Of all the strange pairings that have gone head to head for the best picture Oscar Annie Hall and Star Wars might be the strangest. The idea that a smart-ass romance about a neurotic guy in New York and a space adventure about plucky rebels would both compete for the same award is slightly insane. But then again, it does make some kind of sense, because both expressed the 70’s zeitgeist in their own way. If you look back at 70’s cinema, it’s a weird mishmash of low stakes character dramas and flashy exploitation films. It’s the decade when an offbeat character like Karen Black could become a star for her work in an understated film like Five Easy Pieces, but it was also the decade of blaxploitation.
Space Station 76 is a modern movie that tries to unite those two retrograde flavors. As you might guess from the title, the film is set on a space station, but there are very few space station problems to deal with. (There are no aliens, for example.) Instead, the problems are all small scale: one woman is in an unhappy marriage, another struggles with her inability to have kids, the captain can’t admit that he’s gay, etc. All of the problems are specifically chosen for their vintage. Of course there are still people who are struggling with divorce, or infertility, or their sexual orientation, but the film intentionally boxes all of the characters in with social expectations from the 70s - it takes place in a world where feminism is still unsettled, and Stonewall never happened.
In theory, that mash up has potential. Science fiction is often written to be forward thinking by slightly juvenile men, meaning that it as it ages it can turn into an uneven mixture of technologically prescient / socially regressive. Therefore, writing a science fiction movie that’s intentionally out of date would offer a chance to really comment on either or both of those fronts. Space Station 76 does a decent job of commenting on the 70’s view of technology – although making fun of cheesy 70’s computers / robots is kind of shooting fish in a barrel – but it comes up shorter on it’s social commentary.
The social problems that these characters have aren't groundbreaking - they are, after all, plucked wholesale from a different decade - but that could still be fine if they weren't hobbled by the film's setting. Space Station 76 just doesn't know how to join it's parody elements together with it's sincere elements. Sometimes it works in minor ways – there's a scene where a couple who are about to transfer off the space station get into an argument about whether they’re going to take his cryogenically frozen mother or an extra few suitcases of their stuff onto the shuttle, and that scene balances relationship stuff with humor well enough. However, there are a lot of other times when the movie's streak of melancholy really contrasts badly with the “let's laugh at polyester” aspects. One of the characters in the movie is a little girl who has no friends and an alcoholic mother, and her life is too sad to suddenly find a computer that's nothing but a bank of blinking lights funny.
It also doesn't help that the film loses it's sense of humor entirely as it builds to it’s climax at a ship wide party, where unfortunate truths are told by people who are maybe a bit too drunk. It's a classic scene from a relationship drama with no corollary in sci-fi at all, but if they were going to abandon one of the two tones they should have gone the other way - as it is, the heavy bad vibes of the ending sink the whole enterprise.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if other people liked this movie a lot more than I did. I’ve always skewed more Star Wars than Annie Hall, and a lot of the classic 70’s character studies never really clicked for me. Is it any surprise, then, that I would find a film that was trying to do both at once kind of half baked? Of course, this film is also probably not going to be for people who love Annie Hall but hate Star Wars. But if you're in that tiny sliver of people who would have split the 1977 best picture award between those two diametrically opposed films - well, maybe give this a shot?