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.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

2009 #63
Kerry Conran | 102 mins | TV (HD) | PG / PG

Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowIf the Indiana Jones series was a bit more sci-fi (even than Crystal Skull, that is), it might be rather like this. First time writer-director Kerry Conran evokes ’40s cinema serials more thoroughly than Lucas or Spielberg ever dared with a globe-hopping tale of a mad scientist’s giant robots doing all sorts of damage in a quest for… well, that would spoil the ending.

In the telling, Sky Captain is every inch a Boy’s Own adventure, packing every facet of that genre of storytelling into its brisk running time. There’s secret bases, ray guns, giant robots, flying aircraft carriers, snow-bound Himalayan treks, creature-infested secret jungle islands, huge underground bases, space rockets, planes that are also submarines, tree bridges over impossibly deep gorges… If it’s part of the genre, it’s probably here, and all finally executed with ’00s-level special effects. In some respects it does move between set pieces and locations in an episodic fashion, but then that’s more a trait of the films it emulates — i.e. episodic serials — than a flaw in Conran’s plotting.

Still, some might view Sky Captain as little more than an exercise in filmmaking — it was one of the first movies to be shot entirely on blue-screen, around the same time as Sin City and a couple of others. There’s more to it than that, but it’s also hard to ignore the style this creates. The shooting process is far from perfect if one were trying to recreate real life, but here the whole look is so stylised that it hardly matters. The period setting is nicely evoked, combining myriad influences into an intricately realised retro-future style, coupled with a lovely sepia sheen over everything. It’s beautifully lit, while individual shots and editing are frequently reminiscent of a style from the ’40s (and earlier). Again, Conran is being deliberately evocative of films of the period, rather than a modern film set then; more La Antena than Star Wars.

Another much-discussed feat of technology is the resurrection of Sir Laurence Olivier as the film’s villain. Unfortunately, his brief appearance is underwhelming. Perhaps we’ve become too accustomed to modern technology resurrecting deceased actors for ‘new’ performances (not that it happens that often); but then again, what was done with Oliver Reed for Gladiator — four years before this — seemed more impressive than the small amount of hologram we see here, even though the digitally created shots were equally brief. It’s a shame, because using Olivier for this key role is quite neat, certainly better than casting a glorified extra. In fairness, then, it’s a part so small that very few appropriately-big names would agree to it, which perhaps permisses resurrecting Olivier after all

Among the real performances, the acting is a bit flat. Perhaps this is deliberately in-keeping with the emulated style, though Jude Law is always this bad so maybe not. Similar comments could be made of the screenplay, if one were being unkind. What it does manage is a good amount of humour — an essential part of the genre, as any Indiana Jones fan will tell you, but it’s by no means guaranteed in these over-serious times (thankfully, the likes of Star Trek and Transformers are occasionally breaking down this barrier to fun).

Breaking free of any self-imposed period constraints, Conran also produces a few exciting action sequences, such as a plane chase through the streets of New York. It’s incredibly hard to create spectacle these days, but Sky Captain occasionally manages it. There are also lots of fun little references to other things for the keen viewer to pick out. 1138 crops up, inevitably, but my favourite is some dialogue lifted from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.

Sky Captain is a healthy dose of retro-styled fun. Perhaps that makes it an acquired taste, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

4 out of 5

My review of the proof-of-concept short that inspired Sky Captain can be read here.