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At The Picture Show
September 2014

Space Station 76

Space oddity

Occasionally hilarious 'Space Station 76' never quite finds its footing

Space Station 76
Vertical Entertainment
Director: Jack Plotnick
Screenplay: Jennifer Elise Cox, Sam Pancake, Jack Plotnick, Kali Rocha and Michael Stoyanov
Starring: Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson, Kylie Rogers, Marisa Coughlan, Matt Bomer, Jerry O'Connell, Kali Rocha and Keir Dullea
Rated R / 1 hour, 33 minutes
Now available on VOD
(out of four)

Space Station 76 is so good at doing certain things that it undermines its ability to do others. On one hand, it is an earnestly crafted stylistic homage to classic science-fiction (almost needless to say, 2001 is the overwhelming reference point throughout); on the other, it wants to be a goofy, almost Zucker-level parody of 1970s sexual and domestic politics, complete with all the soapy dramatic elements.

The two things are certainly compatible, and at the film's best, it pulls off a tricky balance really well. But more often than not, it only goes halfway with its comedy, leaving a lot of its opportunities on the table and saddling the 93-minute run time with dead weight. Key pieces of certain storylines have little comedic value, yet they don't work on any serious level, either, because the filmmakers have gone to such lengths with their pastiche that the characters can't help but look and sound ridiculous.

To be fair to director Jack Plotnick and his team of screenwriters, it's an extraordinarily difficult balancing act. They're clearly not trying to go for a pure, laugh-a-minute spoof; their approach is more patient. But their efforts to create an authentic sci-fi experience are so convincing, they work themselves into a corner. If they had gone full bore with the parody, it could've made for a dynamic contrast with the Kubrickian formalism. Or if they had played the story straight and brought in the satirical elements on the sly.

Instead, Plotnick settles for a kind of middle ground. Certain key scenes are completely absent of comedy, right down to the earnest way the actors perform them - scenes that could only come across in a dramatic context. And then that type of scene will be followed by one in which a woman becomes severely emotionally attached to a plastic robot who serves as her psychiatrist. Or a scene of genuine poignance with a lonely little girl, coupled with one where her father gets high and hallucinates about a naked woman floating in outer space. Maybe the incompatibility was part of the experiment, but too often it seems like a lack of commitment, a lack of vision, a lack of material or simply an absence of tonal command. Or a combination of all four.

While watching the film - intermittently delighted and frustrated - I was reminded of Will Ferrell's ABA comedy Semi-Pro (which, incidentally, I liked more than most people did). One of the problems with the movie was that it did too good a job creating a bleak, hopeless atmosphere - unhappy homes; dimly lit dive bars; abandoned streets; sparse crowds made up of despondent fans; characters whose lives are a constant stream of failure and heartache - so that, in fits and starts anyway, it was genuinely depressing. The comedy in certain scenes and subplots was suffocated by a sense of darkness that was too authentic for its own good.

Space Station 76 has a similar problem. It's not depressing like Semi-Pro sometimes was, but its tonal shifts definitely work against each other.

As we get our first glimpse of the space station - actually called Omega 76 - Plotnick establishes his 2001 bona fides*, beginning with a center-framed shot of the top of the station, before the camera slowly glides down, pulls back and concludes with a full view of it, once again centered against the backdrop of outer space. Only the images aren't scored to Strauss this time - it's Todd Rundgren's Utopia Theme.

* There's also a clever, one-scene Keir Dullea cameo.

The film utilizes that meticulous, floating camerawork once we're on board as well, as we glide down the shiny, white corridors of the station leading up to our character introductions. (Sadly, there's no zero-gravity jogging.) The central character is Jessica (Liv Tyler), the newcomer aboard Omega 76 and, apparently, the captain's new second-in-command. She's kind and soft-spoken, and makes an instant kinship with the ambiguously aged Sunshine (Kylie Rogers), a young girl whose mother Misty (Marisa Coughlan) is too busy taking Valium and having affairs to pay much attention to her daughter.

Misty is married to Ted (Matt Bomer), the ship's mechanic who, like Sunshine, takes an instant liking to Jessica. Meanwhile, Ted has no idea that his good friend Steve (Jerry O'Connell) is sleeping with Misty.

And then there's Glenn (Patrick Wilson), the closeted gay Captain whose repeated suicide attempts (stemming from the recent, and controversial, departure of his secret lover) keep either failing completely or getting otherwise interrupted. Wilson is fantastic in the role, but the movie doesn't give him enough opportunities to interact with other characters - when he's at his best - so he can play off their personalities, and their expectations of him.

The film is set in an ambiguous future after Earth has been largely abandoned (Jessica has never set foot on the planet, living on spaceships her entire life), but it adopts attitudes and styles of the 1970s, from the fashions and hairstyles to the specific brand of misogyny. This is actually one of my favorite bits of satire in the film - that it's behaving as a science-fiction movie made in the 1970s would have behaved, rather than just co-opting its aesthetics. The unintended joke in a lot of those movies is that, while they would attempt a "futuristic" look to their fashions, they almost always just ended up looking like slightly dressed-up versions of the exact fashions that were popular at the time.

And there are plenty of other delights as well. One example: at one point in the film, Captain Glenn decides to go to therapy, with the only option being the aforementioned plastic robot (who's programmed with various pieces of boilerplate shrink wisdom, aphorisms, platitudes, questions, advice and knee-jerk responses that badly, and hilariously, simulate the job of a professional therapist). As he enters the "psychiatrist"'s office, we see the robot in the foreground from a low-angle shot as he slowly, dramatically turns around - with his circular, translucent, R2D2-like plastic head - to face his new patient. It's a small thing, but it's one of those great moments in the movie where the tone of the parody lands perfectly.

I wish more of the film landed like that scene does. Space Station 76 is always watchable and never unpleasant. Its best moments are so good, and its worst moments so dull, that it leaves the nagging feeling that, simply put, it should have been a lot funnier than it actually is.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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