LOST IN SPACE (1998) Reviews and overview

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‘Get lost’

Lost in Space is a 1998 science fiction action feature film about the Robinson family that goes into space to fight for a chance for humanity. They end up fighting to live long enough to find a way home.

Directed by Stephen Hopkins (The Reaping; Predator 2; A Nightmare on Elm Street 5) from a screenplay written Akiva Goldsman, based on characters from the Irwin Allen television series, the movie stars William Hurt, Gary Oldman, Mimi Rogers, Matt LeBlanc, Heather Graham, Lacey Chabert and Jack Johnson.

Review:

A mighty trilogy from New Line Cinema that would take turn-of-the-20th-century viewers to incredible new worlds of fantasy, lore and adventure!!!… Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings cycle? No. A few years before that, a three-parter had apparently been determined for Lost in Space, an FX-laden relaunch of a nostalgically remembered American TV show from the 1960s.

Mediocre reception for 1998’s $70 million (back when that was rather a lot of money) Lost in Space movie meant that the continuing adventure… never did. But that sure does explain a few things for me with this costly, eye-filling epic: subplots and characters introduced that never pay off, dangling storylines, meandering motivations, and an overarching sense that the whole thing was simultaneously overthought and underthought.

Behold Earth of 2058 (already looking as inaccurate as did the 1965 TV show’s fictitious incept date of 1997). With the planet’s resources tapped out, scientists aim to send humanity looking for more upscale real estate in the cosmos. Professor John Robinson (William Hurt), the developer of a faster-than-light drive, gets to test the technology in the maiden voyage of the Jupiter 2 saucer, his whole family aboard in a symbolic exploratory hop to a distant star.

But terrorists with no clear agenda have paid freelance traitor Doctor Zachary Smith (Gary Oldman) to sabotage the flight. Smith gets trapped aboard the Jupiter 2 when it uncontrollably warps to a random spot in the galaxy.

With an unrepentant Smith their perpetual prisoner and foil, the Robinsons and their would-be macho guest pilot Don West (Matt LeBlanc) rush at comet velocity through perils sewn together by director Stephen Hopkins in the style of a 64-bit video game set to demo mode. There’s an excursion to a mysteriously adrift starship crawling with ferocious, giant bugs (for those who didn’t get enough of that cliché in Men in Black and Starship Troopers), hastily followed by a sojourn on a nearby, unstable planet, as the Jupiter 2 castaways try to determine a way back home. Though, of course, if they really did succeed in that, there would be no call for the planned sequels.

TV’s original Lost in Space, produced by big-things-going-boom Hollywood mogul Irwin Allen, was a sci-fi version of the venerable Swiss Family Robinson castaway premise. The network program was noteworthy not only for an early John (“Johnny”) Williams score but also for its schizoid arc, beginning in black-and-white as fairly sombre Mercury Space Program attitude, then morphing – with the introduction of colour cinematography and studies of what was most appealing to American viewers – into garish silliness. Grimly confronted alien threats got replaced with galactic long-haired bikers and, at one point, a half-man-half-carrot.

TV’s Doctor Smith (thespian Jonathan Harris gamely running the gamut) started out a genuine menace but ended a simpering comic-relief buffoon, squalling “the pain, the pain!” and playing off his squabbles with the Robinson’s trusty Robot (“You bubbleheaded boobie!”) or the young science prodigy Will Robinson (Billy Mumy in the show, Jack Johnson in this feature).

Welding the unmatching bits together for the New Line reboot, fell to blockbuster screenwriter/producer Akiva Goldsman, fresh off doing two campy Batman movies that were generally considered not the Dark Knight’s finest hour. Thus there are lots of clever comic-bookish lines, a front-loading of cameos by actors from the original show (June Lockhart, Marc Goddard, etc) and other inside jokes.

Silicon Graphics, responsible for lots of spiffy f/x in otherwise empty movie spectacles when CGI was Hollywood’s latest bright shiny toy, churned out great eye candy in terms of bubble-hood spaceships, domed cities, shimmering force fields, clattering arachnids, and a squirmy alien pet the Robinsons acquire, Hollywood’s most nauseatingly cute sci-fi lifeform since the Ewok. Jim Henson’s workshop built not one but two animatronic iterations of young Will’s famed Robot. In case some of the imaginative ergonomic gadgets and production designs (Stephen Hopkins went with a futuristic veneer that largely eschewed right angles) flashed past too fast, toy versions were available at retailers everywhere.

