A film review by Craig J. Koban October 12, 2014 

SPACE STATION 76 jjj
 

2014, No MPAA rating, 94 mins.

 

Patrick Wilson as Captain Glenn  /  Liv Tyler as Jessica  /  Jerry O'Connell as Steve  /  Marisa Coughlan as Misty  /  Matt Bomer as Ted  /  Kali Rocha as Donna  /  

Directed by Jack Plotnick  /  Written by Jennifer Elise Cox, Sam Pancake, Jack Plotnick, Kali Rocha, and Michael Stoyanov

SPACE STATION 76 is one of the most peculiar science fiction films - and comedies - that I’ve ever seen.  

Yet, it’s the film’s audacious level of peculiarity that makes it kind of oddly infectious.  Directed and co-written by Jack Plotnick, SPACE STATION 76 is an adaptation of a Los Angeles based stage play that was apparently developed through a series of improvisational sessions with the writers and actors.  What has emerged may not entirely be cohesive (many of the film’s disparaging parts never hold together with a strong fluidity), but Plotnick deserves points for marrying absurdist comedy, dramatic pathos, and an intoxicating retro look and feel to the entire production.  Best of all, most of the performers play everything straight, never once acknowledging that they’re in a comedy. 

But then again…is SPACE STATION 76 a pure comedy…or a loving homage to Disco-era science fiction…or a scathing satire of 1970’s workplace gender inequality…or a combination of all of those traits and many more?  I’d lean towards the latter.  Plotnick’s film has definitive echoes of classic science fiction genre efforts like SILENT RUNNING, LOGAN’S RUN, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (more on that in a bit) as well as a some nods to TV fare like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and SPACE: 1999.  His film is a “futuristic” sci-fi film set in some sort of quasi 1970’s depiction of the future, replete with archaic and outdated technology…as well as the era’s misogynistic views.  SPACE STATION 76 can’t quite be labeled a downright spoof since the story and characters reach a level of heart tugging poignancy at times.  Plotnick is able to make the film uproariously funny at times while simultaneously having a dramatic sincerity at its core.  That’s a very tricky and daring dichotomy to pull off, but he mostly succeeds here.

 

 

The film deals with, yes, an orbiting space station that’s overseen by Captain Glenn (a rock solid Patrick Wilson, never playing things too stoic, but not hamming it up too much either), who is mostly a lonely and depressed alcoholic sexist that believes that woman have no place residing in the same occupational space as him.  He’s also a very closeted homosexual, which may or may not explain his penchant for outright hostility towards people…and women in general.  When he realizes that Jessica (Liv Tyler) will become the ship’s new lieutenant, Glenn is so upset and emotionally distraught that he makes Ron Burgundy look like a radical feminist by direct comparison.  What turns him off even more is the fact that Jessica is a strong-willed and independent minded soul that wins over many people in the crew. 

As for the rest of the ship's people?  They’re a motley crew of perpetual screw-ups looking to eek out an existence on the vessel.  There’s Misty (the very funny Marisa Coughlan) that chomps down on Valium in all manners cringe worthy.  She has a daughter (Kylie Rogers) and husband Ted (Matt Boomer) that she hardly has time for…mostly because she’s simply catering to her own egomaniacal needs 24/7.  Ted, a ship technician, is deeply frustrated, both sexually and emotionally, with his absentee wife…and also has to come to grips daily with living with an artificial hand that hilariously looks like one of those old school Nintendo Power Gloves.  Needless to say, Ted gets cozy with Jessica, but while this is happening Misty is having an affair with Steve (Jerry O’Connell), whom just became a parent alongside his wife Donna (Kali Rocha).  These space trekking people make the Earth-bound characters on DAYS OF OUR LIVES look well adjusted. 

SPACE STATION 76 looks sensational for its relative dime store budget.  The production design by Seth Reed and costumes by Sandra Burns absolutely nail the groovy bellbottomed 1970’s aesthetic through and through.  Even tiny details – like the curved picture tube TVs, corded phones, garish colors, and so forth – do a bravura job of helping immerse viewers in this Bizarro alternate universe look at tomorrow.  Plotniuk also has some fun at the expense of how old sci-fi films (and even some recent ones) try to be scientifically accurate, like, for example, showing no sounds in the vacuum of space, but still having characters smoke up in the confines of their space ship.  The station also has one of those obligatory automatic food dispensers that instantly – without explanation – are able to give patrons whatever food item they want.  Hell, there’s even a little R2D2-like robot psychiatrist that the ship’s denizens constantly go to for advice…even though his “helpful” words of wisdom sound like greeting card platitudes. 

The performances, as stated, hit their intended marks…which is kind of incredible considering the wide tonal range the film’s traversing across.  I especially liked Wilson’s turn as the Captain, whose own escalating sense of personal failure, self-doubt, and anxiety becomes both amusing and sad at the same time.  His character also helps prop up the film’s social-political satire: he thinks he’s an advanced and progressive minded man, but clearly can’t come to grips with his own homosexuality and the workplace encroachment of Jessica.  Liv Tyler in particular seems to fully understand the limitless insanity of the film’s story, mood and premise, and plays her lieutenant as if she were in just about any other “normal” drama, which helps ground the film even during its most outlandish extremes.  The mostly stern-faced solemnity of Wilson and Tyler acts as a nice foil to the more outright comedic performances by the other actors. 

I think that the real creative coup de grace of SPACE STATION 76 is how it never condescends to all of the people that reside on the vessel.  They are all messed up in one form or another, but Plotniuk never really holds them up for derogatory spite, nor does he beg us to warm up to them and like them for their damaged, warts-and-all personalities.  If anything, you kind of feel pity for some of these hapless personas because they simply live in a perverted time warp within the film where they simply don’t know any better.  The manner that Plotniuk and the actors make these characters breathe as real flesh and blood participants in the story’s overt wackiness helps SPACE STATION 76 rise above the simplistic moniker of a spoof.  It’s both funny and melancholic in equal measures…but just when it risks getting too somber Plotniuk throws in a wink-wink cameo by 2001’s Keir Dullea that made me howl with loving affection.  

SPACE STATION 76 is strange hybrid, to be sure, that many lay filmgoing audiences looking for something more straightforward and perfunctory may not appreciate.  However, if you journey into it with the right mindset and embrace its weirdness…then you’ll come out of it with a smile on your face.  

I had a big grin, myself.

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