Not every movie can be great (or good). Most, in fact, end up in a long line of generic mediocrities, playing on cable for years with built-in lowered expectations. Movies like Space Jail (2012)—whose title is actually Lockout, but come on—which is coded as “standard genre fare” so bluntly it’s almost endearing. It stars Guy Pearce (mmm Guy Pearce) as Snow, an ex-CIA operative trying to clear his own name, and it takes place in a dingy, corrupt future that seems to exist solely as a backdrop for misadventures like these. The kind of future where no one seems to have a house or a 9-to-5 job, but the government can invest zillions of dollars in a supermax prison orbiting the earth.
The president’s daughter, of course, is drawn to said space jail like a moth to the flame, making a humanitarian visit that goes horribly awry. Next thing you know, she’s trapped among hundreds of rioting space-prisoners, the cynical Snow is sent in to rescue her, and Space Jail is well on its way toward following Escape from New York’s blueprints beat for beat. But to my surprise, the film has a single twist in store: once Snow and the first daughter cross paths, it becomes less a John Carpenter rip-off and more a remake of It Happened One Night… in space. Same opposites-attract story of sheltered rich girl vs. seen-it-all roughneck, same on-the-run banter, even near-identical gender politics despite being made eight decades apart.
So Space Jail’s syntax is that of the “fugitive lovers” romcom, overlaid with every visual cliché an action movie can sport. Claustrophobic ventilation shafts! Chasms inexplicably built into the jail! Dim blue lighting and orange explosions! It’s all exactly as ridiculous as you’d expect from the words “space jail,” right down to a fun but credibility-straining climax. Nothing new or remotely intelligent on display here, but I like it. Maybe it’s Pearce’s gruff wisecracking. Or maybe it’s the “get in, get out, get it over with” mentality of the filmmaking: this is self-evidently a factory product, 90 minutes of set pieces and MacGuffins not intended to outlast April 2012, yet here I am months later chuckling at its absurdities.
Despite the hugeness of its spectacle, Space Jail feels small and grungy. It’s the first feature for either of its directors, James Mather and Stephen St. Leger; it was shot in Belgrade; and its digital effects are shoddy at best. It feels made to slip through the cracks, and I appreciate that, as well as its tone—the casual bleakness of its future, the use of violence as a tool to skip past obstacles and toward objectives. Space Jail’s mediocre through and through, but I can’t help thinking it’s the kind of movie Snake Plissken would make.