Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Space Storm: "Space Station 76" a groovy, low-key original

Space Station 76 (2014) 
93 min., rated R.

Expectations are going to doom "Space Station 76" for what it is rather than what it appears to be, or what it is not. It has the campy, spoofy trappings of being a joke of itself, but tonally, it has more in common with "The Ice Storm" and "Happiness" than "Spaceballs" and "Galaxy Quest." If a blackly comic Todd Solondz drama copulated with the '70s television series "Space: 1999," "Space Station 76" would be the bundle of joy. A space opera-cum-tragicomedy about marital distress, suburban ennui and unfulfilled dreams befit with its 1970s time period, the film is as dry and melancholy as it is sharply made and amusing. Working from a script he co-wrote with Jennifer Elise Cox, Sam Pancake, Kali Rocha and Michael Stoyanov, based on their stage play, veteran TV actor Jack Plotnick makes his directorial debut, assembling a groovy cast and playing by his own rules in sustaining a consistently low-key, seriocomic tone. Through the sadness, it's still a lot of fun.

Aboard Omega Space Station 76, the ship is led by the closeted and severely depressed Captain Glenn Terry (Patrick Wilson), who's a heavy drinker and smoker still reeling from a break-up with Daniel (Matthew Morrison), his co-pilot who has been promoted to a different ship. When the first female commander, Lt. Jessica Marlowe (Liv Tyler), hops aboard, she is far more advanced than the captain who resists her abilities to be more than his equal. There are also the passengers to contend with: inattentive, Valium-popping shipwife and mother Misty (Marisa Coughlan) and her robot-handed husband, Ted (Matt Bomer), and their latch-key daughter, Sunshine (Kylie Rogers). Misty is shagging horndog Steve (Jerry O'Connell), whose wine-downing wife Donna (Kali Rocha) has just had a baby, while Ted tackles his sexual repression with nudie magazines and fantasies. Meanwhile, Jessica starts warming up to both Sunshine and Ted, much to the resentment of Misty. Tension arises between everyone on Space Station 76.

Usually, a four-person script is a recipe for disaster with too many cooks in the kitchen, but there is only one vision in "Space Station 76." Co-writer/director Jack Plotnick's baby is exceedingly well-designed on such a tight budget, using the retro-kitschy decor of vintage polyester pants and the bow-chicka-wow-wow soundtrack for all they are worth. Seth Reed's impressive production design attains a sly sense of humor in the invention of this '70s space world. There are therapy sessions with a drug-prescribing robot ("I'm going to up your dosage of Valium to…as much as you like!"). The shipwives program the meals at the press of a button. A cryogenically frozen Yorkshire Terrier puppy comes in a box. All of these details are worthy of chuckles, but the approach of the story and characters is more adult, which is to the film's strength, and the humor reveals character subtleties. It's a gamble to actually take these characters and their emotions seriously, but dammit, it works.

Across the board, there isn't a false move made by the ensemble. With the worst/best mustache, Patrick Wilson is first just an unstable jackass but then peels back layers of heartache as Captain Glenn Terry, who's heartbroken and can never seem to follow through on a suicide attempt due to the ship's safety measures. Her wonderfully warm self, Liv Tyler is well-suited as the sweet, outwardly self-possessed Jessica, the new outsider aboard the ship who has never been to Earth and begins a friendship with little Sunshine since she can't conceive a child of her own. As the emotionally numb Misty, who puts on a chipper facade to hide her passive-aggressiveness and vindictive jealousy, Marisa Coughlan is perfectly acerbic, and Matt Bomer is also game to play it straight (in more ways than one) as Ted. Kylie Rogers, in her feature debut, is surprisingly touching without ever being cloying as Sunshine who's horrified to keep seeing her five baby gerbils bite the dust from its mother. A scene where she has Daddy let her play the "Anti-Gravity Game" is a joyous one. Used just enough, Kali Rocha is a hoot as Donna, an equally inattentive mother and wife who, on their move to a more well-off ship, prioritizes a few small boxes over taking her hibernated mother-in-law. Also, as a nice touch, the Trivial Pursuit answer of who played Dr. Dave Bowman in "2001: A Space Odyssey" makes a brief appearance as Jessica's widowed father.

Like this summer's "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Space Station 76" also has great taste in '70s music while in space, including Ambrosia's "How Much I Feel," Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw the Light," and The Weather Girls' "Laughter in the Rain." Sincere without mocking, this is a passion project made by people with an affection for character dramas and sci-fi pictures alike. Instead of aliens, the characters populating this spacecraft encounter extramarital affairs, suicide attempts, and jealousy — and who knew asteroids could be compared to discontent and "dreams of a future that never happen"? An amalgamation of two genres that make a perfect fit into something we haven't quite seen before, "Space Station 76" might not play to everyone's sensibilities, but it would be hard to see why not.

Grade: B +

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