Jack Plotnick’s feature directorial debut rocks a creative concept with some highly appealing production design, but the film is entirely devoid of a compelling through line, rendering Space Station 76 more of a short-lived novelty rather than a thoughtfully layered, story-driven experience. Hit the jump for my full review of Space Station 76 from the SXSW Film Festival.
The film is set in a future that looks much like the 1970s. The gossiping, jealousy, affairs and gerbil deaths all go down on the Omega 76, a refueling space station that’s home to 27 people including Glenn (Patrick Wilson), the moody captain harboring a serious grudge, his new second in command, Jessica (Liv Tyler), the crew mechanic, Ted (Matt Bomer), his queen bee wife, Misty (Marisa Coughlan), and their highly curious and often neglected daughter, Sunshine (Kylie Rogers). It should be as simple as serving their time on the less desirable Omega 76 until they’re due for promotions, but nobody is going to make it off that space station with that asteroid heading right in their direction, let alone all that drama, bickering and infidelity threatening to ruin their relationships and careers.
Space Station 76 boasts an inherently amusing core concept. Considering we’re constantly being fed representations of the future brimming with ultra hi-tech devices, artificial intelligence and the sleekest of designs, it’d simply be funny to see what space travel might be like had it happened in the 70s. And it is, but the shtick only carries the film so far.
Much of the movie’s charm comes from the unusual combination of the 70s lifestyle and deep space living. The production design is spot on with loads of timely details including some wood paneling, arc floor lamps and an abundance of yellow, orange and brown hues. A retro radio, dated microwave, air hockey table and a View-Master pop up too, but the more pleasing components are the ones that reflect a blend of 70s and futuristic flair, like Doc Bot, Omega 76’s in-house therapist. The idea of discussing your personal problems with a robot is ultramodern through and through, but Doc Bot looks more like that Tiger Electronics 2-XL talking robot from back in the 90s.
This successful crossover extends to the characters’ behavior and values, too. Upon Jessica’s arrival, another resident acts as the welcoming committee and bops over with a house-warming gift of sorts. Misty also can’t quite comprehend the idea of a woman not having a child and being satisfied with a blossoming career instead, and Glenn has absolutely no trouble sucking on cigarette after cigarette even though the risks are becoming common knowledge. It’s quite interesting seeing these issues referenced in this warped context, but that’s all that happens; they’re referenced and never discussed and that’s a problem that plagues Space Station 76 all the way through.
The film is really just a neat idea and nothing more. It seems as though Plotnick and his team spent more time developing the world and throwing in cute little nods to the past than working on the characters. All of the main players nestle into a particular stereotype and then that’s it. No one changes and no one is presented with a conflict that they’re determined to overcome.
Right at the start of the movie, there’s a whole sequence dedicated to the fact that Jessica has a condition that won’t allow her to have children, but then that’s it. It’s never referenced again. Jessica also spends a good deal of the film trying to get Glenn to acknowledge the work that her predecessor did to help them avoid asteroid pockets. Considering the film is constantly cutting to the asteroid making its way straight towards Omega 76, you’d think Jessica would eventually get her told-you-so moment, but there’s no mention of the research ever again. There’s also a rather endearing connection brewing between Jessica and Sunshine, and when Misty starts to suspect she’s losing her daughter, she concocts this plan to win her back. That scenario should have come with a solid payoff, but it never gets an ending at all.
Space Station 76’s biggest problem is that the characters go nowhere. There’s a last minute attempt at wrapping up storylines, but none are particularly satisfying because you never felt connected to the folks aboard the space station to begin with. Everyone’s either deplorable or a total sucker. You should feel bad for Glenn that his lover up and left Omega 76 for another ship, but Glenn’s a nasty, selfish guy, so instead, you start sympathizing with Daniel (Matthew Morrison) who we only see on screen in hologram form for a mere two minutes. And then we’ve got characters like Ted who’s a stand up guy through and through, but just impossible to track. We know he’s got a thing for Jessica, but what about Misty and Sunshine? He’s essentially just floating around this middle ground where you don’t know what he wants more, to follow his heart or to keep his family together and if he doesn’t know what he wants, there’s no way for a viewer to get behind any of his decisions.
The most affecting character of the bunch is, without a doubt, Sunshine. She’s the purest of the lot and has the most relatable goals. She wants to have fun and she wants a friend, and seeing her attain one or the other, even though neither tends to last very long, is quite satisfying. Rogers also delivers one of the most honest performances. Whereas her big name co-stars all stick within their stereotypes, she shows off some unique qualities that make her feel much more like a real person. Odds are, the rest of the cast was directed to perform in such a manner to keep in line with the film’s style and tone, but it makes their characters incredibly stiff and impossible to connect to.
Space Station 76 should be a TV show. In fact, the feature film does feel somewhat like a lengthy pilot, a piece that introduces you to all the main characters and their predicaments, hinting at loads of meatier bits in the episodes to come. Trouble is, in this case, there is no more material to come, so while this world is a pleasure to spend time in, its eccentricities and endearing wistfulness are nothing more than short-lived novelties because they’re stuck within an underdeveloped, forgettable story.
Click here for all of our SXSW 2014 coverage. Click on the links below for my other reviews: