Thursday, November 06, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Space Station 76 (2014)

Just about my favorite period of science fiction film and television endured from 1968 (and 2001: A Space Odyssey) to 1976, the heyday of Space: 1999.

During this all-too-brief a span, writers, directors and production designers imagined mankind reaching out -- and sometimes faltering -- on his journey to the stars.

Sometimes man’s technology -- whether HAL the computer, or dangerous nuclear waste facilities located on the lunar surface -- vexed him. Yet despite such crises, mankind was on the very brink of some great awakening about himself, and about the nature not merely of the cosmos, but existence itself. 

This promising future, as presented in films like Moon Zero Two (1969), and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) and on television programming like UFO (1970) or Earth II (1972), had crisp, white, minimalist lines and bright lights. It featured talking computers, video-phones, and characters who faced the realm of outer space with a cool, even dispassionate temperament, at least at times.

The new film Space Station 76 (2014) from director Jake Plotnick imagines that this early-seventies vision of the future endured, and then actually came to pass. 

In other words, the seventies never ended.

Instead, we took these visions of the disco decade with us not just to the turn of the Millennium, but into the very “space age” future itself.

Accordingly, Space Station 76 features some intriguing anachronisms. In this future age, for example, gay men are still firmly in the closet. African-Americans don’t get assigned to the most “exclusive” space ships. Astronauts smoke cigarettes. Kids watch recorded entertainment on giant VCR recorders and VHS tapes.  And the latest fashion trends from Earth are displayed not on the Internet (which doesn’t exist…), but on imported-from-Earth GAF View-Master discs.

Yet despite an overt lack of the social and technological progress that we recognize and covet in 2014, men and women in this “future” live on space stations, see robot therapists, and travel the stars together.

So the future is fantastic and…retro.

Space Station 76’s premise is abundantly tricky and fun, and the film’s knowledgeable visuals make it an absolute must-see for fans of 1970s science fiction.  Several sets and ship designs will, certainly, ring a bell for genre fans.

The film also deals powerfully, at times, with its central metaphor that people are like asteroids. They fly together “in space” in close proximity but never touch, and never actually connect on a meaningful level. 

Instead, sometimes they merely collide, smashing into one another with catastrophic force.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s a feeling of widespread malaise among the characters in Space Station ‘76 and a spiritual emptiness too. Not coincidentally, those things are part and parcel of the 1970s aesthetic as well.

Conspicuous consumption arose (as did President Carter’s “crisis of confidence”) in the seventies when many people began to fill the empty places inside with the pursuit of material things, including wealth.  This shift towards material avarice -- which came to symbolize America in Reagan’s Era -- is embodied in Space Station 76 through the overt failure of several adult relationships, and the burning desire of space station residents to move to Starship 8, a destination which features, among other things, a shopping mall.

Unfortunately, and despite all its intelligence and promise, Space Station 76 struggles mightily to find a consistent tone. The film vacillates between grim, The Ice Storm (1997)-like revelations about human relationships and overt physical comedy, But it never finds the right mode for coherently blending the two. Some of the characters, including the vixen Misty, come off as barely-two dimensional cartoons, whereas others, like Liv Tyler’s Marlowe, seem more realistic.

This inconsistent approach to the material and characters means that those seeking a laugh-out loud comedy will be disappointed by the general seriousness of the enterprise, and those seeking a consistent, dedicated story about life in this “retro universe” will find the bows to conventional, crowd-pleasing humor distracting.

Space Station 76 is smart and knowledgeable in its discussion of the 1970s, science fiction visions of that time period, and human nature, so it’s a shame that, in the final analysis, the film doesn’t come together quite as well as it should have.

“Just relax and let the drugs work.”

A new warrant officer, Lt. Cmdr Jessica Marlowe (Liv Tyler), boards Space Station 76 following the departure of the well-liked Daniel, who left because of some secret scandal.

Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson) has told various crew members different stories about Daniel’s absence, including the lies that he was promoted, and that he suffered a family crisis. The truth is that Glenn and Daniel were lovers, but that Glenn has not yet accepted his homosexuality, even as he finds himself longing for Daniel’s companionship.

Meanwhile, the ship’s technician, Ted (Matt Bomer) is trapped in an unhappy marriage with Misty (Marisa Coughlan), who is having an affair with another crewman, Steve (Jerry O’Donnell). 

Medicated by the station’s therapist, a robot called Dr. Bot, Misty is also the insecure mother of a young child: Sunshine (Kylie Rogers).

As Marlowe settles in, she and Ted start growing attracted to one another, and Marlow befriends Sunshine, to Misty’s chagrin.

Meanwhile, Captain Glenn is unhappy working with Marlowe because of his feelings about Daniel, and Steve’s wife, Donna (Kali Rocha) is looking to move to luxurious and exclusive Starship 8.

As the holiday season nears, interpersonal stresses on Space Station 76 increase, and a deadly asteroid approaches on a collision course…

“Your whole vibe is stressing me.”

