I hadn’t expected to see Space Station 76 for some time; it appeared to be bypassing a theatrical release in favor of VOD and, presumably, Netflix. But then, whilst browsing my local listings, I found that I was quite near one of the three theaters in the country showing it. I saw it the next day.
And I’m glad I did. Space Station 76 is an odd beast of a film, a mixture of broad comedy, retro camp, and rather intense character drama–with the occasional detour into the surreal. Some have found the film a shapeless mess, and there’s a case to be made for that. But it has charm to burn, a committed cast, and enough strength in its individual scenes to end up a most enjoyable diversion for those who give it a chance.
Set at an unspecified date in the future, the film takes place on the titular station, whose name reflects its style: the decor, the costumes, the habits (constant smoking), and the attitudes are that of the 70s, or at least what the 70s thought the future would be like. To the station comes Jessica Marlowe (Liv Tyler), the new science officer, who is replacing Daniel (Matthew Morrison), who left under mysterious circumstances. We come to know the station’s various denizens:
- Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson), who runs the station but is grappling with personal demons including alcoholism and a profound sense of shame about his sexuality;
- Ted (Matt Bomer), the station’s main engineer, who takes a shine to Jessica and periodically sees a nude “Star Angel” (Anna Sophia Berglund) floating in the void;
- Misty (Marisa Coughlan), Ted’s wife, who is addicted to Valium and is unhappy and unfulfilled by her life;
- Sunshine (Kylie Rogers), Misty and Ted’s daughter, who’s fascinated by science and befriends Jessica, much to Misty’s displeasure;
- Steve (Jerry O’Connell), who carries out some command function on the station but seems more interested in leisure activities and an affair with Misty;
- Donna (Kali Rocha), Steve’s wife, who’s mostly concerned with materialism and social status;
- Dr. Bot (voice of Michael Stoyanov), the ship’s robotic psychiatrist, whom Misty avidly consults.
There’s not a strong plot, so much as a series of vague threads involving these characters:
- Jessica, a career woman who wants to be taken seriously by those around her, is resented by the other women on the ship, particularly Misty, who resents her influence on Sunshine and lies to her about various malfeasances on Jessica’s part. As for the men, only Ted appreciates her for who she is, while Captain Glenn treats her like an uninvited guest. Even her father (Keir Dullea), as loving as he is, doesn’t seem to grasp how profoundly unhappy she is.
- Glenn battles with his demons and we gradually learn just why Daniel left the ship, while his belligerent attitude causes strain among the crew.
- Steve and Donna are assigned to another ship and prepare to leave, but finding room for Steve’s cryogenically frozen mother (Susan Currie) proves to be difficult, and she is left out in the hallway, where only Jessica seems to notice or care.
- Sunshine’s pet gerbils have a litter of pups, and all but one of them die or are killed; desperate to save the last one, Sunshine brings it to Jessica, who agrees to raise it. Jessica also buys a cryogenically frozen dog for Sunshine, but Misty intercepts the gift and tells Sunshine it was from her, and that Jessica’s allergies will prevent them from keeping it.
- Ted and Jessica grow closer, bonding over his secret marijuana crop and their affection for Sunshine.
- An asteroid tumbles through space, on a collision course with the station.
Everything comes to a head at the station’s Christmas party, where Misty proposes a game of secrets, which leads to revelations and embarrassment.
Maybe it was the fact that I saw the film while running on little sleep, and my memories are as such a touch vague, but I find Space Station 76 extremely hard to summarize, and feel as if my attempts at doing so make the film seem like even more of a mess. But it’s not incoherent–yes, not all the threads are well-developed and the ending is kind of abrupt, but I was never really confused by the film.
