Space Station 76 (2014)

2015 #103
Jack Plotnick | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Space Station 76Liv Tyler is the new first officer on a space station commanded by Patrick Wilson in this retro-future-styled film, which is both a spoof of/riff on ’70s genre movies, and a character drama about people’s relationships. No, really.

The most obvious aspect, especially as it’s played up in the joke-focused trailer, is the former. The film’s visual aesthetic is a loving recreation of classic SF, from the set design to the gorgeous model-like CGI exteriors. I don’t think anything in particular was being referenced — at least, not obviously so — but it’s all reminiscent of the likes of the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Space: 1999, and so on. It’s been created with such care that it borders on the beautiful.

The film itself is not really a genre spoof, though. It’s not taking the mick out of the storylines or acting style or what-have-you of productions of that era, but has adopted the era — the character types, their social interrelations, the familiar design style — to do its own thing. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t find humour in that adopted era: one of the most memorable moments involves a videophone (though, of course, that’s now riffing on something many of us are familiar with from the likes of Skype), and there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud-hilarious bits from the awesome Dr Bot, the station’s robot psychiatrist, perfectly voiced by Michael Stoyanov (also one of the screenwriters). For me, Dr Bot pretty much justified the film’s existence.

It’s not just a silliness-based comedy, though. It’s masquerading as that, with the aesthetic choices and the joke-focused trailer, but I think what it really wants to be is a character drama about people not connecting, almost in the vein of something like Magnolia. While the characters’ relations play out through the prism of ’70s values, and are occasionally Everybody loves Dr Botused to feed into the humour, that’s simply what makes it, a) a period movie (just a period movie set in the future), and b) a comedy-drama (as opposed to a drama). I think this is the real reason for its lowly regard on sites like IMDb: those expecting Anchorman in Space are going to be disappointed; but you can’t blame anyone for such expectations when that’s more-or-less how it’s trailed.

Critics are kinder: 67% on Rotten Tomatoes sounds low, but it’s not all that bad (it’s enough to be “certified fresh”, certainly); and I tend to agree with Matt Zoller Seitz when he says that “the movie is ten times lovelier than it needed to be… The art direction, costumes, effects, lighting and camerawork are committed to beauty for beauty’s sake, to the point where you might respond to Space Station 76 not as a sendup of its sources but as a lucid cinematic dream about them.” Seitz concludes, almost poetically, that he has “no idea who the audience for this film is, beyond the people who made it, and that’s what makes it special.”

Mashing up two such disparate styles of moviemaking means Space Station 76 won’t — indeed, doesn’t — work for a lot of people. Anyone after out-and-out comedy will only find a smattering of such scenes; anyone after a thoughtful comedy-drama with emphasis on the drama will not be looking here in the first place, and even if they did, may despair at some of the more (shall we say) juvenile comedic beats. Regular readers will know I have a fondness for awkward mash-ups, though, so I rather loved it. Special special effectsThe characters and their relations are well enough drawn to make it passably engrossing, even if not a stand-out contribution to any such genre, while the comedy pays off handsomely at times.

If you feel you can get on board with such a style mishmash, then I’d say Space Station 76 is cautiously recommended.

4 out of 5

Space Station 76 is available on Netflix UK from today.

Stand By Me (1986)

2009 #29
Rob Reiner | 89 mins | download | 15 / R

Stand By MeStand By Me is a film an awful lot of people love an awful lot, which it always seemed to me was down to first seeing it at the right age (more or less the age of the main characters, I think) and possibly to being part of a certain generation — would it have the same effect for kids today, when the relative innocence and freedom of the ’50s is arguably lost? As I say, “seemed”, because now I’m not sure either of these factors really matter.

Irrespective of age, generation, or being able to remember the kinds of experiences suggested by the film, Stand By Me is still an effective and affecting little film. The level of enjoyment for some may depend on how much they can stomach child actors, though as kids go they’re mostly very good. River Phoenix in particular is brilliant, highly natural while bringing a lot of depth to perhaps the most important role. Wil Wheaton also makes a good account of himself, just one year before attracting derision as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Phoenix, of course, went on to have a tragically short-lived career.) Kiefer Sutherland is as effective a villain as he ever would be, though that aspect of the plot is almost an aside.

An aside, because the film isn’t about the fights between the young heroes and a group of older bullies. Rather, it’s a paean for childhood, with the adult perspective and the ‘lost age’ setting of the ’50s succinctly highlighting the nostalgic spirit. To be precise, it’s not so much reflecting on “childhood” as on “growing up” — the choices that are open when young that either disappear with time or, for whatever reason, become closed off. The whole film is arguably about choice: choice of friends, choice of social class, Ace’s constant listing of choices (the subtext breaking into the text, as many a film teacher would point out), even the obvious choice whether to follow the tracks or take shortcuts (surely symbolic). Thematically, it’s the choice to be put down or stand up for yourself; the choice to stick around and wind up a nobody or work hard and get out, also underlined in the present-day bookends.

Perhaps being the right age is helpful to a love for Stand By Me, but at any stage in life it’s easy to relate to its depiction of the experiences and choices of childhood, be they now lost, taken, or never even had.

4 out of 5

Stand By Me is on Channel 5 today, Sunday 12th October 2014, at 2pm.