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Space Cadet

You can almost hear the elevator pitch: “Legally Blonde” in space, an under-rated ditz who doesn't dress or talk like the snobbish types with the gilded resumes but shows she has the right stuff. Then maybe add a little bit of “The King’s Man” for some action, and here we are. Emma Roberts plays Rex, happily “living the Florida life”: parties on the beach, wrestling gators, tending bar (she’s very good at remembering a lot of different complicated drink orders), and, sometimes, wistfully watching NASA rocket launches. She used to watch them with her late mother and dream of someday riding in one of those rockets as an astronaut, flying to the stars.

Rex graduated from high school with a full scholarship to college but stayed home when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. After that, she stayed home to support her father (Sam Robards). Somehow, ten years went by. At her college reunion, she begins to wonder what her life might have been like if she had pursued her original dream, especially after she sees her classmate, Toddrick Spencer (Sebastián Yatra), now a tech billionaire whose company flies customers into the lower levels of space. 

Despite not having any of the educational or experience requirements for the space program, Rex decides to apply to NASA. She asks her friend Nadine (the delightfully ditsy Poppy Liu of “Hacks”) for help with the formatting, and Nadine beefs up the resume with some fake credentials and submits it without telling Rex. 

When Rex is accepted, she has no idea that NASA thinks she is a PhD and a pilot. By the time she realizes it, she thinks that because she has kept up with her studies and survived while most of the legitimately credentialed candidates are kicked out, she believes it is too late to tell them the truth.

Writer/director Liz W. Garcia plays it safe here, with a result that has no surprises but is effectively entertaining, thanks largely to Roberts’ performance, which she seems to be enjoying so much it would be impossible not to enjoy it with her. Despite some poor decisions and some overdone costume choices – we know she’s a bit on the trashy side, but there are too many airbrushed t-shirts and drugstore hair accessories – Roberts makes Rex an appealing heroine, creative, committed, and a team player who wants everyone to do well.  

That helps to make up for what surrounds her. See if you can figure out where these set-ups are going: Rex has endearingly quirky fellow astronaut candidates (unfortunately, and relentlessly referred to as As-Cans), plus one an uptight, hyper-competitive blonde mean girl (Desi Lydic). One of Rex’s supervisors is a nerdy but very handsome guy with a classy British accent (Tom Hopper) who does not know how to have fun. Rex’s deception is discovered, and she is sent home before final decisions are made, but when a crisis occurs … yeah. You guessed right.

Despite the utterly predictable failure to make As-Can happen, two random colonoscopy references, jokes about disabilities, and a shameful waste of Gabrielle Union as one of the NASA program leaders, the storyline has some engaging details. Rex specializes in solving problems, whether mechanical or human. The script gives her a chance to come up with ideas that might not pass muster at NASA or obey the laws of physics, but they remind us of how grounded and resourceful she is. Her MacGyver-esque mechanical skills are fun to watch but her generosity in helping others keeps us on her side.  

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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Space Cadet movie poster

Space Cadet (2024)

Rated PG-13

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