I’ll admit it’s a long way from being a great film. Like I said, the ending is rather abrupt (though the final shots are really quite lovely), and some parts of the film are fairly well fleshed-out while others feel underfed. Perhaps the greatest weakness is the character of Captain Glenn himself; at first, he seems like Ron Burgundy in space, but we find out that he’s far more troubled and complex than Ron–yet the film doesn’t fully commit to developing Glenn as a character, trying to have him be both a drunken, sexist buffoon and something more, and as a result he feels like something of a missed opportunity. He also gets surprisingly little screentime (Jessica is really the lead), further weakening what should’ve been a breakout character.
Other threads feel undercooked as well; the character of James (Victor Togunde), seemingly the only black man on the ship, has a couple of moments which display the unthinking racism of the other characters (such as when Donna refers to her and Steve’s future home as “restricted”), but otherwise is basically an extra. And the subplot about Steve’s mother never pays off–nor does Steve really do much as a character. I fully expect the DVD to be full of deleted scenes; those that are in the film itself occasionally seem chosen at random from what might well have been a big pile of footage.
And the tone is inconsistent, wavering from, essentially, Anchorman in space, to something more emotionally complex, and even poignant. I’m less aggravated by tonal shifts than many, but I’ll admit the film doesn’t become quite as funny (on the whole) or quite as moving (on the whole) as it could’ve been.
And yet, I won’t deny that it works in other ways. Its portrait of gender politics in particular is unexpected and rather fascinating. I’m not sure if it’s monstrously offensive or insightful, but Jessica’s struggle to be taken seriously, to be respected not only by men but by other women, certainly gives the film a gravitas I didn’t anticipate. And, in the tradition of great science fiction, the film makes use of symbolism and allegory to good effect. Jessica is unable to have children, and this earns her both pity and scorn–Misty, in so many ways Jessica’s antithesis, initially treats her infertility as a great tragedy, suggesting she can never be “complete” without motherhood, and later wields it against her, saying she isn’t a “real woman”.
Misty, though seemingly fulfilled by motherhood and marriage, is as desperate and unhappy as anyone on the ship, popping Valium and drinking heavily, sleeping with the superficially suave Steve while resenting Ted, sabotaging Sunshine’s relationship with Jessica while providing little real affection in return, and becoming reliant on Dr. Bot’s consultations, even trying to emotionally attach herself to the machine despite its protestations. And Donna is dismissive of Jessica and seems only sporadically interested in her newborn baby, her attention focused instead on material goods.
Sunshine, for her part, appears to want something more, and furthering the use of allegory, her favorite game is to shut off the gravity in a given room and float freely around, which Ted indulges her in despite Misty’s disapproval. It’s this game which provides the film’s final images, as this sad child, caught between the troubled and conflicting adults in her life, floats freely and looks out at the stars. It’s really quite a haunting conclusion to film which is so often quirkily bizarre, but that’s the nature of the beast.
Ted, like his daughter, seems to want something more; his visions of the alluring Star Angel provide the initial key into his dreamy nature. And with Jessica, he finds someone whose desire to learn and to fulfill their own ambitions matches his. The final note on their relationship is ambiguous, but there’s hope that they will finally find happiness with each other. At the same time, Glenn is forced to come to terms with who he is–he has a conversation with Daniels which leads to a rather hilariously pathetic moment on his part–and at film’s end, he too seems to be on the track towards a greater happiness. It’s really strange how simultaneously half-baked and thought-provoking it is.
And a lot of the time, the film really is just fun. Dr. Bot might be the best movie robot–or at least the funniest–since Waffle Bot in A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, and he provides the film with its single biggest laugh. I won’t spoil it, but Valium is involved. And Glenn, though he never quite comes to a boil, does provide a fair amount of humor from his very blockheadedness. And the 70s aesthetic is a hoot–if you’re not delighted by it, this probably isn’t the film for you–with the geometric wallpaper, flared pants, shag carpeting, use of VHS tapes as educational aids and ViewMasters as high technology all adding to a goofy yet utterly charming world.
(I should note that a running gag in the film involves Glenn’s attempts at suicide, and some may find this upsetting. I don’t think the scenes are gratuitously insensitive, but your mileage may vary.)
