Friday, May 18, 2012
Cult Movie Review: Lost in Space (1998)
It was the summer of my discontent. The blockbuster season of 1998 brought lackluster revivals of two childhood favorites, Godzilla and Lost in Space. I came away from screening both films nurturing a belief that -- literally all at once -- Hollywood had forgotten how to make entertaining movies based on beloved genre properties.
Yes, Hollywood was capable of crafting spectacular special effect, yet something rung terribly hollow at the heart of both of these lavish remakes.
Perhaps the problem is that the A-list actors, writers, producers and directors engaged in these remakes were essentially working with “B” material, but without the appreciation or zeal for the material that the original “B” movie teams had so clearly and abundantly demonstrated in the past.
There’s a crucial difference, we must finally acknowledge between creating an original work of art and inheriting that same property years later, determined to make it “relevant” and “popular” again.
The artistry, invention and love that goes into making something for the very first time is not necessarily the same thing as -- years after the property has made its name -- applying a paint job, or a superficial renovation. But of course, even Lost in Space the TV series was an adaptation of a work of art in a different form, Space Family Robinson.
But the point is that when a movie remake is launched, the property already possesses a history, a context, a vibe, and a perception by the culture-at-large. The critical task of the remake-r is to interpret those pre-existing characteristics and determine the “why” behind the initial and residual success.
But that “why” isn’t always easy to understand, and it is even more difficult to replicate.
The message -- which I understood in 1998 and try to hold in my thoughts even now -- is that you can’t go home again.
Lost in Space (1965 – 1968) is irrevocably a product of its time, the mid-1960s. As a series it combined fairy tale whimsy and innocence with a schizophrenic approach to science and the future. On one hand, the Robinson pioneers possessed all of this wonderful, space-age, Matt-Mason-like technology to make their lives easier, and on the other hand the same technology had stranded them in some far corner of the universe.
Lost in Space on TV also featured this great, mid-1960s space age paraphernalia: boxy, oversized and predominantly silver, with lots of blinking, bright lights. There was a can-do attitude – a holdover from Camelot, perhaps – at work in the series too, despite the premise of being “lost.” And love or hate the Dr. Smith role and the use to which the character was put during three tumultuous seasons, Jonathan Harris exhibited incredible commitment to that role.
And the 1998 Lost in Space movie?
Absolutely no expense was spared in terms of special effects, in terms of sets, and in terms of lead actors, but somehow the movie doesn’t connect on the same simple human level that the series did on a weekly basis.
The filmmakers apparently believe we want to see in this franchise weaving spaceships and lots and lots of fireballs. They think that’s “the why” of Lost in Space, though the Irwin Allen series could afford no such bells and whistles.
Or perhaps the movie doesn’t work because, in a bow to reality and the drastic changes in American culture, the new Lost in Space family is portrayed as wholly dysfunctional and somewhat unpleasant. This is an attempt to make the family-oriented property fit in better during a new era; to reflect our 1990s era domestic reality. But it’s nonetheless a change that isn’t entirely welcome. It’s very much the same problem that plagued the new Battlestar Galactica re-imagination.
There’s a vast difference between a family facing challenges and crises from the outside – a kind of Little House on the Prairie template, where life throws ample challenges at you – and facing internal, personal character flaws such as alcoholism or narcissism. In a dramatic crisis situation and sci-fi setting, like the extermination of the human race or being lost in space, viewers want to see – I believe – characters clinging together and fighting the “elements,” as it were, not battling “personal” subplots about alcoholism that were trite when As the World Turns vetted them thirty years ago. I think people want to see the best of mankind fighting the Cylons or space spiders, not the worst of us.
Or finally, maybe this 1988 movie fails simply because some of the casting doesn’t seem based on who is best for the role, but who boasts the most marquee value. Matt Le Blanc, in particular, doesn’t exude the intelligence necessary to portray a believable space pilot. His gum-chewing horn-toad comes off as hopelessly and irrevocably dumb. His dialogue, consisting of lines like “Yee hah!,” “show time!” and “last one to get a bad guy buys the beer,” is banal on a level that the old TV series could not even have conceived
Critics, generally, weren’t impressed with Lost in Space. Writing in The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote: “This "Lost in Space" is much more chaotic and less innocent than its source.” Roger Ebert (accurately) termed the film “dim-witted,” and The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a warm wallow in the cinema of the dumbed-down.”
All these critics were chipping away at the edges of one particularly relevant argument: that child-like innocence has been supplanted by a kind of witless breathlessness. The original Lost in Space wasn’t Shakespeare to be certain, but nor was it patently, overtly, cheerfully dumb. Some episodes, even today, play as lyrical fairy tales, stories of family values re-asserted in a land of extra-terrestrial magic, and occasional terror.
