Review of the Week–Lost in Space (1998)

Recently, while watching TV, I stumbled upon the fact that there will soon be a Netflix-only remake of the classic sci-fi TV series Lost In Space. Needless to say, I was excited by the idea: I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for revamps of old-school shows, if only to see how a new generation will sometimes put new takes on it. But then, I realized they kind of already had. I remembered that in the 90s there had been an attempt to make Lost In Space into a big-budget Hollywood movie, and that I had seen said movie. Not remembering how I felt at the time, I decided it was my duty to rewatch it and tell all you lovely people about it. At the end, I have to say that the only thing that was lost was the two-plus hours of my life I won’t be getting back thanks to this crap-fest.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series it sprang from, the film version of Lost In Space has a pretty similar story, but with some updated twists and turns. In the near future, humanity is looking to space for salvation as pollution and overpopulation slowly destroy planet Earth, namely a distant planet named Alpha Prime that’s been proven habitable. With Alpha Prime chosen as the site for a new human colonization effort, the Robinson family (composed of husband John, wife Maureen, daughters Penny and Judy, and son Will), all brilliant and exceptional in some way, is chosen to go, joined by the reluctant hot-shot pilot Major Don West. But as part of an effort to sabotage the mission, a terrorist group employs flight surgeon Dr. Zachary Smith to destroy their spacecraft, Jupiter 2, shortly after launch. With Smith’s plan backfiring, he becomes an unwitting stowaway on the failing ship as the Robinsons and West are forced to use its experimental hyperdrive to escape certain death. Thrown hundreds of light-years off course and completely lost, the group embarks on an adventure that leads them through space and time in search of a way home.

What went wrong with Lost In Space? Where do I even begin? Let’s just say that, for starters, this movie had a lot of potential: that much I won’t argue. Remakes of campy classic shows don’t always turn out badly. One of my very favorite sci-fi series of all time is the reimagined Battlestar Galactica from the early 2000s, which took a crap-tacular short-lived 70s show and made it a classic for people both inside the genre and out. Plus, the dark and gritty current adaptation played a lot better with a much wider audience than the admittedly cheesy source material. In that respect, Lost In Space was ripe for this kind of reboot: the show is all about family, and family dynamics can be very fun to play around with, especially when they’re dysfunctional in some way. It would be hard to get more dysfunctional than the Robinson family we’re presented with in the film: John is an absent, disinterested father, with Judy being much the same; Penny is a rebellious teen infuriated at being dragged away from everything she knows for a mission she doesn’t care about; and Will is a brilliant but troublemaking student who constantly seeks for ways to impress his father, who he suspects doesn’t really love him. It’s a great potential canvass on which to work a good family-focused redemption story. Couple that with the impulsive and arrogant West and the cowardly, self-serving Smith, it’s a motley crew of characters. But just look at movies like Kelly’s HeroesThe Magnificent Seven, and so on–that’s often where the best growth and character moments can be found. So in all fairness, the basic idea of retelling Lost In Space as a story of putting a flawed family back together again, and even adding some new members along the way, was quite sound. And that’s not even mentioning the potential gold-mine of humor to be found from an inhuman character like the Robot.

Also, I must say I really did like the retro-futuristic, steampunk-grunge aesthetic that the producers of the film went with. Remember, this movie came out in 1998, when people were just starting to get worried about global warming and terrorism, and the backstory of the film reflects both of these things. It’s actually not that far off the mark for today’s world either, actually. The visuals of asymmetrical, organic-techno design that went into the inside and outside of the Jupiter 2, for example, were really cool, and it’s that kind of thing that really makes you believe more in the future rather than something slick and yet foreign like Star Trek presents. It grounds the depiction of the future in a dark reality that we don’t like to acknowledge, but know is the case. I have to admit, the ships in this movie look pretty darn sweet.

But that’s about as much praise as I’m willing to give Lost In Space. Think of this movie as your high school prom king: it isn’t nearly as clever, funny, or interesting as it seems to think it is. The first problem is the casting. I mean, seriously, who in God’s name thought it was a good idea to put Joey from Friends front and center on this one? William Hurt was uninspiring, as I’ve never found him a particularly compelling leading man. The rest of the Robinson family was sometimes passable, sometimes downright annoying (looking at your teenage angst, Penny), but always nondescript. The Robot was barely even a factor in the film, being controlled 90 percent of the time by other characters, and trying to destroy most of them when he was left to his own devices for more than two seconds. Even Gary Oldman, who was absolutely the big get for this movie, couldn’t save it, and in fact just wasn’t very good. Maybe it’s because he just wasn’t given a lot to do as Dr. Smith, which would be true: after all, he was basically a straight-up, unrepentant bad guy for no reason other than making money. Which doesn’t do you any good when you’re LOST IN SPACE!!! But he just seemed bored and bland in the role anyway, and in my opinion really phoned it in for most of the runtime.

