Home Video Hovel: Space Cop, by Tyler Smith
Jay Bauman and Mike Stoklasa’s Space Cop is a very difficult film to review. Those of us that are fans of Red Letter Media have been anticipating the film for years now, always acutely aware of the budgetary limitations and time constraints. It was beginning to feel as though the film would never be finished. So when it was announced that Space Cop was finally being released on Blu-Ray, it was time to see if the final film met viewer expectations. And while in many ways, the film is exactly what one would expect, given the sensibilities of the Red Letter Media crew, it still falls short in a number of ways. The film eventually winds up feeling like one of those goofy, fun movies that we made in middle school with our friends; lots of enthusiasm, marred by amateurish sensibilities.
The story is simple enough, about a reckless police officer in the year 2058 going back in time to 2015 and finding the differences in both technology and police procedure confusing and frustrating. He is soon paired with a partner who is similarly a man out of his time: a cop from the 1940s who cryogenically froze himself. Together, the two men must acclimate to our time while trying to stop a team of aliens bent on destroying the Earth.
Of course, all of this is very silly, and that is by design. Fans of Red Letter Media can attest to the joy they take in crass, absurd schlock. Their “Best of the Worst” videos are devoted to reviewing those forgotten genre pictures that are more ambition than skill, with titles like Future War, Blood Lock, and Skull Forest. In many ways, they are trying to emulate these films, embracing their miniscule budget and turning it into an asset. And it is in these elements that Space Cop is at its most effective. While the sets are clearly sets and the costumes clearly costumes, they are nonetheless lovingly designed and lit in a way that both sells the reality of the film while making us smile at the production values.
Attention should specifically be paid to the cinematography, particularly the often striking use of color and shadows. Cold blues, garish reds, and paranoid greens slash across the faces of our actors as they skulk through spaceships and laboratories. These are not the choices of filmmakers attempting to craft a realistic world, but are instead more invested in making the frame look as interesting as possible. This extends to the CG effects, as well, which are surprisingly convincing, even when they’re not supposed to be.
It is really in the writing, acting, and editing that the film starts to fall apart. There is tremendous potential in a story of cops from two different times converging in the present. While there is no indication that the makers of Space Cop have any interest in satirical elements, the inherent possibilities remain. The cop from the past could react to the overly complicated world we live in now, while the future cop could comment on the primitive technology and customs that we cling to so preciously in the present. The filmmakers had an opportunity to poke fun at the past, present, and possible future, but instead chose to mostly ignore these (there are a few jokes at the expense of certain outdated attitudes from the past, but these are well-trod and stale).
The acting is mostly passable. Rich Evans commits to the Space Cop role, keeping him monotone and hard-bitten, even as he is slovenly and stupid; sort of a Dirty Harry by way of Chris Farley. Evans understands the humor to be found in the juxtaposing of tough and idiotic, and plays the part accordingly. Writer and director Mike Stoklasa plays Detective Cooper from the 1940s, affecting a cadence that is meant to be “old timey”, but too often comes across as exaggerated and obvious. Where Rich Evans never plays his character with a wink, Stoklasa is constantly winking, with both eyes, in every scene. In his performance, Stoklasa hams it up in a way that seems to distance him from the material, as though he is reassuring the audience in every line reading that he too knows how ridiculous the film is and that he’s just here to say the lines and go home. This is particularly strange, as Stoklasa wrote the script himself.
And about that script. It is by no means poorly written. The dialogue is fairly consistent, with each character having a specific voice and cadence. And the story itself is perfectly fine; a serviceable science fiction comedy plot. The problem comes in the unfocused pacing. There are several scenes that, while amusing, don’t add much to the story or characters. And while I’m the first to say that comedy should be primarily about generating laughs, genre parody is a little different. If one is parodying a genre like action or thriller, it’s all about forward momentum; the humor is mined from the developing story, and thus must keep pace with it. This is often why action-comedies work so well; both genres are primarily about speed, forcing the audience to pay closer attention and keep up.
