Skip to main content

Talking about the now can sometimes put one in the then.

Space Station 76
(2014)

A 1970s space soap opera, actor turned director Jack Plotnick’s debut feature Space Station 76 is a casually kitsch idiosyncratic curiosity. It’s possibly too high concept, the visual affectation suggesting a capacity for comedy and camp that is never really made good. But Space Station 76 (1976, obviously) is undeniably well observed, balancing out the retro-indulgence with surprisingly strong characterisation and performances.


The picture has little in the way of narrative trajectory, hence the concentration on soapy elements; characters work through their issues in a very ‘70s fashion, which naturally includes period-appropriate drink, drugs, sex and psychoanalysis. The crew include the unhappy, closeted, chain-smoking Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson, offering a more subdued but tache-laden approximation of Ron Burgundy). 


New co-pilot Jessica (Liv Tyler) struggles with inherent sexism in the work place and her conflicted feelings on not being able to have children. She forms a maternal friendship with Sunshine (Kylie Rogers) a seven-year old who doesn’t have much luck with pets and has no friends her own age. Her adversarial parents are robot-handed mechanic Ted (Matt Bomer) and self-involved, manipulative Misty (Marisa Coughlan). Misty is seeing Steve (Jerry O’Connell) on the side, and Ted and Jessica become attracted to each other. And, of course, tensions escalate. In a fairly lackadaisical manner. You get the idea.


Embedded in this space suburbia are recognisable ‘70s artefacts and mores. Ted is growing weed in the geodesic garden (very Silent Running, well not the weed bit although you know Bruce Dern would have been), Missy is addicted to prescription medicines (with which her robot shrink plies her), the Captain attempts to hide his drinking (when he gets pissed he powers the engines up and down continuously, a substitute automobile) and sexuality and takes out his tensions on those around him. There are ‘70s futurism ideas like food machines, and then-modern toys like videotapes and viewfinders. Burnt orange is a common colour for walls, and turtleneck sweaters are in.


Because the picture is unwilling to be pigeonholed, it’s easy to assume it is misrepresenting itself. The space age material is limited to Kubrick nods (the sets, Keir Dullea cameoing - and bearing a passing resemblance to Emperor Palpatine) and a reflection of the essential mundanity of space that evokes Dark Star by way of sets and lighting that consciously evoke ‘70s TV science fiction; there’s no proper science fiction here, and comments about never having been to Earth and the Quasar Revolution are more nods to those trappings than suggestive of any interest in them.


Occasionally it looks as if Plotnick intends to veer off into Airplane! territory; the dramatic music during an opening sequence, where it appears as if the captain is about to open fire, merely leads to him sparking the equivalent of a car cigarette lighter. The captain’s attempts at suicide or consistently foiled by the ship computer, be it electrocution or poisoning. 


Therapy sessions with Sleeper-esque Dr Bot, a programmed psychotherapy robot, are consistently very funny and invariably lead to the suggestion, “Perhaps you would you like to try valium?” His response to Missy’s declaration of feelings for her therapist is “Emotional overload!”. But this isn’t really a spoof, and the performances aren’t self-mocking, they’re treading a line between Frank Drebin deadpan and earnest portrayal. 


Space Station 76 is reasonably engaging once one slips into its groove, but it’s very slight. The science fiction conceit is just that, obstinately refusing to indulge its potential aside from the occasional comedy (Dr Bot) or emotional beat (Sunshine’s favourite game is playing zero gravity). It’s a decision that is likely to elicit Marmite responses of “Oh, that’s clever; I see what they did there” (it isn’t especially, but it is attention seeking) or discontent that the makers have done some misleading. I’m somewhere between the two, however. This isn’t really much of comedy or, drugs references aside, much of an oddball stoner movie either. And yet, while there are interludes of borderline boredom, the characters themselves gradually creep up on you, aided by an ensemble of strong performances.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

What I have tried to show you is the inevitability of history. What must be, must be.

The Avengers 2.24: A Sense of History
Another gem, A Sense of History features one of the series’ very best villains in Patrick Mower’s belligerent, sneering student Duboys. Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at St Bode’s College investigating murder most cloistered, and the author of a politically sensitive theoretical document, in Martin Woodhouse’s final, and best, teleplay for the show (other notables include Mr. Teddy Bear and The Wringer).

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

This here's a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles straight down.

The Abyss (1989)
(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.

I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point;certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and them…