Avenue 5, review: Armando Iannucci’s sci-fi comedy is galactically good

Sean O'Grady

Now that Armando Iannucci is approaching the status of national treasure, anything he does is subject to massively inflated expectations. He hasn’t let us down yet: On the Hour; The Day Today; I’m Alan Partridge; The Thick of It; Time Trumpet; Veep; The Death of Stalin, and, shortly, a fresh adaption of David Copperfield. Iannucci’s enjoyed a longer winning streak than Liverpool FC, but… well, you do sometimes fret.

So I am delighted to report that his latest venture, the “spacecom” Avenue 5, shows him still at his pitch-perfect best. The wisecracking dialogue, the zinger lines, the characteristic attention to detail, the pacy action, the literary and visual flair and, above all, his otherworldly gift for satire – all as finely blended as ever. At the risk of sounding like another of Iannucci’s immortals, Alan Gordon Partridge, Avenue 5 is not just good – it’s galactically good.

And so we gleefully clamber aboard the Avenue 5. As the opening Star Trek-style graphics reveal, this is the name of a vast space cruise ship in a near-future age of space tourism, a P&O Ferry in outer space. There are 5,000 bored, demanding passengers on board, and an indeterminate number of (incompetent) crew.

There are many, many quotable lines. About the greedy Trumpesque boss of the space cruise line, a chap named Herman Judd (Josh Gad), for example, onboard for this trip. At one point his henchwoman remarks that “he’s been fracking some merchandise ideas, and he just hit gas”. Judd is a figure with an absurdly lavish blonde barnet, an inability to grasp basic maths, and a tendency to adopt convenient delusion as truth when confronted with unpalatable facts. We all know who Iannucci has in mind, but it is done with a certain tangential lightness, rather than just dumping in some crude overdrawn Trump caricature.

Long-time Iannucci collaborator Rebecca Front also turns up, as a gloriously irate American tourist who bizarrely uses media euphemism in place of original profanities: “What the F-bomb is going on?” The dopey “head of passenger service” (Zach Woods) tells his charges after yet another mishap on board: “This is fate and it is freestyling with us. Jazz-fate”: Typical dazzling Iannucci inventiveness at work again.

The star of the show, if that is not too bad a pun, is space captain Ryan Clark, (inevitably, and superbly, played by Hugh Laurie), a jocular soul in an overblown naval uniform and a beard that makes him look like a cross between captains Jean-Luc Picard and Birds Eye. Cap’n Clark tells his passengers to “set your phasors to fun”, but in due course also has to advise them, after a particularly rough passage that leaves many injured, to “pay attention to my words not my tone”. He has confidence in his firm’s ability to get them out of trouble because “they patented the liquid glove”.

The “trouble” they find themselves in is a result of a brief “gravity flip”. This occurs when the ship’s engineers accidentally turn the gravity machine off, anti-gravity takes over, and everyone and everything goes flying. The impact of 5,000 mostly overweight passengers hitting the side of the spacecraft is sufficient to shove it slightly off course. When the new trajectory is calculated, it turns out that their planned leisurely two-month vacation is instead to become a three-year-long prison sentence. Cue panic.

Like much of Iannucci’s work, Avenue 5 is garnished with clever touches and details. I liked one passenger’s description of his spouse as “my current wife”, the exact phrase used by Trump about Melania a couple of years ago. There’s also a charming joke-within-a-joke about Captain Clark. Referencing Laurie’s transatlantic persona in House, Captain Clark confesses that he is not a real American space cruise captain at all, but rather an English actor playing the role of a space captain. He puts on a remarkably fluent American accent, he explains, because people prefer it for some reason.

In fact, the ship doesn’t even need a captain because it pretty much controls itself, and he was hired simply to jolly the passengers along. The real guy in charge is the engineer, Joe, who, unfortunately, stabs himself to death with his own screwdriver during the “gravity flip”. Hence their predicament.

Adventure 5 is Red Dwarf meets Fawlty Towers meets Blake’s 7 meets ferry operator Stena Line. Like any properly produced sci-fi show, you can see where they’ve lavished the money to achieve superb special effects and build some imposing and actually very attractive sets (Avenue 5 genuinely would be a pleasant vessel to go to see other worlds). But that is not why Avenue 5 works so well: That’s the out of this world imagination of Captain Iannucci.

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