Nov. 16, 1998
You might think of "Max Q" as "The Real World" in a space shuttle capsule. It's that dumb, that contrived, that directionless.
Jerry Bruckheimer's maiden voyage into the black hole of primetime TV is long on bathos and woefully short on script. This is how far Bruckheimer reaches to bring his distinctive brand of adrenaline-pumping action to the small screen: the climax finds the shuttle skidding to a halt at a Los Angeles freeway overpass during rush hour. And there are no cars at the point of impact.
Compared with this, "Armageddon" is vividly realistic.
Just what Bruckheimer was trying for in "Max Q" isn't entirely clear, but authenticity wasn't part of the equation. He and helmer Michael Shapiro, along with scribes Marty Kaplan and Robert J. Avrech, push hard to create human characters whom we'll care about once everything begins going terribly wrong. But these people are all such sniveling, overreactive, anal-retentive martyrs that it's enough to turn what there is of John Glenn's hair ... well ... whiter.
There's little in the film we haven't seen before. Bill Campbell stars as Clay Jarvis, your basic "Right Stuff" flyboy heading a seemingly routine shuttle mission with Endeavor that turns ugly and hopeless when an explosion cripples the craft so completely that it can't return to Earth without an engine being fixed. Next time, you can bet they'll take along a decent mechanic.
With Mission Control woefully impotent, Clay's crew begins to snipe. Hotshot rookie Scott Hines (Ned Vaughn) gets all hostile and fatalistic. Mission specialist Karen Daniels (Tasha Smith) yells at everyone to behave. Worst of all , there's Jonah Randall (Geoffrey Blake), a cloying, dopey documentary filmmaker who's part of some "first journalist in space" program (go figure), and who is now recording their descent into hell - a fine PR coup for NASA - on a tiny camcorder inside the capsule.
But as Kaplan and Avrech's doltish teleplay illustrates again and again, "Max Q" (the title refers to a period of maximum aeronautic stress) isn't about making sense. Otherwise, the final half of the film wouldn't focus primarily on Clay's butt being saved by a NASA techie named Rena Bartlett (Paget Brewster) who just happens to be his ex-girlfriend. Will she jilt him in his hour of need to avenge that time when he stood her up at the restaurant?
The other painful subplot involves Emmy-winning filmmaker Jonah (you'd have thunk they could have at least taken an Oscar winner) and the tightly wound corporate dweeb Elliot Henschel (Christopher John Fields). As the wounded shuttle drifts lifelessly through space, the two joust like children over Jonah's pay and duties on board. Of course, both seem to forget that dying wasn't in his contract, either.
It gives away little to note that all involved emerge with scarcely a scratch in "Max Q," which is marked by scattered camerawork and porous editing.
For Bruckheimer's next TV act, he should probably choose a story that doesn't feel like it's been told a thousand times before - and with significantly more flair.
Cast: Billy Campbell, Paget Brewster, Ned Vaughn, Geoffrey Blake, Tasha Smith, Denis Arndt, Christopher John Fields, Kevin McNulty, Leslie Horan, Chris Ellis