I do not miss much about the 70s. There’s something about the hairstyles, the disco clothing and all the polyester of that era that simply leaves me cold. So I’m not usually big on retro shows or movies of that period. I’ve never watched Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, That 70s Show or the Starsky & Hutch remake, even though I’m a big fan of both Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller.
I made an exception for Space Station 76 because it still falls under the sci-fi genre, despite its overtly soapish tone. It also packs enough laughs to qualify as a comedy, but don’t expect anything like Galaxy Quest or Spaceballs. Space Station 76 is a workplace “dramedy” set in a futuristic space-faring society that has not moved on culturally or socially from the 70s.
Space Station 76 will either make you laugh or miss those days gone by if you’re nostalgic. Most likely, it will do a bit of both. The cigarette smoking is a bit much at times, and you wonder how smoking could ever be tolerated on a space station in any era, but the other nods to the 70s are subversively charming and even hysterical at times. Some nods are flat out hilarious, like Marisa Coughlan (Bones, Boston Legal) gobbling Valiums like they were M&Ms (or Tic Tacs, if you want to keep to the 70s). The scene where Coughlan views pictures on a vintage View-Master even managed to stir my 70s nostalgia out of its lethargy. You can’t help but laugh at the use of such low-tech AV equipment in a setting where interstellar flight and artificial gravity are routine. Those moments of nostalgia or laughter are commonplace as you would like them to be in Space Station 76, and they help glue together the workplace drama and character development moments.
There are other nods to the 70s − not to the culture of the times, but to the movies of that era. They can appear subtler, and they are the ones I really enjoyed most. First off, you can’t help but wonder if this is how Dark Star would have looked like had it been shot today. The CGI-free models were very refreshing if you are a bit fed up with computer imaging and animation in the movies. The models used for the transport (something not unlike the Winnebago from Spaceballs) and the space station provided rare moments of nostalgia for the space opera heydays prior to the advent of CGI. Watching Space Station 76 makes you want to watch Alien, Star Wars, Dark Star and other favourites from those days. The rest of the effects are a bit rough, most notably the asteroid field sequences, but they are not detrimental to the overall movie.
Most people will liken the sets to 2001: A space Odyssey, but they also felt like a nostalgic nod to Space 1999, a personal favourite. There is another nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it will not go unnoticed if you’re old enough, or are enough of a space movie buff, to recognize Keir Dullea in his cameo. Liv Tyler’s very presence in a film with an asteroid on a collision course may also be an unconscious nod to Armageddon, and so might Jerry O’Connell’s presence be a nod to Mission To Mars, both much maligned genre movies.
Even though it’s hard to say where the movie is headed at times, it’s still obvious from the opening scene and Liv Tyler’s voice-over that the story will climax with an asteroid’s collision and its obvious analogy with the personality clash between the key inhabitants of the space station. The plot converges obviously toward an all-out conflict between the main characters, but the Christmas party argument felt forced, somehow. Whatever apprehension we might have had about that scene is cut short along with the argument between the characters when the asteroid actually collides with the station. We still get closure at the end, along with all the main characters.
Space Station 76 has a remarkably capable cast and some star power thrown in. The ensemble cast does an admirable job overall. Liv Tyler gives a solid performance, and it’s refreshing that Jack Plotnick, in his feature film directorial debut, did not bank too heavily on her sex appeal. Tyler appears actually demure while Plotnick could have gotten away with dressing her up in some of the 70s more suggestive fashions. Tyler and Wilson appear as the most emotionally believable and relatable characters of the cast. Patrick Wilson shows some very comedic talent as he manages to keep a straight face even amid the most ridiculous situations. His character is as ingratiating as Coughlan’s, but unlike Coughlan, you can sympathise with his situation, even though he’s dishing out some of the same discrimination he’s a victim of to Tyler’s character.
In the end, this is a small indie film that will not fail to charm moviegoers.
Space Station 76 is out now.
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