Looking at the Dark and Absurd Sci-Fi Comedy of ‘Space Station 76’
The Jack Plotnick-directed Space Station 76 takes place in a 1970s vision of the future. You might ask what exactly that means, but it’s a fairly straightforward description: imagine the 1970s. Now imagine them in space. That’s what Space Station 76 looks like, with beautifully cold space station sets, throwback ’70s costuming, and robots resembling R2D2. The second most-discussed film at South by Southwest, it’s flown relatively under-the-radar since, but as it comes out on VOD, DVD, and digital download next week, this quietly funny movie is worth your attention.
It’s tempting to view Space Station 76 as a straight sci-fi parody, an homage to the likes of Space:1999. But in order to get at the movie’s core, look to the opening voiceover. As the camera moves through a shot of an asteroid belt, Lieutenant Jessica Marlow (Liv Tyler) ruminates that “asteroids can fly in groups for millions of years and never touch each other, never connect,” then compares this lack of connection or collision to humans who can’t achieve such perfect orbits because they change. It’s clear from the start: Space Station 76 is a sci-fi comedy, definitely, but it’s a dark one undergirded by some deeply sad themes, all of them leaning toward loneliness and disaffection.
The titular space station of SS76, Omega 76 has two meteors headed for it: one an actual space rock, the other, a metaphoric one: Jessica Marlow. Her arrival for a job as Lieutenant throws the ship’s delicate web of relationships off balance. First she forms a bond with Sunshine, the seven-year-old neglected daughter of Valium-addled Misty (Marisa Coughlan) and Ted (Matthew Bomer), the ship’s maintenance tech. Lonely and ignored, Sunshine roller skates through Omega 76’s empty halls looking for a playmate. This quickly throws Jessica into conflict with passive aggressive Misty, who only pays attention to her daughter when competing with other people, but it also brings Tyler’s character closer to Ted, unhappy in his marriage to Misty. And soon enough Jessica has rattled the alcoholic, deeply-closeted Captain Glenn Terry (Patrick Wilson, with an amazing ’70s ‘stache) by simply acknowledging she already knows how to work the ship’s controls.
The plot of Space Station 76 takes a backseat to the characters and their unraveling relationships. There’s no battles or space explosions here; no aliens or strange creatures. It’s space, but aside from the robots, Omega 76 still has the banality of earthen suburbia. The film is rife with ’70s issues and slang and lots of talk about “vibes.” And in the retro-future, the gender attitudes are plenty retrograde (and some still sadly similar to today’s). There’s Captain Glenn’s denial of his sexuality (and fear that discovery of it will ruin his career) and plenty of anxiety over Jessica’s “masculine” job. Glenn condescends to her, calling her “little lady.” Donna (Kali Rocha), the ship’s resident crafter, gossips to Misty she just hopes this new female captain wears a bra.
As cutely retro as Donna’s concerns may be, the characters’ isolation while surrounded by people feels incredibly familiar. Humanity is removed from all service positions on Omega 76. Medical exams are administered by machines, a psychotherapist robot (“Dr. Bot”) freely doles out valium and espouses self-help platitudes — “Live in the now.” “Every cloud has a silver lining.” — programmed to respond to key words, not much different than Siri. In the cafeteria, crew members sit alone. There’s an arboretum with real trees on top of the ship, but no one but Jessica seems to go there. Instead, they visit a projection room (think Star Trek Next Gen’s holodeck) with electronic trees.
As Tyler’s voiceover tells us, the focus of Space Station 76 is on relationships more than broad humor. There’s some broad jokes, of course — a catalog that’s read through a View Master, a mechanical hand that can’t control itself and painfully grabs Jessica’s boob — but the majority of Space Station’s laughs comes from a focus on characters and their poor behavior. It might sound like the movie’s all pathos, but the sadder moments are beautifully cut with absurdity. The Captain tries repeatedly to commit suicide, but each time technology prevents his death. Sunshine’s gerbil keeps killing its babies, which would be plenty disturbing, except it’s delivered through a montage that heightens in ridiculousness. Misty admits Dr. Bot is the only person she feels close to, and the robot’s program overloads to a point she has to turn it off. Scenes where Misty and Captain Glenn visit Dr. Bot shine, and both Wilson and Coughlin are cast stand outs for wearing their terribleness on their sleeves.
Drawing parallels to today’s technological world, the black comedy of Space Station 76 makes the case that it’s not electronic devices or living in space that makes it so hard for human beings to connect — it’s humans themselves.
Erica Lies is a writer and improviser in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, and Culture Map.