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Emma Roberts’ Character Falters in Space Cadet’s Disjointed Underdog Comedy

For much of the initial portions of Space Cadet, you might spend your mind just figuring out the kind of film it wishes to be. On paper, Prime Video’s latest comedy seems like a funny take on the routine American underdog story about an unbridgeable gap between the commoner and the Man. However, in telling this story about how a college dropout gets into NASA’s top astronaut training programme by fluke, the film alternates in its tonality between being a whimsical satire and a serious drama.

The extent to which this happens, and the outright silly plotline that plays out in front make you wonder if the writers decided to turn a serious first draft into a comedy because nobody would take it seriously… or vice versa. We are introduced to Tiffany ‘Rex’ Simpson (Emma Roberts); this party girl and bartender had to let go of her dreams of flying to Mars, and we are told of her dreams through… an astronaut fangirl scrapbook she had. Rex also gets repeatedly reminded of her skill, aptitude, and knack to build innovative machines that go unnoticed in small-town Florida — either by her best friend and partner-in-crime Nadine (Poppy Liu), or her high-school crush and now-CEO of a space tourism company, Toddrick Spencer (Sebastian Yatra).

For most of the film, Rex remains a hotchpotch of a character, with the writing lending no chance to take anything she says seriously. You naturally feel for the bright girl who lost her future because of unexpected family circumstances, but how do you take her seriously when — after she realises how impossible her NASA dreams now seem — she points to the crescent moon and talks to it?

The writers manifest Rex’s dream through silly chance occurrences, and this manic pixie dream girl gets onboard NASA’s astronaut training programme when her email to NASA, doctored by Nadine, lands on the table of program directors Pam (Gabrielle Union) and Logan (Tom Hopper). They are immediately interested because “she is unlike others.

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.” In the programme, Rex is joined by fellow competitors Dr Stacy Kellogg (Desi Lydic), Violet Marie Vislawski (Kuhoo Verma), Grace Jackson (Yasha Jackson), Captain Jack Mancini (Andrew Call), Miriam Osprey (Josephine Huang), and Hector Kaneko (Troy Iwata) — stale, unidimensional characters coming together to form a typical, insipid motley crew.

Logan (Tom Hopper) and Rex (Emma Roberts) in ‘Space Cadet’
| Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz

Taking a comical route is fine, but be it how the background checks are conducted, the manner in which top scientists at NASA behave, or why none of the characters pose any emotional or intellectual depth, Space Cadet leaves you wishing for it to be a satire through and through. Or to pull up its astronaut pants and tell a novel story. However, it ends up meandering somewhere in the middle. At one point, this imposter turns over a new leaf within mere days and becomes a tough competitor to trained scientists in the programme, just because she had a dream about how all of us are made of the same stardust. Campy much?

The writing gets lazy when one too many plot twists happen as a result of something ridiculous, and the silliness peaks when Rex is put into the pilot seat of a NASA jet. Emma Roberts succeeds in making Rex the most infuriating protagonist, while Hopper plays a robotic archetype nerd, armed with the constant expression of being mind-blown on meeting someone with real emotions and individual thinking.

If anything, the fact that you end up wishing for the underdog protagonist’s plans to crash and burn says enough about this silly and totally forgettable comedy.

Space Cadet is currently streaming on Prime Video

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World cinema