On the surface, Space Station 76 is a parody of a 1970s sci-fi movie. All the conventions of the era are there – the clothes, the music, the facial hair – but after a while, the film starts to unravel and show its underbelly, and what you end up with is an awkwardly bizarre mix of space comedy and slow-burning introspective drama.
The film was directed by character actor Jack Plotnick, who was at the screening I attended here in Los Angeles. During a short Q&A before the movie began, it was brought to our attention that Space Station 76 was originally written as a stage play. There are many moments during the movie where this is clear and it makes me wonder what would have been done differently if this story was indeed delivered in one of the many black box theaters that can be found in L.A.
The film stars Patrick Wilson as Captain Glenn, an alcoholic space captain who is deeply sexist and even deeper in the closet. His mustached character and demeanor is somewhat reminiscent of Ron Burgundy, but that didn’t distract too much. The new lieutenant to join the ship after his (secret) boyfriend was promoted (and kicked off the ship) is Jessica Marlow, played by the always soft-spoken Liv Tyler. The discovery that he has to now work with a woman informs the majority of his sexist ways, as well as the deeper depression that leads to multiple failed suicide attempts throughout the film.
There’s an interesting level of dysfunction featured in every supporting character this ship has to offer. There’s the Valium-popping housewife Misty (Marisa Coughlan) who turns out to be quite an awful mother. Her job on the ship is to choose which meals the robotic food machines will prepare for the crew. Her husband, who she cheats on regularly, is Ted (Matt Bomer), and he’s the ship tech who wears what looks like a Nintendo Powerglove due to a mishap that led to the loss of his hand. Sunshine (Kylie Rogers) is the couple’s young daughter, and she makes an almost instant connection to Jessica. This further fuels the jealousy in Misty, who lashes out at Jessica throughout the film, and it complicates matters when we find out Jessica has a “medical condition” that keeps her from having children of her own.
There’s also Steve (Jerry O’Connell), who is married to the wine-chugging Donna (Kali Rocha), the mother of their newborn baby. Oh, and Misty is boning Steve behind Ted’s back. Yeah, what we’ve got here is pretty much a ’70s space soap opera.
Throughout the near hour and a half running time, SS76 reminds us of what science fiction used to be by relying heavily on the “fiction” aspect, before the technological advances that have made science what it is today. The film’s influences here seem to run the gamut from Logan’s Run to the original “Battlestar Galactica.” Hell, those jumpsuits even reminded me of “V” for a moment or two. The use of classic rock throughout the soundtrack lends itself well to the overall feel of the movie and may just remind you of the successful juxtaposition of another recent action space film’s soundtrack (I’m referring to Guardians of the Galaxy, people).
One of the film’s shortcomings is its inability to hold onto its plot. I mentioned the slow-burn nature of the movie earlier, and there are definitely those moments where you are left wondering what the point is. But maybe there is no point – after all, it’s a soap opera in space! Under the film’s comedic top layer is a deeper one that explores ’70s gender issues, women’s issues, and political topics that seem to go hand in hand with the era but also still hold relevance today. While Space Station 76 could easily be delivered in sketch comedy format, the film delivers enough entertainment and kitsch that’ll easily help it achieve cult status one day.
Space Station 76 is obviously a passion project by everyone involved. It may not appeal to everyone (I’ve read some bad reviews) but its evolution from stage play to movie is admirable. There are over 500 visual effects throughout the film that were apparently done mostly in the VFX artist’s apartment. That’s commitment. Whether the movie ever finds its audience, the sheer fact it exists and is being seen is pretty much a win/win scenario for Jack Plotnick and all involved.
Space Station 76 is currently screening at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles and is in limited release around the country.
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