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Series Review: “Space Force” Shoots for the Moon and Misses

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 28th, 2020

Film poster: “Space Force”

Space Force (Steve Carell/Greg Daniels, 2020) 1 out of 4 stars. 

At the end of 2019, President Donald Trump signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, thereby officially creating the first new branch of the US military since 1947 (he had announced his intention to do so in 2018). The launch of this latest government institution has been met with a fair amount of derision, so it is not surprising that somebody, somewhere, would come up with a comedy film or series at its expense. Here, now, is just such a show, entitled simply Space Force, which comes to us from the minds of Steve Carell (who also stars) and Greg Daniels, who together made the American version of The Office such a delight. Sadly, neither they nor any of the other writers behind the 10 episodes dropping on Netflix on May 29 have any real clue what to do with the premise, flailing from sequence to sequence without narrative purpose and squandering what good jokes and performances there are in a black hole of dramatic incoherence. It’s a mess, plain and simple.

Carell plays General Mark Naird, who when we first meet him is in the process of being awarded his fourth star. Now an equal to his former boss, Air Force Head General Kick Grabaston (The Americans’ Noah Emmerich), Naird assumes he is next in line to run that service. Much to his disappointment, and that of his wife and daughter, he is put in charge of the brand new Space Force, which will mean not only taking the reins of something the other military chiefs laugh at, but relocating to Colorado from Washington, DC. In these opening minutes, the series demonstrates potential, with Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe from Friends) as Maggie (Mrs. Naird) revealing, with the slightest of facial reactions, just what this move means to her. When we then cut to “One Year Later” at the western site, and John Malkovich (Velvet Buzzsaw) walks in as Dr. Adrian Mallory, lead scientist at the agency, our hopes go up even further (and indeed, Malkovich is one of the consistent bright spots, throughout). Soon, however, the showrunners’ lack of a clear plan becomes all too evident, and by episode two we wallow in the weeds.

It’s not as if there are never any fine bits of humor. Given the cast, how could there not be? Though Ben Schwartz (Standing Up, Falling Down) is written as a supremely annoying publicist, he still finds ways to occasionally shine. The same holds true for a variety of other players, including Jimmy O. Yang (Fantasy Island) and Tawny Newsome (Bajillion Dollar Propertie$). Poor Diana Silvers (Ma), though, as Erin Naird, the general’s daughter, has an ever-malleable set of character motivations that leave her with no ability to latch on to one kind of approach to her role. True, she’s supposed to be a sarcastic, angry teen, but she has nothing on which to hang a performance.

Steve Carell in SPACE FORCE ©Netflix

That void at the center is evident everywhere, whether it be in the easy stereotypes in which the series traffics or the aimless storylines that too often feel like filler, as if Carell and Daniels were never able to move beyond the simple elevator pitch for the series, desperate to somehow pad the inciting idea with something resembling content. The worst part about those stereotypes is just how tired they are. Do we really need a stupid guy whose claim to idiocy is his southern accent? Did no one recognize how silly and unfunny that would seem? Or how about the lame satire about the “angry young congresswoman” (or “AYC,” played by Ginger Gonzaga)? Yes, I believe that everyone, everywhere, at all times, can be ripe for parody, but the lack of cleverness about the entire enterprise and facile jokes are groan-inducing (that said, the rest of that particular episode, #3, is actually not bad, making it one of my favorites).

The skinny on Space Force is that it rises not to the occasion, but to the cheapest of cheap shots, firing at random and hitting very few marks. There’s an entire subplot concerning Maggie Naird that is never fully explained (which could work, but doesn’t) that leads to all kinds of unwanted backstory and soggy marital discourse, at the end of which we emerge in a fog, trying to remember what the series is about. Thank the stars for Malkovich, who delivers, time and again, not only the best lines, but the best moments (until the final two episodes, when even he is undone by the poor material). My recommendation is to take a pass on this and revisit The Office. Given that Carell tries so fervently to shoehorn that show’s Michael Scott into his General Naird (to often irritating effect), you might as well go back to the source. Launch Space Force into the vast emptiness of the cosmos, then, and hope it stays there for good.

John Malkovich in SPACE FORCE ©Netflix
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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