Lost in Space

lost-in-space-originalHaving never seen the old TV series Lost in Space, I had no preconceptions of how the new movie version “should have been done” and am free to judge it independently on its merits as a movie. Having now seen the film, I have many ideas about how it should have been done. How about … intelligently? Perhaps with some wit and originality? A little less dependence on CGI effects and a little more attention to the script? A single moment that doesn’t seem pitched to slow ten-year-olds? Movies like Lost in Space are routinely defended as “just fun,” but when did “fun” become synonymous with “bland” and “shallow”?

We’re in 2038, when the Earth is in trouble: In another twenty years, the planet won’t be able to support human life. So the plan is to ship everyone to another human-friendly planet, Alpha Prime (and presumably ruin that planet too). Professor John Robinson (William Hurt) will lead the way, taking his family with him. The premise of both the show and the movie is that the Robinsons’ ship gets knocked off course, leading to many episodes of well-loved TV adventures.

The problem with the movie — well, one among many — is that it adopts the episodic structure of a Lost in Space marathon on the Sci-Fi Channel. The characters — also including the macho pilot Don West (Matt LeBlanc) and the evil stowaway Dr. Zachary Smith (Gary Oldman) — go from one damn crisis to another, and the episodes don’t build on each other; we don’t feel that the heroes are in a situation beyond their control, but rather that the filmmakers are running to catch up with a big movie beyond their control. The film is like an unguided missile.

Lost in Space was directed by Stephen Hopkins, a solid action craftsman (he made The Ghost and the Darkness and the underrated Judgment Night). Hopkins keeps things moving, and a couple of the space-chase sequences have an adrenalized lift to them. But the movie keeps crashing into clichés — those being the specialty of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who worked on the last two terrible Batmanentries. Seasoned moviegoers will find much here to roll their eyes at, whether it’s the tired device of the absentee dad (Professor Robinson is always missing out on his son’s milestones) or the introduction of an allegedly cute critter named Blarp, who makes the movie seem even more like a two-hour toy commercial.

The casting splits you down the middle — you don’t know whether to be grateful that you at least have good actors to watch, or to regret that they’re given nothing to do. The idea of Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith promises more diabolical fun than you get; this is one of his very rare dull performances, weighed down by a script that doesn’t let him take off. The Robinson children are non-entities: Judy (Heather Graham) is defined almost entirely by her Princess Leia-Han Solo hostile banter with Don West, Will (Jack Johnson) is a little techno-geek, and Penny (Lacy Chabert of Party of Five) is like Sarah Michelle Gellar’s less talented kid sister. Mimi Rogers, who has been impressive elsewhere (The Rapture), is yet another wife telling her man to be careful; she could start by telling him to wake up — Hurt sleepwalks toward the paycheck being dangled in front of him, as he did in Dark City.

The climax is some nonsense involving a “time bubble,” which is really a code name for a gimmick useful to desperate screenwriters. Lost in Space is so full of time bubbles it’s practically effervescent, and the ending is left so arrogantly unresolved that I sat stunned for a moment until I realized — Of course! They’re leaving it open for a sequelLost in Space is so witless that it never answers the major question raised by both the TV show and the movie: When the Robinsons find Dr. Smith aboard the ship, why don’t they just shoot him in the head and get it over with? “Because then there wouldn’t be a movie,” you may say. Well, so what?

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