LOST IN SPACE (1998)

20 years ago, Lost In Space failed to become the next big sci-fi franchise, so on the eve of Netflix's TV reboot, we reevaluate the 1998 movie...

Hollywood seems hooked on needlessly remaking classic movies, and now the trend seems to have shifted to television series. Reboots aplenty try to reinvent them for new audiences, whilst exploiting the nostalgia of their original fanbase. Now, an update of Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space is set to debut on Netflix, 20 years after a failed attempt to reboot it as a cinematic franchise.

The original Lost in Space was a well-loved, though somewhat wacky, Golden Age science fiction series that ran for three seasons between 1965-68. It followed the exploits of the Robinson family, who set off into space to escape an Earth threatened by collision with a comet. They were joined by a state of the art robot and mad scientist, who’d been trying to sabotage their vessel but instead wound up becoming an accidental stowaway. The series was inspired by Swiss Family Robinson, but more likely the hugely popular 1960 Disney film, rather than the original 1812 novel by Johann David Wyss, which was written as an education in Christian family values. In Irwin Allen’s “update”, the family are marooned on a distant planet, rather than an uncharted island.

30 years after the series ended its run, a big screen reboot was preceded by an extensive promotional campaign that included a tie-in with clothing company Spiewak, who were to provide the futuristic flight jackets for the cast. There were also teaser posters emblazoned with the catchphrase “Danger Will Robinson”—a line that was reportedly only used once during the entire show’s run. Perhaps some of that promotional budget would’ve been better spent on development ahead of production, or maybe on the production itself, which by all accounts was a rushed affair from script to screen. The clichéd script by Akiva Goldaman (coming off the Batman & Robin debacle) could well have benefitted from a few redrafts!

In this version, with director Stephen Hopkins at the helm, the Robinson family set off from earth as pioneers to kickstart the colonisation of a distant habitable planet. Earth is doomed, not by a comet, but by humans—as we’ve used up all its resources and now pollution, famine, and war threaten to end civilisation in decades. Apparently recycling and green energy was just placating propaganda, and nothing can avert our planet’s impending doom. The problem is exacerbated by an East-West conflict and a ‘terrorist’ organisation known as the ‘Global Sedition’ intent on defeating the ‘White Devils’ of the west and reaching the new planet first. This political East-West divide contemporised the film and remains painfully relevant today.

For the most part the production hardly seems dated. It’s vision of the future is well realised. with the characters accepting and using fantastic new-fangled gadgetry, some of which has actually been developed over the decades since! There’s also nice attention to detail in every little display and read-out and the overall look of the film (props, costumes, sets) is very slick. The production design is incredibly cool and it took an army of carpenters, plasters and sculptors, to build the extensive Jupiter 2 interiors at Shepperton studios.

The special effects were remarkable for 1998, using both greenscreen and digital composites to combine sets, motion-control miniatures, and virtual models. From the mid-1990s, small independent digital effects houses were springing up around the world and the production made the most of its budget by out-sourcing the effects to smaller companies beyond Hollywood, establishing this as a new decentralised production approach.

The film unpicks threads from several episodes of the TV series and re-weaves them into a more compressed narrative. The discovery of a gargantuan abandoned space ship, in this case the Proteus, inexplicably marooned from the future and harbouring a nasty alien surprise, is a storyline taken from the “The Derelict”, the second episode of the series. The flyby sequence is very reminiscent of Event Horizon (1997) where the Lewis & Clark approaches a similar dormant hulk. And here the film takes a darker turn, for a few minutes drawing on haunted house tropes. It also brought to mind Disney’s The Black Hole (1979) and there are passing similarities between the robot designs in both films.

Pretty soon, the mood lifts again with the discovery of an alien creature that looks to have stepped from the cover of Amazing Stories or similar Golden Age science fiction magazines. Penny (Lacey Chabert) is taken by its cuteness and volunteers to be its carer and trainer. Usually, the cute thing put in solely to amuse younger viewers ends up being both embarrassing and annoying. But Blawp, as she names it, doesn’t intrude too much. For its time, the integration of this cartoonish computer-generated character, courtesy of the Jim Henson Creature Shop, with live actors was an adventurous experiment. Blawp helps to lighten the tone as the film becomes quite intense at times, including the escape from the Proteus, pursued by ravenous, unstoppable metallic space spiders, from which not everyone emerges unscathed…

This is a rather cumbersome action sequence that’s little more than a straightforward shoot ’em up, seemingly with one eye on the computer game tie-in market. The kid in me was excited by the holographic interface that enables young Will to operate the robot by remote control—a very clever device to allow a child to take part in the action whilst effectively keeping Will Robinson out of danger!

The Robot is destroyed in the battle with the alien spiders, and Will later rebuilds it to more closely resemble the 1960s version. Another clever nod to the original is the design of the Robinson’s spaceship, the Jupiter 2. At its launch it is recognisable as being the vessel from the TV series, but this turns out to be only a protective shell which is promptly shed once in space for the new sleeker, curvier vessel to emerge and bring us into a more 1990s vision of the future.

The film comes across as episodic, and certainly falls into the three-act format; the first two roughly following the set-up of the original series’ first two episodes. In the escape, the Jupiter 2 is damaged and crash lands on a nearby planet. As in the original series, the first survival challenge the planet throws at them is extreme cold. They soon detect a power source that seems to be compatible with their own depleted reserves, but it appears to be within a weird time bubble. The original series included several episodes featuring time warps and played with different versions of the characters from alternative time streams. Without spoiling things too much, the third act of the film updates these ideas with a clever parallel reality concept.

