Space Station 76 (2014)


USA. 2014.


Director – Jack Plotnick, Screenplay – Jennifer Elise Cox, Sam Pancake, Jack Plotnick, Kali Rocha & Mike Stoyanov, Based on the Play by Jennifer Elise Cox, Sam Pancake, Jack Plotnick, Kali Rocha & Mike Stoyanov, Producers – Dan Burks, Katherine Ann McGregor, Joel Michaely, Edward Parks & Rachel Ward, Photography – Robert Brinkmann, Music – Marc Fantini & Steffan Fantini, Visual Effects Supervisor – Billy Brooks, Special Effects Supervisor – Kevin Beltz, Production Design – Seth Reed. Production Company – Rival Pictures/Om Films


Patrick Wilson (Captain Glenn Terry), Liv Tyler (Lieutenant-Commander Jessica Marlowe), Matt Bomer (Ted), Marisa Coughlan (Misty), Kylie Rogers (Sunshine), Kali Rocha (Donna Harrison), Jerry O’Connell (Steve Harrison), Matthew Morrison (Daniel), Keir Dullea (Mr Marlowe)


Lieutenant-Commander Jessica Marlowe arrives aboard space station Omega 76 to take up a new position as second-in-command to Captain Glenn Terry. Everybody aboard seems bored. Glenn is frequently drunk and bemoans the loss of his previous second-in-command with whom he was having a gay relationship, although this is a secret he has kept from everybody aboard. Married couple Ted and Misty no longer have sex, although she is having an affair with the also married Steve. Their daughter Sunshine feels lonely being the only child on the station. When Jessica befriends Sunshine, this serves to make Misty jealous.

Space Station 76 is a feature-length directorial debut for Jack Plotnick. Plotnick is better known as an actor with regular parts on tv shows such as Ellen (1994-8) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and as the lead in Quentin Dupieux’s quirky Wrong (2012) and Wrong Cops (2013). According to the credits, the film is based on a play by Plotnick and his co-writers (some of whom also plays roles in the film), although I am unable to find any information about where this was originally staged.

Space Station 76 is construed as a parody of science-fiction tv shows of the 1970s. There are no specific scenes that quote the classics, although you could nominate a bunch of shows like Battlestar Galactica (1978-9) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979). Mostly though, the sets and costume designs have all been modelled on live-action Gerry Anderson tv series such as UFO (1969-72) and Space: 1999 (1975-7). The design does a wonderful job of getting the retro style and costuming of 1970s futurism, while the background is packed with a range of the era’s technologies such as vcr players and videotapes, vinyl record players and 3D viewer glasses. There is a wonderfully spacy prog rock soundtrack, featuring in particular tracks from Todd Rundgren. There is even a cameo from the 78-year-old Keir Dullea – none other than Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which was the work that defined science-fiction for the era – on a videophone conversation as Liv Tyler’s father.

I sat down to watch Space Station 76 with a great deal of anticipation. What I was really hoping is that it would be for 1970s tv science-fiction the equivalent of what GalaxyQuest (1999) did to mercilessly parody Star Trek (1966-9). Only I ended up being disappointed. Rather than going for knowing fan humour, Jack Plotnick seems to have something in mind more akin to the deadpan blackness of Dark Star (1974), a series of loose interactions and personal dramas depicting the boredom of life aboard a space mission. It is a film where rather than aiming for gags and humour, the comedy all comes obliquely – the sort where you are never sure whether you should be laughing or taking it seriously. Perhaps the most obvious the film ever gets is the scenes where Patrick Wilson’s commander keeps trying to commit suicide only to be interrupted by the station computer correcting the power surges as he drops a clock in his bath or adjusting for pressure as he tries to gas himself.

The disappointment of Space Station 76 is that, aside from its wonderfully conceived retro setting, it plays out more as an ensemble family gathering comedy – the sort of comedy/drama where everybody’s secrets come out during tensions and drunken revelations at the Christmas party or some such – something akin to films like The Celebration (1998), The Family Stone (2005), August: Osage County (2013) or This is Where I Leave You (2014). The revelations that come out here – that Patrick Wilson’s commander is gay, that married couple Matt Bomer and Marisa Coughlan don’t like each other and have been staying together for the sake of the child, that Liv Tyler can’t have children – are staggeringly mundane. You could transplant everything that happens here to an everyday contemporary setting. You reach the end of the film wondering, if this was the story that Jack Plotnick and his co-writers wanted to tell, why did they need to create a science-fiction vehicle to do?

The visual effects are clearly on the lesser-budgeted side – alas, none of the amazing miniature scenes that Gerry Anderson shows were noted for – but are generally serviceable. The shots of the shuttle docking with the station that we see in the opening scenes are exceptional.

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