“Race to Space” is grounded at liftoff. This genteel kids and animals space flight adventure may please indiscriminate parents and animal lovers but lacks the joy and excitement needed to stimulate kids’ imaginations. Independently made pic, shot at Cape Canaveral two years ago, arrives in theaters this week with test runs in Phoenix and Dallas but seems unlikely to travel far; video and cable biz should be stronger.
Set in 1960 and based, very loosely, on true events, “Race to Space” tells the story of German scientist Wilhelm Von Huber (James Woods, strangely cast) and his pre-teen son Billy (Alex D. Linz, the moppet from the third “Home Alone” pic), who move to Florida when Wilhelm is hired to work on NASA’s fledgling space program. It’s the height of Cold War paranoia (the setting recalls Joe Dante’s “Matinee”), and young Billy is called a Nazi and Communist by school bullies. Loving but stern Wilhelm, however, does not take Billy’s problems seriously.
Enter, conveniently, beautiful primatologist Donni McGuiness (Annabeth Gish, looking like a pin-up girl hiding out as a scientist), who is training chimps to test-pilot Wilhelm’s rockets. When Billy stumbles into her top secret lab one afternoon, he finally finds an adult who takes an interest in him; rather improbably, Donni hires him as a junior chimp trainer.
The “race” of pic’s title is a race against time, with Wilhelm and his team trying to launch the first manned space flight before the Russians.
And there’s a cardboard villain — a rival rocket-builder played by William Devane — whom we know is the baddie because he is always photographed in dim, shadowy light.
Devane wants to sabotage the chimp test flight, and he just may have a NASA mole (William Atherton) willing to help him. This sabotage tomfoolery is the most far-fetched of the plot devices. But director Sean McNamara (whose background includes Disney Channel original programming) and scripters Eric Gardner and Steve H. Wilson keep ladling such complications on thick.
“Race to Space” wants to be about outsiders but overextends the metaphor: Billy doesn’t fit in at school because he’s German; Donni stands apart at NASA because she’s a woman; and even Billy’s favorite chimp, Mac, is a loner.
“Race to Space” is a race from one staccato, faux-Spielbergian mini-climax to the next. Nearly every scene, accompanied by John Coda’s score, wants to soar like “E.T.”; it’s an entire movie of proverbial bicycles flying over the moon, and after about 30 minutes, viewers are worn out. (Pic ends up like a commercial for NASA and the Air Force in the way that “Top Gun” was for the Navy.)
“Race to Space” doesn’t really connect as a movie for kids about their space travel fantasies in the way of “Explorers” and “October Sky.” It doesn’t look at the world from Billy’s point of view.
What’s left are basically some very shopworn monkeyshines (on behalf of both the chimp and Woods, who can be quite hilarious trying to hide his clipped, nasally whine behind a Bratwurst accent) more than reminiscent of the recent series of “MVP” movies.
Shot by Christian Sebaldt and designed by Dawn Ferry, pic has a surprisingly lush period look for a low-budget indie, aided in part by the fact that many of pic’s Cocoa Beach locales have changed little over the past four decades.