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SXSW Review – SPACE STATION 76 and PREDESTINATION

SPACE STATION 76
Produced by Niraj Bhatia, Frank Mele
Written by Jack Plotnick, Jennifer Cox, 
Sam Pancake, Kali Rocha, Michael Stoyanov
Directed by Jack Plotnick
Starring Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, Matt Bomer, 
Marisa Coughlan, Kylie Rogers, Kali Rocha, 
Jerry O’Connell, Keir Dullea

It’s described in the press notes as a character-driven, domestic dramedy, which takes place in a 1970’s version of the future, where personalities and asteroids collide.  It’s a good thing the filmmakers have this high-conceptual log-line ready.  If hard pressed, I sure wouldn’t be able to describe the movie.

Space Station 76 is based on a stage play by the same name (and starring a handful of the same cast members), and brought to the screen by director/co-writer Jack Plotnick (known for his current off-broadway hit Disaster! and an active character acting career).  As with any talky stage play-to-movie adaptation, there are challenges, and Plotnick does a decent job opening up the film’s settings.  Yet there’s only so far you can go when you’re limited to a one-place setting, even if it’s setting is outer space.

High 70s kitsch permeates every frame of the film, and great credit goes to the masterful production and costume design.  Visual effects are a combination of in camera and digital, always in the style of a Logan’s Run or Silent Running.  The soundtrack is perfectly curated to include soft rock found on many an AM station, or an 8-track tape, or in the outer space of many a 70s housewife’s valium enlightened mind (cue Todd Rundgren, I Saw the Light).

All of this goes a long way to help SS76, but it’s a lot of form over substance.  Whether you’ll appreciate it depends on your tolerance of family drama, particularly post-sexual revolution tension with your send up of a 70’s pop-culture future.  It’s a strange combination.  One that’s not necessarily a comedy, but not necessarily a drama.  It’s also not necessarily a satire, nor is it necessarily free of camp.  It’s The Ice Storm set in the decade’s idea of space travel and living conditions.

Jokes range from visual sight gags to dark jabs at the never-ending existence of machismo in science-fiction. The robot co-stars get most of the laughs, but a lot of it, again, is due to the brilliant production design.

The entire cast is well placed. Patrick Wilson gets to work in broader strokes, hamming it up as the conflicted Captain Glenn.  Liv Tyler is, as always, a beautiful strong leading lady. Supporting cast is great, with a particularly adorable Kylie Rogers (Mob City) as the token kid.  Watch for a loopy cameo from Keir Dullea that does a parody of the video phone sequence in 2001.

Overall, the film rarely hits warp speed, and often times it’s slow moving.  I didn’t necessarily get space-sick from this journey, but I did think the film could use some edits to move along the impending astroid collision plot device.

Like that lingering danger, it’s not a total disaster.

PREDESTINATION
Produced by Michael Burton, Gary Hamilton,
Matt Kennedy, James M. Vernon
Written by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Directed by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Starring Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor

On the other hand, for a true devotee of 70s science fiction, without a wink, there’s Predestination, which took everyone by surprise at its world premiere screening this SXSW. 

Directed by the identical Spierig brothers (Daybreakers) and reuniting with that film’s co-star Ethan Hawke, it’s a time-travel film much like Looper or Source Code.  The story comes from Robert A. Heinlein’s “—All You Zombies—,” and the filmmakers are fiercely dedicated to making him posthumously proud.

Hawke is a “Temporal Agent,” assigned by the government to pursue a mysterious, but deadly criminal known as the fizzle bomber.  He’s charted out the bomber’s attacks and set forth a plan of “corrections” so to speak.  The story unfolds, relatively, in the order of his travels, or so you think.  By the end of this one, you’ll be drawing up diagrams to explain it.

This is a time-travel adventure that fully acknowledges the best part of any of this type of tale—the paradox of meeting one’s self.

And the self in this movie is played by the phenomenal Sarah Snook (Sleeping Beauty).  To explain her role in the film is to give too much away about the plot, and I’ll save that from your eyes (and highly recommend you go into the film not knowing much about the storyline).  I will tell you that it’s a role of great physical and emotional transformation that you rarely see in a genre movie.  It’s everything Cloud Atlas wanted to be recognized for, but somehow feels more authentic in Predestination (or at least humbler due to the much lower budget).

Predestination works so well because it crafts an incredible story.  Storytelling, in fact, plays a key part of most of the film’s plot, and the methodology of these directors are as sharp the also Australian Wachowskis.  Visually, they seem to have done a lot with a little.  Their vehicle of time-travel is the most outrageous, or at least slickest, since Marty stepped into a DeLorean.  I’ll save that spoiler for the trailer folks.

Speaking on stage after the Austin premiere, Ethan Hawke explained he wanted to work with the Spierigs again, but his previous role in Daybreakers wasn’t “lead” enough.  They came back with the script for Predestination and being a fan of sci-fi himself, he signed on immediately.  Lucky for him, it’s a strong role (one of his strongest in years).  Lucky for us, it’s smart science fiction.

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