Many Hollywood studio productions are so invested in the idea of economy of scale when it comes to tamping down what they view as a default setting of audience boredom—the belief that bigger and brawnier visual dressing de facto equals greater entertainment—that to bear witness to a film that rejects that notion, even out of budget necessity as much as anything else, can be bracing and for a long stretch entertaining in and of itself, even if its narrative isn’t quite fully clicking. Such is the case with Space Station 76—a low-fi sci-fi comedy that unfolds in a non-specific, future-set time period where everything mysteriously echoes a decidedly more uptight time gone by.
When career-oriented Lieutenant Jessica Marlow (Liv Tyler) transfers aboard the Omega 76 space station from another ship, she befriends Sunshine (Kylie Rogers), the seven-year-old daughter of Ted (Matt Bomer) and Misty (Marisa Coughlan), but has trouble connecting with most of the other adults, including busybody Donna (Kali Rocha) and her husband Steve (Jerry O’Connell). Jessica’s straight-down-the-middle professionalism also befuddles the casually condescending, mutton-chopped Captain Glenn Terry (Patrick Wilson), whose clipped patois indicates a comic self-involvement, yes, but also a toxic secret. Eventually, all the dormant personality conflicts come to a boil.
Below-the-line, Space Station 76 is a miniature marvel of to-scale efficiency; what it gets right in terms of spare but smart production design, costuming and Robert Brinkmann’s cinematography goes a long way toward creating a believable and pleasing environment one wants to sink into. Additionally, Steffan and Mark Fantini’s slightly woozy and seductive score nicely complements Plotnick’s superlative use of a couple period piece music selections. (There’s a fantastic montage of emotional dislocation set to Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel.”)
Unfortunately, the movie lacks a substantive dramatic pull until a late case of contagious heated-argument-syndrome blooms. Narratively, the movie is all about simmering domestic resentments and queen-bee digs by Donna and Misty, who chirp and chip away at both Jessica’s (lack of) maternity and her occupational ambition as it relates to her femininity. There’s strong insight into the manner in which women often tear each other down in little ways here, and if Space Station 76 doubled down on these instincts and scenes instead of wasting time on a little flirtation between Jessica and Ted, the movie could have worked as a fairly compelling character study. (There’s also a valium-prescribing droid therapist, Dr. Bot, that is utilized to relatively amusing effect, the gag revelation being that he takes cues for all of his positive-minded advice simply from the subjects’ word choice.)
But some of the story elements introduced (Captain Terry’s recklessness with respect to an impending asteroid shower and Misty’s shrill and increasingly antagonistic behavior) feel like awkward add-ons to what is essentially a space-set reworking of Douglas Sirk-ian melodrama. And it doesn’t help, either, that the era the movie evokes isn’t honed to a sharp point. (Some of its repression feels decidedly more of the 1950s, actually.) At its core, Space Station 76 feels caught between two worlds. There’s a lot to admire around the edges (and it would work serviceably for indie enthusiasts as a nice little double-feature companion piece to Roman Coppola’s CQ, or perhaps an opening aperitif for Duncan Jones’ minimalist-minded Moon), but Plotnick’s film isn’t quite an out-of-this-world experience based on its own merits.
Director: Jack Plotnick
Starring: Liv Tyler, Matt Bomer, Patrick Wilson, Marisa Coughlan, Kali Rocha, Kylie Rogers, Jerry O’Connell
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Release Date: September 26 (Los Angeles), October 3 (New York)
Entertainment journalist Brent Simon is a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.