J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Space Station 76: When the Future was Groovy

In the 1970s, Skylab represented the future. Today, the International Space Station is an anachronism of the New World Order. Yet, even in the analog future as envisioned in the “Me Decade,” Omega 76 was a sleepy backwater assignment. They still ought to take asteroids more seriously in Jack Plotnick’s nostalgic Space Station 76 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Omega 76 is a deep space refueling station, where the crew marks time until they are promoted to more prestigious postings. However, the previous first mate (if you will) was promoted suspiciously quickly. Whenever the obviously closeted Captain Glenn is asked about it, he always gives a slightly different answer. Not surprisingly, he is less than gracious welcoming his new first officer, Jessica Marlowe, who also happens to be a woman.

There is not much to do on Omega 76, so Marlowe is happy to spend time with Sunshine, the brainy young daughter of Misty, the pill-popping peak of the station’s social pyramid. Marlowe also ambiguously befriends Misty’s cuckolded technician husband, but both are too honorable to act on their mutual attraction. When not angsting over the state of her life, Marlowe tries to get Capt. Glenn to pay attention to the asteroid projections generated by her predecessor, but he wants nothing to do with anything associated with his former whatever.

There is no question SS76 was handcrafted by true fans of vintage seventies-era science fiction. Seth Reed’s design team and costumers Sandra Burns and Sarah Brown have created some pitch perfect frocks, sets, and models. The vibe is spot-on, but somehow Plotnick and his quartet of co-writers forgot to include most of the jokes. Essentially, the film’s sequences are like most SNL skits from the last fifteen years. It is all set-up that just peters out without a punchline. At times, SS76 seems fatally determined to channel the spirit of 1970s relationship movies, like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, but they have already been better satirized by the criminally under-appreciated Serial.

Weirdly, SS76 represents the reunion of The Ledge co-stars Liv Tyler and Patrick Wilson nobody ever asked for. Needless to say, this is a vastly superior film than that misogynistic polemic disguised as an unthrilling thriller. Tyler is still rather stiff and distant as Marlowe (to put it generously), but Wilson’s Glenn is strangely compelling and ultimately sympathetic, if we adjust for 1970s cultural inflation. Marisa Coughlan and Kali Rocha also seem to enjoy vamping it up as Misty and her self-absorbed best friend Donna, which helps. Also look for none other than Keir Dullea, giving the film extra genre cred in a video-phone cameo.

SS76 is such a great concept, so aptly rendered by Plotnick’s technical collaborators, it is a shame there isn’t more humor or narrative muscle to go with it. Instead, he is content to stage one awkward conversation after another amid the terrific station backdrops. There are chuckles here and there (and the Todd Rundgren soundtrack is a blast), but viewers are really left to wonder what might have been. For diehard fans of Space: 1999 and the like, Space Station 76 opens this Friday (9/19) in New York at the Quad Cinema, with digital and DVD releases scheduled to follow shortly after.

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