In Space Cop, there are too many scenes that stop the momentum dead in its tracks in order to have a humorous exchange between the characters. This in itself can be funny, as well, with characters briefly losing focus on their goals in order to comment on something much more innocuous. However, if a film has too many of these scenes, the pacing becomes uneven and it’s hard to know exactly how invested the audience should be in what is happening, since the characters obviously aren’t.
Which brings me to perhaps the biggest problem with a film like Space Cop. In many ways, it is intentionally bad. All of the things that a standard movie attempts to do are mostly absent here, and it appears that the filmmakers want it that way. Character development, story arcs; these aren’t important. Perhaps the filmmakers feel that these aren’t necessary in comedy. But when we think of the best comedies, the stakes are always clear and the sense of urgency drives the story forward, with the comedy happening along the way. This is especially true in comedies about cops, doctors, lawyers, and other professions that are deadly serious. The world could come to an end in Ghostbusters, yet Peter Venkman cracks wise. But he does this in the face of the danger, not out of indifference to it. Despite his jokes, I as a viewer am still invested in Venkman’s success. Even in a movie as silly as Airplane!, I still want to see the plane landed safely and Ted Striker hailed as a hero. I wasn’t invested in Space Cop at all, which actually made some of the jokes fall flat.
But this is the problem with making a movie that is intentionally bad. Yes, it can insulate the filmmakers from criticism, as they can always say that they meant for it to be this way, and that the critic just doesn’t get it. It can be a method of artistic self preservation, choosing to eschew audience engagement completely rather than attempt it and fail. But, in doing so, they keep the audience at arm’s length from the action. This is the vibe that I got when I watched Space Cop, which definitely kept me from embracing it. And, as a fan of Red Letter Media, this is a film that I wanted to embrace. But the filmmakers just wouldn’t let me.
You hit the nail on the head when you compared it to the silly movies people make in middle school with their friends. That is how the entire movie felt, just with a bigger budget. While I’m sure the Red Letter Media crew was happy with the end product, I can’t imagine anyone who is not already a fan of their stuff to appreciate it at all. I was really disappointed. I expected more from these guys, and still they could make something great if they really tried.
Even now, I feel kind of conflicted writing such a negative review. As you said, I’m sure they enjoyed themselves, and they clearly worked fairly hard on the project. But I think it all lasted so long that they might have lost perspective.
There is enough good stuff here to suggest that, as you mentioned, they’d definitely be able to make a solidly effective movie, whether it be comedy, drama, or horror. But it would require a bit more discipline than they exercised with SPACE COP.
It’s one thing to make a movie with a niche audience in mind and cater to that audience. It’s quite another to depend on the forgiveness and goodwill of said audience. This is what’s wrong with Christian films; they assume the audience is so with them that they’re willing to settle too often.
I’m glad I saw the film, so that I could see exactly where the Red Letter Media crew excels and where it doesn’t. I just wish they had put in a little more effort.
Making anything with a “built-in” audience is dangerous. You can easily fall into the hole of “you didn’t like it? Well, you just don’t get it”, which is interesting, because the same could be said about truly great films. I will say, that I am seeing a lot of RLM fans let down by SPACE COP, so even their audience isn’t receiving the film all that well. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me TOO much, as I was at the very least expecting something that more closely resembled a real movie.
I think they also shot themselves in the foot a bit by trying to make a “bad movie”. I don’t think it’s possible to make a “good” bad movie on purpose. Something like DEATH SPA can only arise from catastrophe. Also, it completely shields them from criticism. “It’s not meant to be good, so if people don’t like it, that’s good” should never be a filmmaker’s goal. I can’t exactly say what their intentions were, as I haven’t had the heart to listen to the commentary yet, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they are afraid to really try and make something good out of fear of failing. But, what do I know.
I will say that the Len Kabasinski cameo was hilarious.
If only they had not gone the vanity route and hired professional actors to play the leads, it might have worked out better.