The whole cast do a good job, considering the material they have to work with, but there’s no denying that some of the acting is rather awkward. The interactions between characters don’t always come off convincingly, but I was watching with a mixed audience including a 13-year-old (possibly closer to the target audience) who seemed to be enthralled and only winced occasionally at the tirade of terrible one-liners thrown away by Mat LeBlanc as the handsome war hero, Major Don West. Sure, he’s cute, as young Penny observes, but he’s also a caricature and his chauvinism, though intended as ironic, comes across as a little too much of a throwback for a modern man of 2058!

His star appeal relied on Joey, his character in the long-running US sitcom Friends, and its fans would’ve enjoyed seeing him stepping out of character as a macho tough guy. But without this context, he comes across as uncomfortable and proves he’s better suited to comedy, this being his sole role as an action hero—apart from playing an actor who plays action heroes in Charlie’s Angels (2000), another update of a classic US TV series.

There are some fan-pleasing cameos from the original cast of the 1960s series. June Lockheart (who played Maureen Robinson) briefly appears via hologram as Principal Cartwright. Mark Goddard (the original Major West) is now a general! Marta Kristen and Angela Cartwright (Judy and Penny Robinson) both briefly appear as reporters at the press conference—though you’d have to be quick to spot them. Surprisingly, original Will Robinson actor, Bill Mumy doesn’t get a cameo—wouldn’t it have been great if he’d played the older Will Robinson? Apparently, the director thought it would be too distracting, despite Mumy being up for the part.

Jared Harris, son of Richard, does a good enough job in the role as the adult Will Robinson, though. And Jack Johnson plays the child version with a similar wide-eyed naivety as the original.

William Hurt and Mimi Rogers have both mastered understatement and do their best to hold things together as Mr and Mrs Robinson, but Akiva Goldsman’s script demands very little of them. Heather Graham shines brightest as Dr. Judy Robinson, and for the most part compensates for LeBlanc’s charisma deficit in the scenes they share. The whole cast have excellent potential but are not shown in their best light. There are a few scenes that do tug on the heart strings, particularly the reunion of Will and his father near the end.

Gary Oldman is, of course, brilliant as the smug and self-serving Dr. Zachary Smith, but he doesn’t get enough screen time. The ambiguous dynamic between the cowardly character of Smith and the young Will was at the heart of the original series, though this is not given the chance to develop at all. Here, he’s more definitely a villain, and though given to camp asides, his lines are not as funny or clever as they might have been.

The orchestral score composed and conducted by Bruce Broughton is suitably rousing and grand enough to evoke epics from the old days, however it is, at times, a little obtrusive. Perhaps we’re now used to similar slick science fiction films having a pulsing techno score. Here, the techno tracks are held back for the end credits.

Despite some obvious shortcomings, Lost in Space remains hugely enjoyable and surprisingly undated. Its frenetic pace seems very contemporary in its expectations of the audience’s visual literacy, and although some of its effects, particularly the opening space fighter dog-fight, do look a bit ‘Babylon 5’ they’re generally convincing and represent a real technical achievement.

The narrative never really lets up and successfully avoids the ‘drag-factor’ that so many ‘origin’ films fall foul of, but in this case, I think we could’ve spent more time getting to know the family instead of just a few compressed short-hand scenes. It’s chock-full of interesting ideas and brave concepts. The vision of the future is imaginative and is turning out to be a fairly accurate prediction, except Penny’s video diary, which feels like ‘social media’, doesn’t seem to be shared on-line. The alternative time paradox feels more Star Trek than Lost in Space.

The film is far from a failure, but still doesn’t totally work. The main problem, apart from some terrible dialogue, is it just seems too rushed and desperate to set things up for planned sequels. Like many reboots of old material, the producers seem to want to have their cake and eat it, appealing to the original fans, who are now adults wanting more serious scares, but also want to hook their children in. What results is often a hotchpotch that is too adult for the children and too childish for the adults and ends up pleasing neither. Although criticised by some for being too dark, Lost in Space gets the balance about right. Still, it gets a bit intense for younger children in parts. The body horror aspect when Smith mutates into a giant spider-beast is the stuff of genuine nightmares, though the digital animation for this creature effect has dated and is no longer convincing to modern eyes.

It reached the No.1 box office slot on its opening weekend, thus ending Titanic’s 15-week monopoly, and overall, performed well. But not well-enough to secure a sequel. This may have been due a plethora of rather scathing reviews that seemed to miss the point that it was intended as a family film. There was talk of a TV series and John Woo was even commissioned to direct the pilot, but this never happened.

The Lost in Space movie still looks fresh today and remains great fun. Yes, there is a darker feel than the original series, and if we’re being picky, some of the special effects which were astounding at the time do look chintzy, but they mostly hold up well. If nothing else, it messed with the formula enough to build a bridge between the idealistic sentimentality of the original and whatever the new Netflix reboot may surprise us with.

I, for one, am looking forward to getting lost, again…

Cast & Crew

director: Stephen Hopkins.
writer: Akiva Goldsman (based on the TV series created by Irwin Allen).
starring: Gary Oldman, William Hurt, Matt LeBlanc, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham, Lacey Chabert, Jack Johnson & Jared Harris.

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