The gameness of the cast really helps as well, though the performances are not as consistent as I would have liked. Tyler’s performance in particular is variable; a lot of the time she seems kind of breathy and spaced-out, but other times she quite effectively suggests Jessica’s frustration with and confusion by the station’s lunatics. And her relationships with Ted and Sunshine come off quite well. On balance, Tyler does a good job, but there are times when she seems a bit lost.
Wilson, likewise, seems to be channelling Will Ferrell a lot of the time, and seems to be trying to play both stolid arrogance and hauntedness at the same time, without really nailing either. It’s a shame, because I quite like Wilson (he was great in Watchmen and The Conjuring), and he does have some very funny moments, but perhaps due to inconsistent writing or direction, he never fully realizes the potential of the character.
On the other hand, Coughlan–whom I haven’t seen in anything but will keep an eye out for–is excellent as Misty. She has the perfect tightly-wound energy, the perfect strained grin, the perfect mixture of explosive frustration and barely-restrained anger that Misty requires. She doesn’t quite make Misty sympathetic–she’s a pretty authentically horrible individual–but she keeps her from descending into one-dimensional villainy. Bomer, for his part, is quite authentically likable as Ted, clearly devoted to his daughter, and, initially at least, trying to maintain his marriage for her sake. Ted’s own disappointments, and the rejuvenation he gets from Jessica’s compassion and intelligence, are also well conveyed. It’s not an especially deep role, but Bomer gives it what it needs.
I always like to highlight good child performances, and Kylie Rogers’ Sunshine is a definite case of the filmmakers lucking out. She conveys Sunshine’s intelligence and curiosity without being overtly precocious or studied, and her line readings are consistently natural. She also well plays Sunshine’s withdrawal in the face of her mother’s attempts to keep her and Jessica apart, as well as her heartbreak as her gerbil pups die or are eaten by their mother. Her chemistry with Bomer and Tyler enriches their scenes, adding a welcome layer of warmth to the film.
The rest of the cast is fine, though there are no real standouts; Dullea’s cameo is kind of a waste, though it’s good to see him.
Director/co-writer Jack Plotnick clearly learned a thing or two from his work with Quentin Dupieux, especially the magnificently weird Rubber. While he must accept some responsibility for the lapses in the story and characterizations, he also deserves credit for the film’s comic energy, for its emotional impact, and for its moments of sheer offbeat fascination (and for its little nods to sci-fi of the era; in particular I detected a very subtle reference to Logan’s Run). It’s not one of the great directing jobs, but I’d be happy to see him do more.
The script was based on a play and on improvisations, and is credited to five writers: Jennifer Elise Cox, Sam Pancake (who has a small role), Plotnick, Rocha, and Stoyanov. It certainly reflects its genesis, and as I’ve noted it lacks for structure and develops as much as it leaves undeveloped. But it also boasts that emotional power and quirky wit that help make the film so strangely memorable, and I must give it a good deal of credit.
Technically, the film is a bit of a mixed bag. When we stay on the ship, it’s just dandy; Seth Reed’s wonderful production design, Sandra Burns and Sarah Brown’s delightfully garish costumes, and even Robert Brinkmann’s cinematography make for a film that, despite its reputedly low budget, looks just as it should. When we go into space, however, we get a lot of cheap CGI. It doesn’t really ruin the effect–it’s not that kind of a film–but it bears mentioning. Sharon Rutter’s editing doesn’t wholly conceal the structural issues (though for all I know her work is what holds the film together at all). I will say that, although some reviews have called the film draggy, I had no complaints in that regard.
For all its faults, Space Station 76 has a charm, an enthusiasm that makes it a rather enjoyable ride. Many have found it unsatisfying and messy, a one-joke film stretched past the breaking point. But if you can respond to it, as I did, you too may be glad we live in a world where a film like this can be made and seen. Give it a chance; it deserves it. I’m glad to be able to say I saw it on the big screen. God knows how many other people can.
¹Yeah, I know, but I liked it enough to push it into the ***½ range.