Space Force review – Steve Carell parody fails to reach orbit

Unfunny, nowhere near as bonkers as the real thing and saved only by John Malkovich, who knows what planet the makers of this Trump-adjacent satire were on

The real Space Force – that is, the newest branch of the US military and Trumpian fever dream made flesh and launched last year to the disbelief both silent and vocal of many – broadcast its first recruitment commercial a few days ago. It invited volunteers “to plan for the possible while it’s still impossible”.

Where, you might quite reasonably ask, could a comedy about Space Force – were a comedy about Space Force to be made – be expected to go from there?

Well, now a comedy about Space Force – called Space Force, created by US Office alumni Steve Carrell and Greg Daniels and starring Carrell, John Malkovich, Lisa Kudrow, Jane Lynch, Noah Emmerich and other television stalwarts – has been made, and is available to watch on Netflix. However, it seems that cast and crew failed to settle on an answer to this important question before the cameras started rolling.

Carell plays recently minted four-star general Mark R Naird, whose expectations of leading the air force are dashed when he is instead installed as the head of the (fictional) president’s new toy, the (fictional) Space Force. His wife Maggie (Lisa Kudrow) cries brokenly when he tells her they will be moving from Washington DC to start a new life and a space base in Colorado. The next time we see her she’s in prison, for reasons that are never fully explained, and ridiculously underused thereafter. Which is all of a piece with this scattershot production. 

There are nods to the real-life White House – uh – situation, for example when the defence secretary announces that the president has tweeted his wish for “Boots on the moon by 2024. Actually it said ‘Boobs on the moon’ but we believe that to be a typo.” But it never amounts to satire, let alone sustains such an effect. It is not, of course, the writers’ fault that it is impossible to invent something madder than the things the incumbent has already said, but it does mean that perhaps you should look elsewhere for the source material for your comedy.

It’s a little bit like a workplace parody, except that the core group isn’t big or stable enough to allow relationships to develop. Malkovich as scientist Adrian Mallory is Naird’s most frequent sparring partner and they are wonderful together, even if it remains physically and constitutionally impossible for the former not to steal every scene he’s in, even from such an accomplished player as Carell.

Watch a trailer for Space Force

It’s not a farce, though it has lots of things going wrong and Naird rushing around in a manner unbecoming to his dignity. Except that he doesn’t have any dignity. He is, for the most part, a buffoon but with enough moments of competence (and despair and frustration at the failures of those around him) to confuse the issue. He has a receptionist who keeps infuriatingly forgetting to warn him who is waiting in his office (the tiredest of jokes to begin with) but he is also dim-witted enough himself – we are meant to believe, of this man who otherwise seems to be a perfectly normally functioning father, husband and four-star general – to insist that a chimpanzee be trained to fix a satellite in space rather than let the scientists come up with a workable solution. 

Above all, despite occasional laughs to be gleaned from the twist that Malkovich can give the most unpromising of lines, Space Force is not funny, which makes it hard to class as a comedy.

The first episode is worth watching purely because it contains Fred Willard as Naird’s father, in his last role. It must have been filmed not long at all before he died, and he nails it. His arm shakes but his voice is firm, his performance is under perfect control and his timing is immaculate. How lovely to know it never left him.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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