping for realism, but there’s a far more realistic version of this script out there, that still makes an unlikely candidate its protagonist. Only this version fills out the rest of the cast with gruff career professionals with close-cropped hair who sound like Neil Armstrong. More problematically for what Space Cadet is actually trying to do, it’s not a fish out of water movie if there are a dozen other fish also flopping and gasping for air next to our main fish.


At least the main fish is a compelling fish. Roberts, daughter of Eric and niece of Julia, has a toothy smile as wide as that of her aunt, and might have forged some facsimile of Julia’s career if only she had more talent and made better choices. The point is, we could buy her as a Florida bartender who spends her time wrestling alligators, who squandered all her potential after her mother died, because Roberts has the charm to overpower our reservations.

But this is where the writing and directing fail what Roberts is able to bring to the film. Liz W. Garcia is to blame for both. Rex gets into the program on a CV that was unknowingly falsified by her ditzy and pregnant friend Nadine – that’s Poppy Liu, forced to play all sorts of different referee checks using different accents, while sitting behind the receptionist’s desk of a gym. But even if Rex thought she got in on her merits and something unconventional about her approach, she shouldn’t be sitting at formal meetings with NASA staff talking about how this is all so frickin’ awesome. Even if you are an iconoclast, you can’t go to space with that sort of vocabulary. But again, Rex hardly stands out because the NASA staff and other recruits are directed just as broadly.


These are design problems. There are much more major structural problems to the story. Even if we are to believe that the hunky director Logan is fooled by the hopeless improvisations of Rex’s friend with the long fingernails and the baby bump, we can’t overlook Rex’s obvious fumbling when faced with the nuts and bolts of the NASA simulations. When she finally bluffs her way into flying a jet, a skill her CV says she has, it’s worn out the last little bit of our suspension of disbelief, but also our sympathy for this character, who puts a co-pilot at risk through this charade. And it just gets more ridiculous from there.

Amazon released the realistic version of this movie just last year. It was called A Million Miles Away, and told the true story of Jose M. Hernandez, a Mexican-American who was finally accepted into the astronaut training program after repeated rejections, and did finally walk in space years after he should have rightfully quit trying. He had the drive and the perseverance and the qualifications, and still he was rejected repeatedly for years.


That was a different project. In fact, the only thing they really have in common is that they are both movies. Then again, it depends on your definition of a movie. Most people think of a movie as a plausible set of circumstance that play out in interesting ways, not a one-joke idea that would fall apart entirely with the most basic of background checks. The only thing rigorous about Space Cadet is its commitment to falsity.


Space Cadet is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

2 / 10