You can’t look back honestly at some of those old black-and-white stories, like “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,” “One of Our Dogs is Missing” or “The Magic Mirror” without feeling a sense of wondrous, child-like imagination, if not strict devotion to established science. It might have more in common with The Wizard of Oz than Star Trek, but Lost in Space, the TV series...had something, especially in those early black and white days.
By contrast, the Lost in Space movie seeks to hammer the audience with a pile-up of catastrophic incidents (many admittedly interesting, at least initially), and at the same time, pay lip service to the family values vibe of the original.
In a bit of too-clever criticism, the movie’s Dr. Smith asks at one point: “will every little problem be an excuse for family sentiment?” That is precisely the movie’s modus operandi. To its ultimate detriment.
“And the monkey flips the switch”
In 2058, Earth is on the edge of oblivion. The environment is dying and the only hope for survival is to colonize a faraway world, Alpha Prime. To do so, however, two “hyper gates” must be built, one in Earth orbit, and one in orbit of Alpha Prime. When both are up and running, colony ships can jump instantly from one point to the other, and the relocation of man can begin.
Professor John Robinson (William Hurt) leads a mission to Alpha Prime to construct the second hypergate. Because of the long duration of the mission -- a decade -- his family comes along aboard the Jupiter 2. Among the crew are his wife Maureen Robinson (Mimi Rogers), physician Judy Robinson (Heather Graham), petulant teenager Penny (Lacey Chabert) and boy genius Will (Jack Johnson).
But Professor Robinson’s problems begin when a new, less-than-cooperative hot shot pilot, Major West (Matt Le Blanc) assumes the role of pilot on Jupiter 2, and a saboteur from the Global Sedition, Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman) programs the ship’s Robot (Dick Tufeld) to destroy the Robinsons once the craft is in flight.
Averting a disaster in space, the Jupiter 2 “jumps” through the sun and becomes hopelessly lost in space and time. The Robinsons run afoul of strange, alien spiders on a derelict spaceship, and later crash-land on an inhospitable planet where they encounter their future, tragically-altered selves.
There -- in that peek into a dark future -- John gets the chance to see how his absence as a father has affected a grown-up Will.
“There are monsters everywhere...I know, I am one.”
Lost in Space combines a number of plots from the old TV series, including elements of “The Reluctant Stowaway,” “The Derelict” and any episode in which Dr. Smith makes trouble for the Robinsons by interfacing with alien biology/technology or personnel (“Wish Upon A Star,” “Ghost in Space,” “The Space Trader,” “His Majesty Smith,” “All that Glitters,” “The Dream Monster,” and so on…).
The film, directed by Stephen Hopkins, also attempts fidelity in terms of production design. The Jupiter 1 in the film looks much like the TV series’ Jupiter 2, for instance, and before the end of the movie, the newer high-tech robot has been re-built by Will to resemble the popular B9, that famous “bubble-headed booby” and cousin to Robby the Robot. Even the interiors look like faithful if updated reconstructions of the 1960s sets, only with more curves and a more organic feel.
Of all the cast, Le Blanc fares the worst. He is utterly unlikable as West, and given the worst dialogue to vet. William Hurt seems bored and disconnected as Professor Robinson. Mimi Rogers and Heather Graham are okay, and only Gary Oldman absolutely shines. In fact, Oldman’s version of the treacherous Dr. Smith character feels like a real tribute to Jonathan Harris, coming off as arrogantly self-important and straddling the line between good and evil. Oldman mines considerable humor and menace from the screenplay, and is the movie’s most valuable player. He's great here.
The most contrived portions of Lost in Space involve Maureen’s unceasing complaints about John’s “time.” She constantly nags him about spending more hours with Will, even though she also has two daughters and he doesn’t spend any time with them, either. So yes, apparently only young boys, not young girls, require quality time with their father. Who knew the world would be so sexist, still, in 2058? I guess we know who wins the war on women...
More crucially, Maureen’s complaints come off as rather selfish and small given the context of what’s happening around her. John Robinson is struggling to save the planet Earth and the human race, and sure, it would be nice if he could attend his son’s science fair. But I wager his priorities are just about right. In fact, I bet if Will were given a choice, he’d decide that his Dad should, you know, save the planet, so that all kids can enjoy science fairs for years to come.