The movie and its characters seemed to think they were really cool, edgy, and funny, but none of this was really true. The jokes fall flat most of the time, and let’s face it, Matt LeBlanc’s whole “I’m a tough guy and a douche and that makes me cool” act got old after about five minutes. There was no depth given to any of these people. The limited attempts we were given to get inside their individual heads, like Penny’s video diary, West and Judy’s constellation-drawing scene, John and Maureen’s private talks, and Will’s attempts to bond with the Robot, are all pretty lackluster and lame. Nobody, with the possible exception of John, has really changed by the end of the movie, and nowhere is that more true than with Dr. Smith. I think it was a mistake to make Smith the primary antagonist for the movie: an understandable mistake, sure, because the constraints of a movie are very different than the opportunities afforded for character growth in a TV show, but a mistake nonetheless. There just could have been so much more done there that it frustrated me. In the source material, Smith was portrayed as being closest with Will out of all the characters, because the young, good-hearted boy often gave him the benefit of the doubt. There was none of that closeness in the movie, which is especially egregious when you consider that the plot was just ripe for it. In place of his absent father, Will looks up to the dastardly Smith for guidance and ends up getting drawn into his web of deception.

Wouldn’t that have been a great angle to take this whole thing? But sadly, like so many other missed opportunities, it just gets passed by, and we’re left with a generic, evil bad guy who doesn’t seem to have any reason to be there. Honestly, though. Why on Earth would the Robinsons/West not blow this guy away at some point? It’s obvious he’s out to get you, and he has no useful skills. At least show him as being a medical expert or something: it’s kind of why he has “Doctor” in his title. But the only time we see Smith do anything valuable for the Robinsons is when he saves Judy from drowning in her cryo-tube, at the point of a gun. And then he apparently saves her with his awesome doctor skills OFF-SCREEN. Are you kidding me? Tell me why they kept him around again?

I shouldn’t be surprised though: Lost In Space is full of logic flaws and plot holes big enough to fly the Jupiter 2 through. For one thing, when old Will builds a time machine, why doesn’t John end up going back to before the ship launches to stop Smith from sabotaging them? He totally could have. But no, he chooses to go back to when they’re still stuck in this lost predicament, about ten minutes ago. What? Also, is nobody going to address the fact that, in spite of the alternate timeline not happening, Dr. Smith is still going to mutate thanks to his spider-bite into a giant monster and kill all of them? Nothing, NOTHING was done to resolve that lingering plot thread in any way. A simple antidote brought back from the future would have been fine. But no, that would make too much sense. Also, are we not going to talk about the fact that thanks to their encounter with the time-bubble around the Proteus that the Jupiter 2 and its crew are still, in fact, stuck an undetermined amount of time in the future? Why are you even bothering to go to Alpha Prime? Who knows whatever happened to that after your mission was believed to have failed? And that ending was completely uninspiring, with the ship just blasting off randomly again into hyperspace without any kind of resolution, final moment, or proper goodbye for the characters. Lost In Space seems to think that giving the characters downtime for interpersonal moments is a bad thing. Why do that when you can just have more things blow up instead?

Speaking of which, the special effects in this movie were, even by 1998 standards, distractingly bad. Those space spiders and Spider-Smith looked so incredibly fake I almost laughed. I mean, Independence Day was made two years earlier and still blew this movie out of the water in the SFX department. How does that even happen?

My Rating: 4/10

At its core, the idea of remaking Lost In Space in a more grounded, realistic, and grittier form was a good one, but it completely fell apart in the execution thanks to lackluster casting, a nonsensical script, and a focus on poor blockbuster action sequences rather than any real character development. The film goes for spectacle over substance, and really gets neither done very well. And when you have opportunities like Gary Oldman playing the villain, that’s just sad. The movie was such a waste overall, it was very disappointing. Still better than The Cloverfield Paradox, though. It would be pretty hard to be more disappointing than that.

One last thing: did anyone else have a problem with the fact that “Danger, Will Robinson!” didn’t even come up once? Okay, it did. But in morse code. Gee, thanks for that.


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