In terms of its visuals, Space Station 76 takes knowing and loving inspiration from the science fiction cinema and television programming of the 1970s. 

The shuttle pod which first carries Marlowe to the station, for instance, looks very much like the Seeker from the Filmation live-action Saturday morning series Space Academy (1977).

Additionally, Marlowe spends much time in the film inside a hydroponics dome, the interior and exterior of which both resemble a similar garden dome on the Valley Forge, from Douglas Trumball’s Silent Running (1972). Domes of this very design later appeared on other productions of the 1970s including Battlestar Galactica (1978) and The Starlost (1973).

Space Station 76 also uses a device similar to an actual 1976 film in one scene. Captain Glenn talks to Daniel on a multi-colored hologram communicator, one that reflects the imagery of Logan's Run (1976) and its hologram.

More intriguingly, perhaps, the interiors for Space Station 76 -- with their white lights and white walls – closely resemble the corridors of Moonbase Alpha in Space: 1999.  

One panel seen in the film -- of three horizontal lighting ellipses -- actually looks like it was transplanted directly from that Anderson-ian facility.

Impressively, Space Station 76’s thematic approach is in fact visualized through this Moonbase Alpha corridor style. Early in the film, we see young Sunshine, replete with a purple crayon, coloring on the immaculate white walls. She scrawls the word “home” on the ivory panels as well.

The moment is not merely a call-back to Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), but a visual representation of the film’s leitmotif. The purple scribbling on the white wall represents the idea of messy humanity imposing his chaotic nature on an artificial world of immaculate perfection and balance. The characters in Space Station 76 are deeply flawed, even tragic in nature, and they are out of place, and out-of-balance, with their perfectly calibrated environs.

Space Station 76’s robot therapist, Dr. Bot, is also a product of nostalgia for an earlier age of “futurist” imaginings. The robot shrink is actually Tomy’s Verbot, a toy from the early 1980s. The toy was advertised as being a real robot with “a dazzling personality” who would “blink and smile at your request.”

Dr. Bot in the film is not much more advanced than this description suggests, and he offers only off-the-shelf wisdom and platitudes.  In a way, the robot psychologist’s nature as a proverb-quoting automaton may be an oblique reference to the robots in Disney’s The Black Hole (1979), who quoted Cicero and other philosophers. So again, a call back to the disco decade’s space operas.

All these visual touches make one aware that Space Station 76 has been created with a humorous eye towards our historic (and therefore deeply flawed…) visions of the future. When the film adheres to this concept, and crafts jokes based on the fallacies of those historic visions, it is indeed rather funny.  

There’s a scene here in which Keir Dullea from 2001: A Space Odyssey video-phones Marlowe, his daughter, and they share a conversation.  But all the emotional heart of the moment is sacrificed -- thus reinforcing the theme that people talk, but don’t connect -- because Dullea’s character can’t find the right place to sit on camera for the video phone to operate correctly. He ends up half off-screen, a funny moment which makes one grasp, instantly, the impracticality of such a device.

Other moments, such as Glenn’s periodic suicide attempts -- which are prevented by the station’s computer -- don’t work very well at all, and seem downright cartoony compared to the film’s relatively straight-faced exploration of relationship woes. I get the idea, of course.  The late 1960s and early 1970s gave us talking computers that controlled space flight, telemetry, life-support and so forth.  Think about HAL in 2001 or Alpha’s Main Computer on 1999 noting, in a moment of catastrophe that “Human Decision” is “Required.” 

Here, Glenn makes the choice to kill himself, but computer protocols keep overriding his very human decision.

In terms of its overall story, Space Station 76’s inspiration seems to be The Ice Storm (1997), a film based on the 1994 book by Rick Moody.

The novel and the film both concerned an American middle-class family in the 1970s, post-Watergate, and during a time of sexual experimentation. Everything was being questioned in that span, from marriage, to patriotism (because of Vietnam), to the competence of the U.S. Government.  Even marriage -- or perhaps, more accurately -- monogamy, was on the table.  

Space Station 76 deals with similar concerns.  Here families are coming apart at the seams, and there is one galvanizing outside event that serves as a manifestation of their disquiet, not a winter ice storm, but an approaching asteroid on collision course.

Although slapstick humor is always fun, Space Station 76 would have been a stronger film, perhaps had it not strayed so far from the tone of The Ice Storm, which is more cynical and darkly caustic than outright silly. The sillier moments in this retro space film seem out of left field, while the more serious ones, for the most part, are genuinely affecting. Played straight (at least on the surface), the film would have felt more powerful, and less scatter-shot.

There’s so much going on in Space Station 76, and I don’t mean to give the impression that the film is a failure.  I admire it quite a bit both for its canny knowledge of the films and TV shows I love, and for the manner in which its visual form -- asteroids and malfunctioning video chats -- represent interpersonal alienation. 

But the over-the-top jokes tend pull the whole affair back down to Earth.

1 comment:

  1. John your review makes this film a must see for the nostalgic production designs alone.