Revisiting the Reviled – ‘Lost in Space’ is Lost, Wastes Space

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Stranded in the Uncanny Valley.

For the most part, films based upon television shows are always bad. Of course, there are exceptions – Star Trek films, ’66 Batman, The Simpsons Movie, 21 and 22 Jump Street – but the inescapable fact is they’re usually produced because they have the magic ingredient for unimaginative, fearful executives: brand recognition. But brand recognition is overvalued, as is evidenced by the 1998 film adaptation of the ’60 sci-fi show Lost in Space. From 1965-’68, Lost in Space ran for only three seasons, which was the style at the time. While recognizable to Baby Boomers, Lost in Space wasn’t a part of the constant cycle of reruns from my youth. I watched The Monkees, Batman, Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, and The Beverly Hillbillies, but Lost in Space was never regularly on for me to gain a familiarity with the characters. Outside of some references on The Simpsons, I think most of my generation would be unfamiliar with the journey of the Robinson family and the nefarious Dr. Smith.

Outside of a few cameos from the original cast (notable exceptions are Johnathan Harris and Billy Mumy), including a nightmare inducing cameo by June Lockhart, the ’98 Lost in Space film used the show as its inspiration, repurposing the show’s premise to fit the modern mold of blockbuster spectacle. The Earth is in peril. Pollution has ravaged the planet, only 40% of the Ozone Layer remains (a dead giveaway as to when the film was made). Humanity is attempting to build the hypergate, a portal that will allow humanity to travel across space in an instant. In order to properly construct the hypergate, the Robinson family – patriarch John Robinson (William Hurt), matriarch Maureen Robinson (Mimi Rogers), and their children Judy (Heather Graham), Penny (Lacey Chabert), and Will (Jack Johnson) – will fly to Alpha Prime, make their end of the hypergate, and save humanity. Before they’ve left, their mission is already subjected to subterfuge. The original spaceship captain has been murdered, and is replaced with Major Don West (Matt LeBlanc), a hothead, a maverick, a renegade. Before the family may take off into the cosmos, they’re sabotaged again by Dr. Zachary Smith (Gary Oldman), who is double crossed by his seditious superiors, leaving him trapped aboard the spaceship. Now the crew of the Jupiter 2 spaceship are hurtling through the stars, unsure of their place in space-time.

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The chimp and the chump.

With its computer generated characters and green screen sets, Lost in Space feels like the prequel to the Star Wars prequels. After a brief opening narration, the film opens with an extended action sequence, a sequence resembling the opening of Revenge of the Sith, which would open nearly 7 years later. Both sequences are extended, fast-paced dogfights in space, but are woefully short on story or character – you know, the stuff that gives meaning to the flashy spectacle. Written by Hollywood’s resident Oscar winning hack, Akiva Goldsman, sequences features terrible lines like, “This cold war just got hot,” and, “Last one to kill a bad guy buys the beer.” Not content with just awful dialogue, Goldsman has like 3 different subplots that are of little coherence or relevance. For example, the seditious forces that Dr. Smith answers to are just a minor plot contrivance, disappearing completely by the midway point. What makes Lost in Space, among many other things, so unbearable is that it gives the audience a glimpse of real sci-fi. This only occurs after watching the minor familial squabbles and major, yet hollow, action setpieces for 90 minutes, so its 20 minute foray into legitimate sci-fi is just a reminder to the film’s wasted potential.

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Nightmare fuel.

Besides its specifically dated environmental politics and early CGI effects, Lost in Space dates itself mostly by the casting of Matt LeBlanc. With the exception of Jennifer Aniston (even then she’s had her ups and downs) none of the cast members of Friends found consistent success on the big screen, and LeBlanc’s performance here shows why his ventures into leading man status only invoke memories of Ed, the baseball playing chimp movie. It’s not fair to pick on LeBlanc when the film consists of decent actors all under-performing with the lone exception of Gary Oldman, who always delivers a performance even in the worst garbage. William Hurt is stifled and wooden. Mimi Rogers is just a paper-thin concerned mother. Coming off her performance as Rollergirl in Boogie Nights, Heather Graham shows her limitations that will be more pronounced over her career. To be fair to Graham, when playing a pornstar she never had lines as wretched as, “Why don’t you just hang onto your joystick.”

The film’s gender politics are so firmly rooted in the past. When the film finally flirts with sci-fi, it’s the men who go and explore the unknown terrain of the planet they’re stranded on. The three women – 2 of whom are doctors! – are left behind to fret, worry, and cry. As Penny Robinson, Lacey Chabert is probably done the biggest disservice. Her character is nothing more than an annoying emotional wreck, just the kind of character written by a middle-aged white male – teenage girls, amirite?

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“I once caught a fish…THIS BIG.”

Journeyman director Stephen Hopkins doesn’t compound matters with incompetent direction. For the most part, the film’s action is clearly presented. The failings of Lost in Space are on the page first. Its over-reliance on effects are just like the same problems with the Star Wars prequels, sacrificing the tangible for digital ephemera that looks worse with each passing year. Though it tries to capture the spirit of the original, Lost in Space is a movie without an identity, without a soul. Of all the original members from the TV series, the one whose presence that is most missed is Billy Mumy, the original Will Robinson. The film even contains a time-travel subplot, an older Will Robinson appears, however, he’s played by Jarred Hess. Even more important than his work on the TV show, Mumy was half of Barnes & Barnes, a musical duo whose most famous song is Fish Heads. Whereas Fish Heads has the claim to fame of being the most requested song in the history of the Dr. Demento show, the only claim to fame that the Lost in Space movie has is that it ended Titanic’s 15-week run as the number 1 movie in America, a footnote to another film’s legacy.

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