Lost in Space (1998)

D: Stephen Hopkins
S: William Hurt, Gary Oldman, Matt LeBlanc

From a dying planet Earth, a single family and a valiant pilot are sent on a mission to a faraway world where colonisation will begin and so save the human race. But a saboteur is aboard their vessel, and triggers an emergency manoeuvre which sends the ship shooting off into uncharted space.

Episodic big screen update of the sixties TV series which manages to capture many of its essential elements and translate them for a contemporary audience. Unfortunately, its fidelity is part of the problem, and its eventful but meaningless and contrived script eventually peters out mid way through. The film is stilted and artificial and prone to empty moralising, and though it works quite well for the first hour or so, its intellectual poverty finally tells. The plot meanders weakly through some sermonising about fathers and sons in the latter half until it finally ends on a half-hearted cliffhanger designed to set up a sequel or a TV spin-off.

Despite a heavyweight cast including William Hurt, Gary Oldman and Mimi Rogers (and a very beguiling performance by Jack Johnson as young Will Robinson), and some half-hearted attempts to 'dysfunctionalise' (yawn) the Space Family Robinson, the film is without doubt best appreciated as a visual and aural assault of special effects, production design and Saturday matinee action for the small fry. Older viewers whose memories of the original may be affectionate will probably wince with recognition at the platitudes dispensed by the characters here, and though the script (accredited to Akiva Goldsman) continually provides big moments and scenes of dire jeopardy, it is still transparently juvenile and embarrassingly true to its origins.

The set up and first act is well handled, and the film looks and sounds quite stunning. Director Stephen Hopkins is comfortable with the on screen world and handles the logistics with suitable dogged persistence. There are plenty of scenes of action, suspense and humour to keep things moving, and it takes a while before you realise their urgency masks an essential pointlessness. You eventually lose interest in the decorations and begin to search for something meatier which is simply not there. It particularly loses its way when it finally settles down to a single storyline involving a time bubble and an encounter with the future selves of Will Robinson (Jared Harris) and Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman and some special effects). The tired father-son theme on which the film eventually turns may have meaning for a boy of Will's age, but is simply too pat to elicit even the slightest sympathy from anyone of a different age or gender.

It is a little boy's movie, and it will probably play best to that demographic despite attempts to beef up the female characters from the happy housewives and housewives-to-be of the original show. Penny (Lacey Chabert) is a young teen rebel with the young Winona Ryder look and a defiant attitude, Judy (Heather Graham, last seen in Boogie Nights) is a scientist with a strong line in put downs for macho man Matt LeBlanc, and mother Maureen (Mimi Rogers) has some interesting one liners about the rituals of the establishment of male authority of which wary parents might not be enamoured. It is a space ships, robots and alien monsters movie with lots of colourful special effects and a strong role in the action for a prepubescent male: just the kind of thing a certain type of kid wants to see.

Unfortunately, though the same might be said as above of Star Wars, the film lacks pleasures beyond the obvious, and is bereft of the latter's mythic resonances. It also runs out of steam and simply becomes tedious, which is a pity. It makes it difficult to forgive what might prove minor flaws if it had kept up pace and entertainment throughout. Lost in Space is not all bad. It works on a visual level and provides reasonable fun for part of its running time. But it certainly does not do its genre or its makers any favours and seems ultimately a half-baked conception which needed more development (though it has been in production for quite some time). The real question it leaves in the mind is where the franchise goes from here, as it feels suspiciously like it may go next straight to cable or network TV; back to charted space, so to speak. Watch for a surprising cameo by Edward Fox, of all people, and some less surprising ones by veterans of the original show.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.