At first, it seems like the one-joke premise of Space Station 76 will get old quickly: It’s a sci-fi comedy set on a space station in 1976 — or, rather, a space station as might have been envisioned by filmmakers in 1976. So the characters all wear loud ’70s fashions, smoke and drink incessantly, hold outdated views about gender and sexuality, and work with technology that ceased being futuristic by the ’80s (VCRs, clunky robots that spout prerecorded responses, cryogenics). Adapting his own stage play, director and co-writer Jack Plotnick effectively makes fun of plenty of sci-fi conventions, from the computer voice that narrates everything happening on the ship (“Door closing;” “Door opening”), to the superfluous crew member whose “job” is programming the food processor (which has buttons with pre-printed pictures of food on them). But after about 20 minutes, the joke starts wearing thin, and you might wonder what’s left for the 90-minute movie to accomplish.
The answer, surprisingly, is quite a bit. Plotnick, an actor and acting coach making his directorial debut, worked his connections to assemble a strong cast that includes Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, Matt Bomer, and Marisa Coughlan, and they manage to imbue their characters with far more than just jokey personalities. Plotnick knows his ’70s sci-fi, but the movie is equally interested in the decade’s suburban ennui, with characters who deal with repressed emotions, drug habits, and self-help fads. Space Station 76 turns out to be quite poignant in its examination of loneliness and dissatisfaction, like a cross between the original Battlestar Galactica and The Ice Storm.
Tyler plays the movie’s main character, a capable officer assigned to be the station’s new second-in-command, under Wilson’s Capt. Glenn. Tyler’s Jessica Marlowe is a woman in a man’s world, subject to the kind of condescension and sexual harassment you’d expect from the average ’70s workplace, and it takes a toll on her emotionally. Tyler plays the role straight, like she’s the protagonist in Plotnick’s vision of a retro soap opera, and Bomer, as ship mechanic Ted, does the same, giving their inevitable romantic attraction an authentic feel.
Wilson, so often the personification of blandness, shows some welcome comic chops as Glenn, who’s basically Ron Burgundy as a spaceship captain, with added repressed homosexuality. But even he gets some moments of honest emotion, as he drinks away his pain and pines for his former lover (Glee’s Matthew Morrison in a brief cameo), who left the station after their relationship went sour. Coughlan gets the main cast’s most comedic role, as Ted’s manipulative, drug-addicted wife Misty, and she also gets some of the funniest lines in her sessions with robo-therapist Dr. Bot, which looks like a toy a kid would have gotten for Christmas in 1976 and promptly grown bored of.
With set design and costumes that impeccably replicate the look of vintage sci-fi, as well as CGI effects that look like old-fashioned miniatures, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of its small budget, although it seems to have run low when it came to casting extras (the station is strangely underpopulated, which might also be a product of the movie’s stage origins). Eventually, the conceit does get a little tired, and the character arcs wrap up in relatively uninspired ways. But for the most part, Space Station 76 succeeds by thoroughly buying into its own premise, faithfully depicting the absurd lives of ’70s suburbanites living on a useless space station.