Like the unexpected and slightly clumsy offspring of some strange tryst between Gene Roddenberry and Pedro Almodóvar, director (and co-writer) Jack Plotnick’s “Space Station 76” is a period-perfect pastiche of Carter-era pop culture futurism. Extensive 21st-century CGI is used to recreate the retro-style graphics of the past’s miniature, models and matte shots, but the goings on inside the title spacecraft combine the space opera and soap opera of an earlier era. The film’s look and feel are far more purposeful and propulsive than the story and script, but even so, “Space Station 76” has more than a few laughs inside its brazen bizarreness.
Liv Tyler is Jessica, newly assigned to be the second-in-command aboard Space Station 76; the captain, Glenn (Patrick Wilson), is a ramrod-stiff martinet who’d really prefer to be left alone. One of Jessica’s first moments on the ship sees her meeting Sunshine (Kylie Rodgers), the daughter of engineer Ted (Matt Bomer) and his pill-popping, medicated, mean-spirited wife Misty (Marisa Coughlan).
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As a newcomer and the neglected, Jessica and Sunshine form a bond, and that’s just the beginning of a number of complicated, intertwined relationships occurring somewhere in the middle of the galaxy.
“Space Station 76” earns high marks for being able to perfectly recreate the props and sets of the era it mocks, with credit due to Seth Reed’s production design and the costume designs of Sarah Brown and Sandra Burns. But the chuckle-factor inherent in the comedy — with VHS tapes and Viewmaster discs used aboard an orbiting high-tech space base — will be based on your affection for and knowledge of pop-culture touchstones ranging from the legendary to the long-lost, including “Star Trek,” “Space 1999,” “Silent Running” and “Dark Star,” among others. (Specific nods to “2001: A Space Odyssey” appear in both the credits and a clever cameo.)
All the performers are game, especially Bomer, as a melancholy engineer with a prosthetic hand that looks like a Nintendo Power Glove, and Wilson as the sad, closeted captain pining for the ship’s previous second-in-command, a man he loved, even as he stumbles his way through a series of farcical suicide attempts and constantly alienates the crew.
Tyler is fine, but she’s more reactive than active; Coughlan’s vacuous, vicious unhappy housewife in outer space is a little too cliché to be more than intermittently funny.
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Plotnick and the many-hands script (itself adapted from a stage play, where the occasional splash of camp and chintz might have worked better in a more intimate setting) can’t quite generate momentum; even with a running time of 97 minutes, “Space Station 76” often feels saggy and slow, dawdling between scenes.
And yet there’s also no denying that Plotnick has done a lot with a little, taking a shoestring budget to the stars, not merely with the effects alone but also with the care and insight that went into how those effects were shot and used.
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Sunshine (who slightly resembles Carrie Henn’s iconic Newt in “Aliens,” if Newt’s biggest concern were self-centered neglectful parents and not being eaten up by monsters) doesn’t have many pleasures in her lonely space-home, but she can turn off the gravity and float, laughing, delighted by strange wonder and charm in a scene that not only shows her joy but also conveys it to the audience.
Plotnick is hardly a household name, but discerning cinema-goers will recognize him from projects as strange and scattered as “Wrong,” “Girls Will Be Girls” and “Down With Love.” As his directorial debut, “Space Station 76” demonstrates a capacity to stretch every penny, from the curving white walls of the station to the men’s wide, majestic collared shirts, but it also demonstrates the kind of talent, judgment and determination that no amount of money can buy a filmmaker who doesn’t have them.
“Space Station 76” may be in a narrow niche, pop-culturally, but if there’s any justice, Plotnick will use it as a combination calling card and wedge for a future follow-up that gives him, his cast and the audience just a little bit more to go with than perfectly designed but imperfectly written space-comedy.