Retro Review?: Space Station 76.
Billed as a dark comedy, Space Station 76 is more of a bitter-sweet look back at 1970’s zeitgeist.
Exploring comedic films set in space, a la Guardians of the Galaxy, I came across recommendations for a flick called Space Station 76. This movie slipped way under the radar back in 2014, but has a reputation as a decent dark comedy set in a future where the culture of the American 1970’s never changed.
While the movie certainly has some funny moments, the tone of the film is actually pretty bleak. The crew of the station all have emotional baggage they bring with them into space (one literally has his cryo-freezed mother in storage where ever he goes.) As a result, the film succeeds more as a nostalgic but critical look back at all of the triumphs and failures of American culture in the 70’s.
Space Station 76 (2014)
In a future where the styles and culture of the 70’s never went out of fashion, a bright career woman named Jesssica (Liv Tyler) heads to Space Station 76. The station is a refueling spot out of the way, so rarely sees many new faces. It also has a problem keeping first mates, and when Jessica meets Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson) and the rest of the crew, she can guess why: everyone is hiding personal demons that would destroy their standing in the company and the tenuous social structure of the station.
What comedy there is in this movie is mostly subdued satire. With everyone hiding something in the closet, there is a pervasive irony to almost every conversation and interaction. While this irony rarely is out and out humorous, that actually isn’t a knock on the movie. The fact that the characters are very well invested with drives and desires makes their hypocrisy and failings moving instead of laughable.
The one sure source of full out laughter was Dr. Robot. Living in isolation, many of the crew must have regular interactions with a department store toy robot that serves as the station’s psychologist. The little shit is often hilarious, doling out pat aphorisms and free narcotics while his patients spill their guts. In a movie so full of repressed desires, its a truly great decision to make their only outlet a clueless PEZ dispenser.
Meet the Crew.
While this film is short of big names, I have to say I loved the acting. I’ve never been terribly convinced of Liv Tyler’s acting chop, since she mostly plays a wide-eyed damsel. Here she is smart and motivated, capably handling the chaos around her while hiding a deep vulnerability.
Patrick Wilson is at first a touch too over the top, but his character has a long tail. As he moves from from casual misogyny and bluster to utter despondency and alcoholism we get to see him in a new light. He ends up being the poster boy for the decade on two fronts: first as the big shot honcho who condescends to everyone around him, and later as fractured person suffering from the hypocrisy of a society that is “free” only for a lucky few.
Many of these secrets revolve around the taboos of the 70’s: free love, as long as you’re straight; free drugs, as long as you get them from a doctor and not your back yard; women in the workplace, as long as they know they’re just there to help the men in charge. Most of the driving tension of the film is that almost nobody can fit into these strictures, and instead have to wear fake personas through life while seething inside with unfulfilled needs.
It would be easy to play these issues for laughs or gratuitous pathos, but I have to say that the cast and director rarely went that route. These are people you can really identify with, not cardboard cut-outs, and their situations take on emotional weight.
Sign of the Times.
One of the things that really endeared me to this film was that the pervasive sense of verisimilitude. Space Station 76 lives and breathes 1970’s popular culture. The sets, the props, the costumes, the hairstyles, everything just feels spot on. Even the low budget nature of the effects don’t feel so much cheap as period accurate. I got my idea of the 1970’s from TV and my parent’s generation (I can still spot a 1970’s afghan rug from a mile away…) but as soon as I finished watching Space Station 76, I wanted to show it to them to see how much nostalgia they’d get from it.
Missed it by That Much…
For as much as loved most of this movie, I can’t recommend it without one big caveat: the ending is a giant let down. One cascading action is constantly shown to be heading towards the station to force a reckoning, but once it arrives it accomplishes almost nothing. The changes in the lives of those on the station are only marginal for most, and it feels disheartening. Jessica’s happy ending is pretty flat. The rotten people on the station don’t get their just dessert. Captain Glenn acknowledges his problem, but the pat manner in which he does so is pretty cynical.
Space Station 76 certainly isn’t a great space comedy, and it has a finale that will leave many feeling adrift…but it is still a movie I would recommend. What it does well, like setting and characterization, it does so phenomenally well, I didn’t mind the lack of a strong finish. If you have any nostalgia for the 70’s, this film will scratch your itch.