Space Station 76 (2014)
Written by Jack Plotnick, Jennifer Elise Cox, Sam Pancake, Kali Rocha, and Mike Stoyanov
Directed by Jack Plotnick
Space Station 76 is as much about its aesthetic as it is any plot or character arcs. Now, that can be an incredibly frustrating thing if you aren’t into the aesthetic. I completely understand if someone was turned off by this film because they just don’t care for the look and tone. I thought many parts of the movie were a little too self-indulgent and leaned into some weak improv. Overall, I think it is an interesting little oddity, clearly made by people who have a vision of what they wanted to do, and they did it.
The film takes place on Omega 76, a retro-futuristic space station that is stuck in the mid-1970s. Jessica (Liv Tyler) has just arrived at the station as its new co-pilot to serve alongside Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson). Jessica quickly learns how dysfunctional everyone on the station is the more she gets to know them. Ted (Matt Bomer), a crewman who works in the ship’s guts, is stuck in a loveless marriage while his wife, Misty, lives out her days on Valium while having an affair with Steve (Jerry O’Connell). Ted and Misty’s daughter, Sunshine, is about as neglected as you could get, wandering around Omega 76 during the day with not much to do. Even Captain Glenn harbors a failed relationship with his former co-pilot Daniel (Matthew Morrison) and seemingly unable to admit he’s gay.
Jack Plotnick, a familiar character actor, especially if you ever watched the Ellen sitcom, has said the film was a way of exploring his own upbringing as a kid in the 1970s with a veneer of science fiction over everything. He posits that a remote space station is a pretty close facsimile to the feel of living in the suburbs. I also have to note that the year 1976 is implied by the title, and in terms of film history, that is significant because it was the last year before Star Wars hit movie theaters and forever reshaped how science fiction and the future were portrayed on screen. Star Wars built on the groundwork laid in pictures like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it removed the feeling of loneliness that space evoked at one point.
Space Station does an excellent job of highlighting the dream of a utopian future and how it will be impossible to achieve if people remain hung up on the same neuroses that have plagued humanity for generations. Ted and Misty have a child, and both don’t seem intensely interested in being parents, only giving Sunshine time when they feel obligated to, or they believe it will provide them with something. Sunshine explodes in shrieks when she discovers her gerbil has eaten the head of a newborn gerbil baby. Misty responds with coldness, asking if Sunshine touched the babies and then casually dismissing this as just a thing that happens while her daughter sobs on the bed.
I think the best performance in the film comes from Patrick Wilson as Captain Glenn. I have enjoyed Wilson’s subtle shift in his career in the last decade. Where he once looked to be positioned as a leading male actor, he’s sort of settled into some great supporting actor positions and is choosing interesting roles. He plays Glenn as a mustached and gruff man, stuck in his own prison of 1970s masculinity. This leads to heavy drinking and withdrawal from social interactions with the people under him and the station’s families. Part of the humor here is that you have closeted gay men with hangups about coming out even deep into the future.
It’s evident Plotnick is using science fiction tropes to look at the psychological issues he saw in adults around him growing up, and sadly we can still see in so many in America today. The story is told in a series of vignettes that sort of lead up to the climax. It’s a pretty loose collection of moments with specific threads continuing for characters. As I said before, this will likely never appeal to a broad audience, and I think Plotnick and company would be totally fine with that. For people that enjoy dark, awkward social comedies that make you cringe, Space Station 76 has a plethora to offer.