(First posted to Bad Movie Night in 2000 or so.)
Space Cowboys combines the expressive acting range of Clint "I-only-have-one-facial-expression" Eastwood, with the deeply intellectual scripting and scientific accuracy of Armageddon.
It's 1958. You can tell it's 1958 because the film starts out in black-and-white, and as we all know, human beings didn't evolve cones in their retinae until Technicolor became popular, so naturally everything was in black-and-white back then. Chuck Yeager, in his rabid quest to break more altitude and airspeed records, changes his name to Clint Eastwood and suddenly starts flying with Tommy Lee Jones as a co-pilot. After wrecking an X-2 experimental rocket plane and getting in a fistfight, Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones discover that they've been passed over for NASA's newly-created astronaut program. They are also forbidden from trying to fly into space on their rocket planes, and Clint is forced to shake hands with a chimpanzee and thus re-enact his role in Every Which Way But Loose.
Flash forward to the present day. Everything is now in color. The Russians, being the poor dirtbags they are, only have one communications satellite, and its guidance system is on the fritz. With no guidance system, its orbit is decaying. So —
Woops! Wait a minute. Satellite orbits "decay" because of tiny amounts of aerodynamic drag, which they pick up from the outer fringes of the Earth's atmosphere. This happens if they're orbiting in a Low Earth Orbit, 400 miles or less above the Earth's surface. Now, communications satellites — particularly the older comm sats the Russians use — operate in Geostationary orbit, which means they have an orbit high enough and slow enough that it takes them 24 hours to go around the Earth once. That way, they appear to be "hovering" over a single point on the Earth. If you do the math, you discover that Geostationary orbital altitude is over 22,000 MILES above the Earth's surface. That's nowhere near a "low" Earth orbit! There's essentially NO drag at all at that altitude! You could put something in Geosynchronous orbit with NO guidance system or engines at all, and it would STAY there for a zillion years! Heck, even the 1000-mile-high Explorer satellite we launched in the 1950s, which has no maneuvering capability and has been "dead" for decades, is still orbiting the Earth. HOW IN HEAVEN'S NAME DOES A GEOSTATIONARY-ALTITUDE COMM SAT HAVE ITS ORBIT "DECAY"?!?!!
This is the first rocket-science blunder this film makes, and as sure as Dirty Harry likes his .44 Magnum, it isn't gonna be the last. But I digress. The Russian comm sat's orbit is "decaying". It's "decaying" at a "decay rate" of 8 kilometers per day. (That's an impressive rate of decay even for a LOW Earth orbiting satellite!) It's already descended to a paltry 1000 miles altitude, and is getting lower every day. If the Russians lose this satellite, they'll lose the only comm sat they have. And, worse, its guidance system is the spittin' image of the way-too-old guidance system we originally put aboard Skylab. None of the young pasty-faced kids working for NASA knows how to fix something that old. NASA has only one choice: They must recruit Harry Stamper (played by Bruce Willis) and his rag-tag band of oil drillers to fly into space and plant a nuclear bomb in the asteroid before it hits the Earth.
Just kidding! They must actually recruit Clint Eastwood and his rag-tag band of test pilots to fly into space and fix the Russian satellite before it hits the Earth. I kid you not. It's the same damned plot as Armageddon, except played by geriatric actors.
Then, as in Armageddon, our superannuated heroes must pass the NASA physical. Eastwood scowls a lot. A young beautiful intelligent woman engineer gets a crush on Tommy Lee "Leatherface" Jones for some bizarre reason. Everybody tries to prove how much tougher they are than everybody else. They get in bar fights and suck in their guts when the ladies are watching. Eastwood and Jones manage to land a simulated space shuttle in a raging storm without the flight computer, just to show how big and studly they are. This segment of the movie serves as a clear warning about the dangers of testosterone poisoning.
(In fact, it makes you wonder just how much assistance NASA gave them on this movie, since NASA's name appears in the credits. Eastwood and Jones are going on the shuttle flight to repair the satellite. That would make them "mission specialist" astronauts. Mission specialists aren't allowed anywhere near the shuttle's flight controls; that's the exclusive domain of the "pilot astronauts." Why were Eastwood and Jones training to fly the shuttle at all? Apollo 13 this movie ain't.)