What Lost in Space needs more is a sense of wonder, suspense, involvement, terror, discovery… Key sensations even Irwin Allen’s original TV show managed to stir on occasion. In the evolution of sci-fi on American television, the debut of Star Trek right after Lost in Space is considered by many science-fiction fans to be when the medium at long last Got It Right. But in this 1998 version one watches the explosions and glitz with detachment and dry palms, appreciating mainly the gigabytes of hard-drive storage and hours at some terminal it must have taken to envision it.

What relaunched/re-lost Lost in Space should be remembered for is the contrast between the 90s Robinsons and their counterparts of yesteryear. Products of the pre-Vietnam, pre-feminist mindset (occasional encounters with space hippies notwithstanding), the ’60s Robinson clan was the idealised American household, with a wise and brave father, serenely domestic mother, and a trio of straight-A kids. The worst that ever happened was daughter Penny’s teen crush on Major West, or Will forgetting to keep his elbows off the table at dinner.

This one presents a Space Family Robinson for the downsized and dysfunctional ’90s, when the moms and dads (if any) must work three jobs just to pay the interest on the credit cards and kids get to run wild. Workaholic John Robinson rarely sees or listens to his children, and missed Will’s science fairs. Will hacks the school computer and isn’t above a PG-13 expletive. Penny (Lacey Chabert) is a truant goth chick. Judy is cold and emotionless in mimicry of dad, and mom (Mimi Rogers) mediates between the combatants. In the course of cataclysmic adventures, Professor Robinson learns to Always Be There for His Family, which was a standard Hollywood story arc of the era (I often wonder how many movie-industry marriages fell apart while the talents involved laboured overtime on save-your-family tales.

Gary Oldman, in the “coveted” role of Doctor Zachary Smith, expounds that he’s made a “profound philosophical choice” of evil over good, to forever be the serpent in the garden, Do What Thou Wilt and all that, as Goldsman’s dialogue tries to throttle-up the dialogue out of the juvenile realm. At least the thespian did a public service preventing other worthy
Brit actors (Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Terence Stamp, Jeremy Irons… Dame Maggie Smith, even) from selling out as one more upper-crust baddie in Hollywood drivel. O my brother, where were you when Malcolm McDowell needed you?

Following the iffy flight of this Lost in Space there came an unrelated Lost in Space Netflix series in 2018 that did indeed make Doctor Smith a female (Parker Posey); I haven’t made the acquaintance. As for this one, it’s there on video with the pretty pictures and the what-ifs? for viewers (and Akiva Goldsman’s bank account) if the rest of the spectacles had ever been made.

Charles Cassady Jr. – MOVIES & MANIA

Other reviews:

“Oldman should have stayed at home. LeBlanc comes courtesy of Dial-A-Hunk. Graham makes you forget she was in Boogie Nights. Rogers makes you forget. Hurt looks miserable as if he strayed onto the wrong sound stage. Chabert could have stolen the picture but is given nothing to do in the second half.” Eye for Film

“Without a clear narrative drive, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to the whole endeavor. The desire to get home doesn’t generate the level of urgency one might reasonably expect, and the movie ends up feeling like a few episodes of Star Trek: Voyager strung together. ” Reel Views

“The film, running a tad over two hours, at times gets lost in its own kind of space, not sure which end is up. But a deft interplay among swaggering Major West, the muttering Professor John (protective of his daughter) and cute scientist Judy helps keep the trip fun.” San Francisco Chronicle, April 3, 1998.

Choice dialogue:

Major Don West: “Ok, last one to kill the bad guy gets the beer.”

Major Don West: “Ok, I’m puttin’ the pedal to the metal. Here goes.”

Doctor Smith: “I loathe children.”

Cast and characters:

  • William Hurt … John Robinson
  • Mimi Rogers … Maureen Robinson
  • Heather Graham … Judy Robinson
  • Lacey Chabert … Penny Robinson
  • Jack Johnson … Will Robinson
  • Gary Oldman … Doctor Smith / Spider Smith
  • Matt LeBlanc … Don West
  • Jared Harris … Older Will
  • Mark Goddard … General
  • Lennie James … Jeb Walker
  • Marta Kristen … Reporter #1
  • June Lockhart … Principal
  • Edward Fox … Businessman
  • Adam Sims … Lab Technician
  • Angela Cartwright … Reporter #2

Filming locations:

Principal photography began on March 3, 1997, at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, England.

Box office:

Lost in Space reportedly cost $80 million and grossed $136.2 million worldwide.

Technical details:

  • 130 minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.39: 1
  • Audio: DTS | Dolby Digital | SDDS

  

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