Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
For once it’s not our fault. The American public has not been clamoring for a big-budget big-screen remake of the cheesy TV show Lost in Space and wasn’t, to the best of my recollection, even mildly stirred by the idea once it started floating around the buzzvine. Unlike its compatriots The Brady Bunch and The Flintstones, Lost in Space never really entered the pop lexicon beyond “Danger, Will Robinson!” which turns out (1) to be pretty much the property of geezers anyway and (2) to capture the crummy-spoofy spirit of the old adventure series but to be so distant from the tone of the splashy, scary movie version that it’s clumsily shoehorned in for the geezers, pointing up the contrast.
Not content with a loving family, a creepy old doctor, and a rickety robot sharing adventures beyond the outer limits, this $100-million version gives us a hip family with various neuroses and modern dysfunctions, a youngish, malevolent doctor, and a shiny new robot in the same basic configuration as its rickety predecessor. But whatever Lost in Space’s original charms (lost on me, sorry), it never occurred to anyone involved with the finance or computer shenanigans of this production that those charms involved the loving family, etc. If there’s one thing Hollywood should have learned from the success of The Brady Bunch, it’s that shabbiness has its own tawdry, friendly allure; after all, it was only the past-razing, high-style, recast-everything-as-dark ’80s that made the success of the first Batman movie possible.
But at the very least, the fun in an adventure serial is that the heroes have, like, serial, I dunno, adventures. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman tidies up that format, and director Hopkins flattens out its rhythm, so we don’t know when the movie will end; they have three adventures, and then it’s over. With the characters given so little to do in space, we have plenty of time to ease into the plot, so we stroll slowly into the situation on Earth: Humans need to colonize another planet because, basically, we didn’t listen to Al Gore. The family Robinson is chosen to stake out “Alpha Prime.” Dad (William Hurt, with the blue lips of the dead fish he is) is a workaholic scientist who sends late apology videos instead of gifts on his kids’ birthdays. Maureen, his wife (Mimi Rogers, her asymmetrical face avalanching perilously off one side), doesn’t seem to have a specialty, although she too is called “Professor” and slaps various ship buttons with her palm to make the big vehicle go. Daughter Judy (Heather Graham) is a rockin’ sex bomb and, in the sexual schematics of old-fashioned movies, an ultrabrainy, just-like-Dad precisionist popsicle. Boy Will is the youngest and a genius; he’s working on a time machine for his school science project—wonder if we’ll see that thing later on. And then there’s Penny (Lacey Chabert), who’s vain, stupid, annoying, whiny, and slutty.
Already the adventure is unpromising. There’s no fun fake science, just expedient gobbledygook, like “Hyperspace exists beneath real space.” (If you can say “beneath,” aren’t we still working in “real space”?) There’s no fun imagined future for culture or technology, just refinements on current styles and gizmos, like Penny’s wrist-cam into which she pours her sarcastic, self-dramatizing complaints, and the supposition that in the future 12-year-old girls will dress like dominatrixes. The children moan about making the trip, and Maureen decides that the 10 years they’ll spend in suspended animation will be quality time with her abstracted husband, and why are we learning this stuff if the best way it can end in is a group hug?
On board are also the pilot, Maj. West (Matt LeBlanc), and Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman), who was hired by the evil Seditionary Force to sabotage the mission for reasons never explained. Before they take off, Smith sets the robot to “destroy” and then, narrowly escaping his own destruction, is knocked out in a dark hallway of the ship, which apparently wasn’t given one last going over.
Everyone is cut out of cardboard for the sole purpose of spouting lame cliches the characters are so broad that it’s tedious to watch them get wound up and set in motion to interact. West is supposed to be a hotshot fighter pilot with an attitude and a way with the ladies, but they didn’t even have the grace to hire someone who could play this role convincingly while spoofing it; watching LeBlanc grin and chuckle and crack wise (a huge overstatement) is just dreadful. He homes in on Judy as if a button has been pressed (“That’s one cold fish I’d like to thaw”), and she throws cold water over his advances (literally)—until later in the mission when she decides she kinda hopes the big insufferable hunk comes back alive and proves it with a long, wet kiss.
The dialogue is shockingly lazy, consisting solely of C-level zingers: “Nice work, flyboy,” “This is gonna be interesting,” and the immortal “Rock and roll!” (What hath Top Gun wrought?) Oldman’s nasty remarks are of a slightly higher level; as the fussy, intelligent Smith, he gets to mutter “I detest small children” under his breath and make catty remarks to the lunkish American family and their women’s-magazine version of homey placidity. But the shipload’s unity is visually unmistakable; they all wear the same gunmetal catsuits—except little Penny, whose tight vinyl jumpsuit actually dips underneath her breasts, which are covered in a sheer, sparkly fabric panel. This little number, and the many cuts to the sulky prepubescent bouncing helplessly along at warp speed, make Jock Sturges look like Norman Rockwell.
As stated, the Robinsons and company undergo precisely three adventures. The first is on an abandoned Earth ship sent on a rescue mission to find the lost Robinsons—or perhaps all three are, since Lost in Space cheats (with Einstein’s help) and sends the ship through various wrinkles in time. Anyway, on the first adventure there is an outbreak of digitally created (but no less scary for that) humongous silicone spiders, on the second something I forget, and on the third they cheat again, by dovetailing a number of possible futures and exercising some much-needed catharsis (kill Gary Oldman!) without actually destroying anything. This is supposed to keep the rating kid-friendly and keep the Robinsons from being actual murderers, but the possible future incarnation of Dr. Smith is absolutely terrifying (again, digitalness of wizardry notwithstanding). What kid could sit through this without alternately screaming in terror and falling asleep?
Because the physics are so shaky—and Goldsman needs to give his characters something to say in between fist-pumping Yes!es—the script is peppered with aren’t-we-big-for-our-britches references to The Fly, Blade Runner, Alien, The Waltons, and Gilligan’s Island. But it bears no relation to any of those projects, whether sci-fi, family drama, or castaway story. What it’s most like is Steven Spielberg’s Hook, an overblown chin-up for young boys. All of Lost in Space’s lessons about family and friendship and unselfishness are for the neglected son, whose science project Dad never came to see win first prize, dooming the family to outer-space death and Dad to the worst kind of displacement. Never mind the neglected daughters, one of whom is turning into an automaton in his image and the other acting out dangerously. While the men—flyboy and evil doctor included—go off to resolve the interstellar mess, les girls stay on board and fret, punching the console helplessly. Lost in Space may be pro-family, but it sure has no use for women.