The main lesson you can take from Lockout – or, as we like to call it in the office, Space Jail! – is that in space, the jokes are funnier, the explosions bigger, the stakes higher. It’s simply situational: The moment that writer-directors Stephen St. Leger and James Mather decided to place a huge jail/space station crammed with psychopaths in orbit above Earth, you knew that every aspect of this action film was going to be over-the-top.
The official press notes refer to Lockout as “a futuristic thriller that refuses to take itself seriously.” Considering that producer Luc Besson was also responsible for the trippy The Fifth Element, you trust that these aren’t filmmakers operating under delusions of grandeur about making some uber-serious film. That lack of self-consciousness allows everyone to enjoy what’s going on here: The President’s daughter (Maggie Grace) goes up to space jail, a.k.a. MS One, to ensure that the prisoners are being treated humanely since they’re in hyper-sleep. But when a particularly crazy inmate (Joseph Gilgun) escapes and wakes up all his fellow prisoners, the White House has no choice but to send one man to save the First Daughter and leave the other hostages to die.
That one man is Snow, played almost to the point of parody by Guy Pearce. The usually slender actor bulked up and adopted a gravelly, smartass American accent to play a cross between Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber: He wears a T-shirt that reads “Warning: Offensive” and barks out sarcastic one-liners both to himself and to his employers.
So, yes, Snow is a big part of why Lockout is so funny. But we can’t forget the impact of the setting, and realize in turn that other movies set in space end up making us giggle almost as much. For all of our advances to the Moon, plots like Lockout‘s are still firmly set out of our reach. Especially with the NASA program currently shut down, there’s no way we’re going to have a floating space station/jail in the near future. So to have these characters, including the movie’s wise-looking President, take it for granted that that’s how you store convicts in the near future, is already funny.
Consider other movies set in space that have equally ludicrous plots: A bunch of grizzled astronauts have to repair an old Soviet satellite in Space Cowboys; a crack team prevents a Texas-sized meteor from extinguishing the human race in Armagaddeon; the alien makeup alone in Battlefield Earth. While we buy into these premises, we do so while snickering under our breaths. Space really is the final frontier for storytelling: We can stretch the limits of what’s plausible in that cold, star-studded vacuum.
I’m definitely not saying that every single sci-fi offering is comedy gold. But there’s a kind of nervous exhilaration to movies set up in spaceships and on alien planets, which translates to absurd premises in the movies I’ve listed above or even just isolated moments of humor in more serious sci-fi films like Aliens. (Come on, tell me you didn’t laugh during “Stay away from her, you bitch!”)
The best thing that the Lockout team did was play to the outlandishness of their plot, temper it somewhat with the sardonic Snow and his meta commentary on action movies, and just go balls-out on this adventure.
Lockout is out today. So why are you still reading this? Get to a theater and bask in the delicious badness of this movie!