Space Station 76 (2014) / Comedy-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality including graphic nudity, language and some drug use
Running Time: 93 min.
Cast: Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson, Marisa Coughlan, Matt Bomer, Kylie Rogers, Jerry O'Connell, Kali Rocha
Small role: Matthew Morrison, Keir Dullea
Director: Jack Plotnick
Screenplay: Jack Plotnick, Michael Stoyanov
Review published September 28, 2014
Space Station 76 is a deadpan farcical attempt at satirizing what science fiction was like prior to Star Wars resetting the genre in 1977. Such TV space operas like "Space: 1999" come immediately to mind, but also films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (fans will be ecstatic that Keir Dullea makes a cameo appearance here), Silent Running, Logan's Run, and many others, which featured sterile space ship environs mixed with some (now dated) social commentary of the era. Though set in the distant future, many 1970s properties maintain the attitudes of the era, including the battle of the sexes, race relations, and unique fashions and lingo. This film has an intriguing premise, which is that futuristic science fiction is often stuck in the prevailing attitudes of the time in which it is created, and therefore becomes just as antiquated the more distant we are from the initial release as a vision of a possible future for us all.
But it's not completely accurate to call Space Station 76 a satire on sci-fi films strictly, as none of them would have dared explore the subject of the captain's homosexual tendencies, or took head on the sexual politics of the era. As such, it's often more akin to a 'what if" premise in which we find a space station that is inhabited by people who seemed to teleport there directly from the United States from the year 1976. It's also not strictly a comedy, as there is an underlying seriousness about sad and lonely people not finding much solace in one another to get them through some solitary times. Whatever bonds they do form are treated with utmost seriousness, because they may never feel that bond with anyone else again in the deep recesses of the isolated galaxy. Certainly the resident psychiatrist, a small robot with pre-programmed platitudes, offers little comfort or basic human understanding.
The setting is the desolate Omega 76 Space Station, run by the twitchy and perhaps suicidal Captain Glenn (Wilson, Insidious: Chapter 2), who is chagrined that he's been sent a new second-in-charge, Jessica Marlowe (Tyler, Robot & Frank), who is a woman in an era when female captains are unthinkable. Captain Glenn isn't the only one who isn't happy for her arrival, as the pill-popping Misty (Coughlan, Freddy Got Fingered), the wife of ship maintenance worker Ted (Bomer, Winter's Tale) and mother of precocious Sunshine (Rogers, We've Got Balls), is jealous that Jessica is getting the attention of her immediate family in ways she herself hasn't for a long time. Meanwhile, Misty is getting extra attention of her own in the arms of fellow crewmate Steve (O'Connell, Veronica Mars), who is cheating on his oblivious wife Donna (Rocha, White Oleander).
Jack Plotnick directs and co-scripts, adapting a Los Angeles-area stage play he had been involved with that is credited to three other writers. The main problem: the film is woefully inadequate in its number of genuinely funny moments. Sure, there are the occasional references to long-forgotten 1970s kitsch to keep the mind busy, but little of it is funny save for the momentary moments where something is shown or done that isn't really anymore. For instance, there is a scene in which a character is seen smoking in front of an infant -- funny today because it is a big no-no, but back then it was more commonplace. There are many references to the post-hippie, pre-New Age-isms of the era, but these lack zip, given that many of those attitudes still exist today.
The special effects are cheesy, and one of the disappointments is that is occasionally they employ computer-generated graphics that would have been out of place for the 1970s, which used lots of miniatures and matting. It's done in a rudimentary fashion, but it is a bit in keeping with the nature of the story, which dabbles in innocent pre-Lucas schlock. But still, the direction could have been much more inspired than is delivered here by Plotnick, his first effort behind the camera. The tone is uneven, and though individual moments are interesting, they don't string together in a satisfying way.
Those with 1970s nostalgia will like the bells and whistles above the actual plot. It does feature good use of a hit 1970s soundtrack, and some of the furnishings and slang of the era. But the intent of the film seems lost, scratching the surface of several possibilities on where it could go to hit thematic pay-dirt, but too entrenched in trying to cover all of its bases to linger long enough to give us any lasting profundity. For an improved piece that channels the 1970s sexist and racist attitudes, Anchorman does it much better.
Perhaps if this had played as a series of recurring skits online, or as a regular part of a sketch comedy TV show, the small-scale pace and mild humor would have been enough to gain a cult following, but as a full-length feature, there's not much here to recommend, save for an appealing cast and groovy 1970s chic. Or, maybe if it didn't try to be funny, instead digging at the soft underbelly of sex and class that existed in the 1970s, a la "Mad Men" to the 1960s, this would be an interesting and successful drama, instead of an short film padded out well beyond its means.
©2014 Vince Leo