The retro-kitsch appeal inherent to “Space Station 76” is palpable from its star-gazing opening credits, rendered as they are in Gill Sans font (think “2001: A Space Odyssey”) with state-of-the-art CGI effects modeled on the miniature work of yesteryear. What follows is a sci-fi soap opera seemingly borne from the 1970s and only now seeing a release, and for a good while, that novelty alone seems strong enough to carry the film.
The titular spacecraft is helmed by Glenn (Patrick Wilson), a brash captain who’d rather be left alone by his new second-in-command, Jessica (Liv Tyler), and the station’s populace in general. Among the ship’s residents are overworked mechanic Ted (Matt Bomer), his wife Misty (Marisa Coughlan) and their daughter Sunshine (Kylie Rogers), along with Steve (Jerry O’Connell)—with whom Misty is having an affair—wife Donna (Kali Rocha) and their newborn child. We see few of the station’s 27 total occupants, and even among the main characters, there is little given sense of purpose beyond pining for one another while the oft-neglected Sunshine tries to keep herself occupied.
The fact that “Space Station 76” is based on a stage play co-written by actor-turned-director Jack Plotnick suggests that maybe the conceptual hook and episodic structure played better before a live audience on a chintzy set. There’s no denying the lovingly recreated production and costume design, all curved corners and wide lapels, and the era’s sexual politics and self-help movement are slyly incorporated as well. (At the suggestion that Jessica could become the fleet’s first female captain, one passenger hopes that she bothers wearing a bra on the bridge.) However, the droll humor on hand is more hit-or-miss. Save for the odd bit of slapstick, the coy flirtations between Jessica and Ted are played fairly straight (with each actor the other’s handsomely bland equivalent), while the dominant gag between Steve and Donna is that her outdated idea of parenting involves casually drinking and smoking in the presence of an infant.
Like clockwork, though, scenes involving Glenn and/or Misty arrive to liven things up. As a sexually repressed blowhard whose every suicide attempt is thwarted by the station’s safety protocols, the boorish, mustachioed Wilson is hilarious in ways that his prior performances had only barely suggested. Then there’s Coughlan, with the looks of Malin Akerman and the timing of Anna Faris, milking a pill-popping, passive-aggressive trophy wife role for all it’s worth. Out of the entire crew, these two show the least sympathy for the lonely kid on board, and each gets a chance to open up to Dr. Bot, a pre-programmed therapist that spouts hoary maxims to chuckle-worthy effect.
Whenever these bits unfurl, it’s not hard to imagine “Space Station 76” sharing the same off-kilter appeal of a cult TV show from either the BBC or Adult Swim. What a pity, then, that the laughs don’t come more consistently. The galaxy has enough dead air as it is. [C+]