When Clint Eastwood and the rest of these fistful-of-dollars banditos finally ride the space shuttle into Earth orbit, things really get wonky. Even before docking with the Russian satellite, the space shuttle can somehow determine the satellite's mass. Perhaps it has magical mass detectors or something. In any event, they determine that its mass is around 50 tons. This is pretty heavy for an unmanned satellite, and the shuttle crew knows it. But then, one of Clint's gang makes the second big rocket-science blunder of the film by saying, "No wonder its orbit is decaying so fast! It's so heavy!"
Argh. Heavy objects in Earth orbit don't decay any faster than light objects do. In fact, the orbit of a light object with a big surface area (say, really wide solar panels) will decay FASTER than the orbit of a heavy object, because its drag-to-mass ratio will be higher. Then again, this is the same film that presupposes a Geosynchronous comm sat can have its orbit decay in the first place, so I'm not surprised the scriptwriters made this blunder too.
**** SPOILER ALERT!!! Do not read this review any further if you don't want me to give away the "super secret" plot twist that happens next! ****
**** I MEAN IT!!! This is real Crying Game material here!! ****
Still with me? Good. Because by now you've probably already guessed that the Russian "communications" satellite isn't really a communication's satellite at all. It's really a nuclear missile launch platform with 6 armed warheads all aimed at major American and cities. And if the satellite's communications system goes down, it's going to assume that a catastrophe has befallen Russia and launch all its missiles. (Dramatic chord.) NASA was totally unaware of this, except for their asshole mission director, of course, who was in on it because of Russian blackmail.
Eastwood and the boys decide to use the payload-assist modules (PAMs) they brought along with them to throw the Russian satellite into deep space. But one disaster after another plagues their mission — just like in Armageddon — and at the end both of the young whippersnapper space shuttle pilots are out cold and our heroic over-the-hill crew only has one PAM left, not enough to boost the satellite into an Earth-escape trajectory. But Tommy Lee Jones has a "brilliant" plan. He'll jury-rig the satellite's controls so that he can keep the nuclear missiles attached to the satellite, and use the missiles' engines to boost the satellite all the way to the moon. The only catch? The missile's engines have to be operated manually, so someone has to sacrifice himself by going along for the ride. Tommy Lee Jones volunteers, because he has inoperable pancreatic cancer and is going to die soon anyway. (Did I mention he has inoperable pancreatic cancer and is going to die soon anyway? He has inoperable pancreatic cancer and is going to die soon anyway.)
This is where we get the third rocket-science gaffe. Jones says, "All I need to do is get 'er half way to the moon, and the moon's gravity will take 'er the rest of the way in!" This is not true. The moon's gravity is much weaker than the Earth's. You actually have to get about 7/8 of the way to the moon before the moon's gravity equals that of the Earth. But physics can't stop Tommy Lee Jones, nosirree, not once his mind's made up. He gathers up all the space shuttle's unused oxygen tanks, straps himself to the front of the Russian satellite, says "Yippie-kay-yay, mother fucker!" (or words to that effect), and blasts off into the unknown.
Now Clint Eastwood has to land the Space Shuttle without Tommy Lee Jones' help. They're currently upside-down and backwards, and they "have to do a deorbit burn to orient themselves correctly." (Rocket-science booboo number 4: A deorbit burn has nothing to do with changing your orientation. It's to slow you down enough so that your altitude on the opposite side of your orbit will be low enough that it intersects the Earth.) But an earlier collision with a piece of the Russian satellite damaged one of their orbital maneuvering engines. Will they be able to execute a deorbit burn properly? Will they enter the atmosphere at the correct angle? Will the special effects artists even KNOW what the correct angle is? Will Clint have to do exactly the same thing that they did earlier in the flight simulator in order to land the shuttle without the computer? Will the audience be praying for a fiery death for Clint and his crew?
I'd tell you to see the movie to find out, but I don't want to insult your intelligence THAT badly.
Oh, and there's a little epilog: Not only did Tommy Lee Jones make it to the moon, he landed softly enough that he was able to crawl over to a rock, prop himself up, and look back at the Earth. With country and western music playing in the background. After all, the movie has "cowboys" in the title, right? And what would a cowboy movie be without country and western music?
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