The John-needs-to-spend-more-time-with-Will subplot is a manufactured crisis and a contrivance that isn’t truly believable given the narrative details. The movie sort of proves it’s a non-issue when the older Will – even with Spider Smith as a surrogate father – does the right thing to save the universe and his family. I guess John imparted some good qualities to his boy in the time he had. He may be "busy" (again, saving the world") but he isn't negligent or absent.
Again, the old series didn’t contend with these “emo” touches. The Robinsons were essentially space pioneers and, well, a planet had to be tamed. John Robinson (Guy Williams) was always there for his son if Will (Bill Mumy) needed him, but there wasn’t this constant hand-wringing on the TV series about how much time the two were spending together. Here, the subplot is a little touchy-feely and unrealistic given the circumstances.
Bottom line: there’s not a lot of time for father-child closeness when your spaceship is plunging into the sun, battling metal spiders, crash-landing, or hovering at the edge of a dangerous space-time bubble.
Sorry, kid. Suck it up.
Even family must, as we all know too well, bow to reality, and I generally resent movies that suggest everything would be okay if a Dad and son just spent a little more time together. Meanwhile, the planet is falling apart….
Another problem with the film is that, in post-production, apparently, someone decided that the film needed to be funnier. Therefore, we get an out-of-left-field The Waltons joke (“and good night, John Boy...”) delivered in embarrassed voice-over. The problem isn't that the joke isn't funny, though it isn't. The problem is that it doesn’t fit the scene. We get a nice fade-out on John and Maureen about to have sex, and then the very next instant, we’re onto a sound cue of the same two characters saying “good night” to each other and the kids, like this is the galactic Brady Bunch. Like so much of the film’s humor, it’s groan-inducing.
As incongruous as that moment remains, the space creature that the Robinsons discover, Blawp is even worse. He has been crafted to look absolutely ridiculous. The design of this alien might have fit in on the original series, forty years ago, but it in no way fits the palette of the 1998 film. Blawp doesn’t look like the product of a universe that includes the movie Robinsons and the truly scary alien metal spiders. Instead, Blawp looks as though he was shipped in from the funny pages, circa 1959. Every time the creature appears, his presence takes you right out of the reality of the movie.
It’s not just that the creature is composed of bad CGI. It’s that the visualization of the creature is all wrong for the earthy production canvas; fanciful and whimsical in a movie of skin-tight body suits and dark browns and greys.
Despite my reservations about the movie, Lost in Space begins relatively well. Even though the opening space battle between the Global Sedition and United Global Space Force is entirely unnecessary, the first hour of the film establishes well the threat to Earth. The first act boasts a decent pace, and there’s a respectable level of excitement and anticipation. The battle on the alien derelict against the metal spiders is also thrilling. From the point, however, in which John goes into the time bubble, the movie gets lost itself.
Lost and incoherent.
As the movie ends, Future Will throws Present John through a time vortex, but it isn’t entirely clear if West already has the power cells the Jupiter 2 needs for lift-off, if John has them, or if Future Will still has them. Why is the Jupiter 2 attempting escape velocity without the power source it needs? Why isn't anyone commenting on, essentially, a suicide run?
Then, the movie ends without resolving Dr. Smith’s crisis. He’s slowly turning into a giant spider monster, but there are no attempts to treat the condition, or even quarantine the guy. The movie ends without even a hint of resolution on this front. But this is after John, Will, the Robot and Smith himself have seen his future manifestation. I very much doubt Smith would stay silent, knowing he is carrying an infection that will transform him into a giant arachnid.
Also, Lost in Space never squares the circle in terms of the future. The robot of the future comes back in time to the Jupiter 2…but in the “real” timeline, Will never finishes building that robot. So if he does, there will be two robots?
If he doesn’t finish work on the robot, then where did the robot come from, having never actually been constructed by Will? I’m not saying that this is an unworkable dilemma, only that the movie might have made note of the time paradox. A joke about it would have been fine.
As a general premise, Lost in Space boasts great potential, even today. The idea of a family alone on an alien world, trying to make a go of things, offers nearly infinite story ideas. You don’t have to make the movie schmaltzy, or wall-to-wall action to make the scenario work effectively. You just need a few characters you like, some tough conditions, and a sense that – as a family – the pioneers will stick together and see the mission through, no matter the challenges. But this Lost in Space wants to hit you on the head with incongruous platitudes about family (a lot like the Dark Shadows remake I reviewed on Tuesday…) and then wow you with special effects explosions.
Although I felt a legitimate thrill hearing Dick Tufeld voice the Robot again in this film, I remember well 1998 and my discontent regarding this film. It remains a lost opportunity, and an emotionally hollow adventure.
Danger, Will Robinson!