Emma Roberts Ditches Screwball for the Phony Uplift of Space Cadet

Movies Reviews Emma Roberts
Emma Roberts Ditches Screwball for the Phony Uplift of Space Cadet

The July Fourth holiday, once a popular release window for Will Smith and/or quasi-patriotic blockbusters, has more or less been ceded to the minions of the Despicable Me mega-franchise – more of an international nuisance, no matter how many all-American aunts post them on Facebook. That leaves an opening, however minor, for a streaming service to put out an old-fashioned, American-underdog summer entertainment, and Eddie Murphy is probably too much of a legend to qualify. Would America’s sweetheart’s niece suffice? No? What if she were jointly re-enacting Armageddon and Legally Blonde, two storied July hits of yore? That’s the kind of patriotism Emma Roberts puts on proud display in Space Cadet, a Prime Video release that throws back to those turn-of-the-millennium hits as well as the kind of direct-to-video movies Roberts might have once made as a child star on the cusp of adulthood.

Roberts isn’t a kid anymore, and neither is Tiffany “Rex” Simpson, her Florida party-girl character here – although by attending her 10-year high school reunion early in the movie, Rex reveals that she’s still a solid half-decade younger than the eternally youthful actress playing her. She’s also not that much of a party girl, neither by the standards of early-2000s sleaze nor the post-influencer era. In fact, for the first half-hour or so of Space Cadet, during which Rex fills us in on her backstory, her childhood dreams of going to space, her pink-and-airbrush-accented life as an enthusiastic bartender and part-time alligator wrestler, and her ambition to finally apply to NASA anyway, the character is downright incoherent.

Roberts has no trouble playing broad; it’s the movie that feels cautious about how much of a caricature it feels comfortable drawing. Writer/director Liz W. Garcia has previously specialized in relatively grounded indie character studies like The Lifeguard and One Percent More Humid; maybe those experiences nagged at her during the making of this movie, urging her not to turn Rex into a cartoon. Instead, she becomes several contradictory cartoons at once: She was a one-time high-achieving science prodigy and avid follower of space travel, yet learns with disappointment (at 28) that NASA requires a graduate degree. She preaches Florida-pride debauchery, but never seems more than slightly tipsy, horny or reckless. And it’s all topped off with a layer of woo-woo nouveau-hippie cheerfulness about how we’re all made of stardust.

That last angle is the most productive one, or at least it’s the characterization that finally sticks when Space Cadet locks into its pleasantly absurd premise: That Rex’s pregnant bestie Nadine (Poppy Liu, who has a much quicker, clearer, funnier idea of who her girl is) secretly fudges her CV and improbably lands her a spot in NASA training. Rex, thinking that she’s gotten in via her heartfelt and honest cover letter, proceeds to Houston with dudespeak positivity that’s both misguided and winning. For a little while, Space Cadet is, too. It’s only occasionally funny, sparks of silliness flying amidst comic scenes that Garcia sometimes seems to feel comfortable ending without a clear payoff. But Roberts, for all of her pre-fab nepo-baby attitude, has some kind of “it.” The camera likes her, maybe because she’s so unembarrassed. At NASA, Rex as both a character and a concept feels more relaxed than, say, a strained high-school reunion where Roberts has to perform a montage of direct-to-camera small-talk moments. The way she sets her sights on her bespectacled, British supervisor Logan O’Leary (Tom Hopper) has the faintest breeze of screwball.

An astronaut version of Bringing Up Baby never develops, though, and the mild Legally Blonde fizz doesn’t last, either. Within the framework of grueling training exercises that never seem quite as difficult as the movie tries to make them sound, Space Cadet has some dumb fun. It pushes its luck big time when it moves into a hasty Armageddon knockoff that this movie has neither the budget nor the gravity to pull off. (Wait, is Rex’s surname a tribute to the Simpsons episode “Deep Space Homer,” which has roughly 30 times the laughs of this movie?) Worse than cut-rate space scenes, though, is the movie’s dippy boosterism in no direction in particular beyond kid-movie dogma: Believe in yourself! (Even if your beliefs seem contradictory.) Accomplish your dreams! (Even if doing so seems terribly dangerous and possibly life-threatening to other people.) Never give up! (Even if it might make sense to apply your skills in any number of other related fields.) Are comedies supposed to be funny, or are they supposed to make you feel inspired? Space Cadet has a stubbornly American belief in the latter.

Director: Liz W. Garcia
Writer: Liz W. Garcia
Starring: Emma Roberts, Poppy Liu, Tom Hopper, Kuhoo Verma, Gabrielle Union, Dave Foley
Release Date: July 4, 2024 (Amazon)

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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