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Space Station 76 [DVD]
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Welcome to a 1970s’ version of the future, where the pants are wide, the music is groovy, and the new frontier is interplanetary. When a new assistant captain (Liv Tyler) arrives on the Omega 76, tensions spark, and more than asteroids collide. This smart and quirky film-festival favorite stars Patrick Wilson, Jerry O’Connell and Matt Bomer. Take a journey on an out-of-this-world adventure.
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There's not much in the way of plot - the new assistant commander (Liv Tyler - Lord of The Rings) arrives on board Space Station 76 to work for its alcoholic, chain smoking and firmly-in-the-closet-gay commander (Patrick Wilson - Watchmen) who becomes secretly suicidal after his lover (Matthew Morrison - Glee) leaves him. She encounters a lot of sexism (mostly from the wives of the other officers on board, who firmly believe women should be mothers rather than employees) and falls in love with the chief engineer (Matt Bomer - White Collar) who's hijacked part of the hydroponics arboretum to grow a personal supply of quality cannabis which gives him recurring hallucinations of a nude "star angel" and whose wife is having an affair with his friend, a frat-boyish hanger bay manager (Jerry O'Connell - Sliders).
The set décor and outfits are a homage to such '70s classics as Space:1999, Star Wars IV: A New Hope, Logan's Run, Silent Running and 2001: A Space Odyssey and there are sly references all over the place - such as the supply ship being part of the Koenig company, named for Walter Koenig who played Chekov on Star Trek. There are some very funny threads of dark humour in the film too, with the ship's robot psychologist imparting equal measures of new age wisdom and unlimited prescription tranquilisers, the commander's increasingly desperate attempts to kill himself being continually thwarted by the protective measures of the station's AI who basically "can't let [him] do that" in an oblique reference to 2001's HAL and a young child who accidentally kills every pet she's given to care for.
I can understand why the film has quite low ratings from its reviewers. It might have been done better in the style of a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof such as Airplane! or Police Squad! rather than played deadpan as a drama in an absurd situation, but in the end, it's a film aimed squarely at sci-fi fans who've watched classic shows and films from the '60s, '70s and early '80s. If you're not such a person, you probably won't like this. On the other hand, if you are then I'd definitely suggest you give it a try, especially as it's currently available to stream for free via Amazon Prime / Instant.
Instead, "Space Station 76" feels like a vision of The Future as imagined by a clinically depressed suburbanite from 1976 -- think "The Ice Storm" in space, with robot hands, weed and cannibalistic gerbils. It has a talented cast that doesn't have a lot to do, and seems to be trying to amuse us with constant awkwardness in the hopes that this will elicit some chuckles... which, sadly, it rarely does.
A new second-in-command, Jessica Marlowe (Liv Tyler), is arriving on Space Station 76, which seems to just be in space to... um... I'm not entirely clear what its purpose is. The captain (Patrick Wilson) is suicidally depressed over his homo/bisexuality and the departure of the man he loved, and he's not too happy about having a female second-in-command.
And nobody else there is easier to live with. Brittle, pill-popping Misty (Marisa Coughlan) neglects her daughter and develops a nasty envy of Marlowe. She's also avoiding sex with her husband Ted (Matt Bomer wearing a "robot hand" glove), possibly because she is having an affair with Steve (Jerry O'Connell), whose perky wife Donna (Kali Rocha) is wrapped up in her new baby.
Jessica immediately forms a bond with both the sexually-frustrated Tedand his sensitive young daughter Sunshine (Kylie Rogers). A jealous Misty begins sabotaging Sunshine's friendship, and as the Christmas party approaches, the tensions among the crew reach a boiling point. Will anything actually get resolved, or will everything just continue as-is?
The most important aspect of science fiction is to imagine what might happen, to look forward. "Space Station 76" looks back instead -- the attitudes and angst of the 1970s transplanted into the science fiction settings that a movie from the 1970s might have had. It has very of-that-period viewpoints on things like women in positions of authority, sexuality, pill-popping housewives, affairs and all that sort of things. There are even CIGARETTES and VALIUM on the space station of Teh Future.
And this could have worked.... if I had the faintest idea what writer/director Jack Plotnick was aiming for. It's too serious to be wry, too depressing to be funny (even bleakly funny), too goofy to be dramatic, and too awkward to be clever. I've seen it billed as a "black comedy," but those usually have... something to elicit even a chuckle.
Admittedly there are some mildly funny moments (the whole robot-hand-grabbing-the-breast scene, or the toaster scene), but too often Plotnick draws potentially funny scenes out until they seem limp and devoid of energy. Or else he lingers on running non-gags that just feel squirmingly uncomfortable (the whole subplot about the mother gerbil killing her babies).
And while he has a cute aesthetic for the 70s-style future -- think a cheaper version of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," with lots of white walls and magic food dispensers -- the aesthetic seems to be all the movie has. The characters just float around, grate on each other, have a yelling match, and... nothing comes of it. It simply ends, with everyone (except perhaps the captain) still miserable and loathing each other.
It also tragically misuses most of its cast. Patrick Wilson is the only adult actor who has anything to actually chew on, playing a depressed, lonely commander hiding his sexuality (remember, 1970s sensibilities) and mourning rejection by the man he loved.
But sadly, Wilson is the only one whose character even has an arc. Liv Tyler is clearly trying hard with her character, but doesn't seem entirely sure who Jessica is or where she's coming from -- Jessica's only defining characteristic is a non-functioning uterus. Matt Bomer mostly smokes weed, flirts with Tyler and stares vacantly at naked women floating in space. O'Connell has nothing to do. And Marisa Coughlan is just a two-dimensional unhappy suburban wife... but in space, which makes that totally not a cliche.
"Space Station 76" is a mass of squandered opportunities -- while the retro-SF setting is interesting, it lacks actual storylines or developed characters. At the end you're where the characters are -- floating in space, bored and unhappy.
Once on board it becomes clear that everyone has `issues' and at first what seems like quirkiness - especially from `Misty' soon becomes one long monologue of irritating self interest guff. The joke, if you can call it that, wears thin pretty quick. I can not remember even smiling at any of this. The acting is so stylised as to not work either. Everyone ranges from unlikable to uninteresting. The film is supposed to be about the similarity between asteroids and humans (I think) and we see an asteroid belt starting to break up at the beginning with the inevitable sign post that the space station will get hit etc. This being a metaphor for human relationships or something that I lost interest in trying to work out.
I keep trying to find something good to say about this chunderthon and the only one I can think of is that it does actually end - eventually. You will want an asteroid explosion by about half way through, but don't hold your breath. There is no plot worth talking about, no humour and objectively speaking no ruddy point to this total waste of everyone's time - theirs for being in it and yours for watching it. We all know that in space no-one can hear you scream but we can see when there is an arse of a film made there- avoid.
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