When 'Space Cowboys,' aka 'Geriatrics in Space,' first hit theaters back in 2000, I admit I snickered. Having grown up with my grandparents and spent years watching endless old reruns of 'Matlock,' 'The Rockford Files' and 'Murder, She Wrote,' I expected the worst. Clint Eastwood, starring in and directing a story of an aging, ragtag band of old NASA pilots, who are called out of retirement to save the planet from an out-of-control communications satellite? I really thought it was a joke, or at best, deserved to be a basic-cable TV movie starring Bert Convey, Adam West and Art Carney, plus a chimp named Bubbles.
Turns out the joke was on me, as 'Space Cowboys' became one of the sleeper hits of its year, racking up a domestic gross nearing $100 million and proving that people over the age of fifty will put down their remote controls and go out to the movies, provided there is something they want to see. But more than just a feel-good entertainment for the convalescent home, 'Space Cowboys' is a witty, randy and exciting adventure, one with enough action and adventure that, yes, it transcends the cliche and really is fun for the whole family.
Our story begins in flashback. It's the late fifties, and we meet four pilots testing supersonic aircraft, each as disparate in personality as they are bonded in friendship. The impressive opening sequence cues us in perfectly on who these men are: a breathtaking shot cuts from a laid-back country tune to the sight and sounds of a jet plane breaking a high-altitude speed record. It is also at this precise moment that United States was inspired to embark on its space program, which was to become the ultimate irony -- as our nation moved full speed ahead into the space age, it deemed it necessary to replace our greatest pioneers with chimps.
Forty-odd years later, and all four pilots -- Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner -- are now retired old farts, if still lifelong friends. They are soon called off the golf course by NASA, after it is discovered that a distressed Russian communications satellite that Dr. Frank Corvin (Eastwood) had originally designed is now on a collision course with Earth. Seems the satellite is so ancient, only Corvin knows how to fix it -- and of course he insists on bringing his old team back on board to dismantle it.
'Space Cowboys' is less akin to more realistic, factual space movies like 'Apollo 13' than it is the senior citizen's version of 'SpaceCamp,' a very polished, well-constructed piece of pop-myth filmmaking. Quite frankly, the story has plot holes the size of Texas, and we can hardly believe that NASA is going to send up a troupe of sixtysomethings to repair a satellite that any pilot who went through basic flight school could fix. But logic doesn't really matter here. Eastwood wisely takes his time, letting us marinate with the characters, so by the time of the big climactic space-rescue scenes, we are so won over by the charms of the curmudgeonly crew that we want nothing less than to see them zip off into space, blow up the Death Star and kick Darth Vader's ass two ways until Sunday.
The real joy in 'Space Cowboys' is in watching Eastwood and the cast interact. The story neatly falls into three acts: Corvin's character must first round up all his old buddies, then we watch as NASA and the media have a field day with a group of old codgers quickly dubbed "The Ripe Stuff," before the big finish when the quartet become national heroes. Corvin and the gang even get to defeat an old rival, mission administrator Bob Gibson (James Cromwell), the same guy who gave them brush-off back in '58. Four decades later, Gibson wants payback, and will do anything he can to get Corvin's team to flunk their physicals and be replaced with fresh, virile pilots.
Even watching 'Space Cowboys' a second time for this review, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Eastwood's pacing is, as always, a little languid -- he certainly is not a man who will be rushed -- which does hamper the film's rating on the Action-O-Meter. It is fine that the movie is more of a character piece, but admittedly the middle act is so slow going that I almost dozed off a couple of times. But perhaps that is fitting. Here is a film for an audience rarely served by Hollywood, and the fact that it's a strong enough adventure to be enjoyed by more than just the 'Golden Girls' audience is cause for celebration. So if you like sci-fi flicks, feel-good movies and old 'Barnaby Jones' episodes, 'Space Cowboys' is just the ticket.
'Space Cowboys' makes its next-gen debut on HD DVD, with Warner producing a very fine 2.40:1 transfer encoded in 1080p/VC-1. The film already looked great on standard-def DVD, and aside from a few little problems here or there, it's made the translation to HD DVD in top form.
The plusses are many. Great source print, with solid blacks and strong contrast. I did notice a very slight number of blemishes -- a couple of dropouts here, a speckle or two there -- but it's really very minor. Film grain is also in check, and the transfer has a very pleasing sense of depth and detail throughout. The outer space sequences are especially impressive -- the film's third-act CGI effects hold up quite well, and the many panoramic vistas, with various spacecraft and planetary bodies framed against rich black starfields, can make for some startling imagery. Colors are also very well rendered, with no chroma noise or bleed, and fleshtones are accurate throughout.
However, a couple of drawbacks keep 'Space Cowboys' from being one of the best HD DVD transfers I've seen. There is a softness to the image that while not as bad as, say, 'The Perfect Storm,' is still noticeable. I also spied a slight bit of edge enhancement, which is most apparent on dark backgrounds with highly-contrast objects, such as the space scenes. Though the edginess was meager even on my 65" screen, I suspect it might be even more noticeable on jumbotron front projector screens. So depending on the size of your display device, you might find it an irritant.
I think 'Space Cowboys' looks very good on HD DVD, but it might sound even better. Boasting a top-notch soundtrack for a 2000 flick, the film's sound design has held up very well. Warner grants us a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track this time out (encoded at 640kbps) that delivers some excellent moments of aggression and envelopment.
Though the film is subdued during its non-action passages (pretty much the entire second act), when it comes alive it really delivers a wallop. Surround use can be downright thunderous at times -- jets and rockets whiz completely around the 360-degree soundfield, with imaging precise as effects leap from one channel to the next. Subtleties in the discrete rears are also delivered with great clarity and finesse. Dynamic range is spacious, with great depth and presence to the mid-range, while the subwoofer pumps out plenty of powerful low-bass frequencies. 'Space Cowboys' is a rootin', tootin', grand old time, and here it gets the soundtrack to match.
'Space Cowboys' never really got the special edition treatment on DVD, with only a few fairly meager featurettes and no commentary. Same holds true for this HD DVD release, which ports over the same goodies from before but adds nothing new.
The film's production is covered by three making-of featurettes. "Back at the Ranch" runs 28-minutes and gives a straightforward overview of the on-set shenanigans, including the usual EPK-style interviews with cast and crew, including Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner and Donald Sutherland. Meanwhile, the additional featurettes "The Effects" (12 minutes) and "Up Close with the Editor" (6 minutes) are self-explanatory. Unfortunately, even when combined, nothing here transcends expectations, nor offers any great perspective on the movie or its impact -- shot before the film's theatrical release, this stuff feels even more dated almost six years later.
The best extra, however is "Tonight on Leno." An extended version of the clip seen in the movie, Leno interviews "The Ripe Stuff" in character, and it is a hoot. And it may surprise some to see what an improviser Eastwood can be when he wants to -- it is especially refreshing here to see him break out of his usual, stoic shell.
The final extra is the film's theatrical trailer, presented in 480p widescreen.
'Space Cowboys' is a fun, lighthearted movie, which is quite rare for a Clint Eastwood flick these days. Though it is a given that your grandparents will enjoy this, you might be surprised how accessible and entertaining the film is for all ages. Warner has produced another fine HD DVD release for 'Space Cowboys' with a strong transfer and soundtrack, though the extras are perfunctory. So this one is worth considering for purchase if you're a fan, and in any case makes for a great Netflix rental.