Lost in Space
Screenplay : Akiva Goldsman
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : William Hurt (John Robinson), Gary Oldman (Dr. Smith), Mimi Rogers (Maureen Robinson), Matt LeBlanc (Major Don West), Heather Graham (Judy Robinson), Jack Johnson (Will Robinson), Lacey Chabert (Penny Robinson), Dick Tufeld (Voice of Robot)
Let me be the first to admit that I have never consciously watched a single episode of the old TV series "Lost in Space," which aired a mere three seasons from 1965 to 1968. I say "consciously" because, during one of those long nights in college when I was supposed to be studying, I could have very well been flipping through the cable channels and unknowingly watched part of an episode on "TV Land."
However, if I did, I don't remember it, so it's pointless for me to compare the TV show to the new $70 million movie that is based on it, or spun off it, or however they want to describe it. All I know is that the TV show was a futuristic update of "Swiss Family Robinson," and that it was goofy and cheap and had cardboard and tin foil sets. The new movie, while goofy in its own unique way, was certainly not cheap. It has replaced cardboard and tin foil with millions of dollars worth of digital effects, but all to no avail. The movie streaks along its two-hour course without ever being much in the way of exciting, funny, or moving.
The story takes place in the year 2058. William Hurt (who has come a long way down since winning the 1985 Best Actor Oscar for "Kiss of the Spider Woman"), plays John Robinson, a brilliant astrophysicist who has been developing a space exploration program so humans can colonize other planets because Earth is almost out of natural resources. He has designed a gateway system so that a trip across light years of space that would normally take ten years will only take seconds. Although the entrance gateway by Earth is nearly completed, Robinson has to make the long trip to the destination planet, Alpha Prime, to construct the exit gateway.
Because he is trying to balance his responsibilities of saving the human race and being a father and husband, he decides to take family with him. His wife, Maureen (Mimi Rogers) is a biochemist; his eldest daughter, Judy (Heather Graham), is a physician; the middle daughter, Penny (Lacey Chabert), is a precocious teenager who hates the idea of leaving her friends; which leaves Will (Jack Johnson), the youngest son who is in all likelihood smarter than all his family members put together, but no one will listen to him because he's too young. Commanding the ship is Major Don West (Matt LeBlanc), whose character is right out of Tom Cruise's "Top Gun" school of cockiness and sly charm (although Cruise is much more charming than LeBlanc will ever be).
Things go terrible wrong when the evil Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman) stows on-board and sabotages the mission for political reasons (don't ask). The damage he inflicts on the Robinson's ship throws it off-course and heads it straight for the sun. The only way to escape is to use the hyper-drive to shoot straight through the flaming star, and when they do it sends the Robinson family hurtling into the unknown, unmapped regions of deep space where they are -- of course -- lost.
To explain the plot any further would require much more time and typing than I am willing to endure. The screenplay by Akiva Goldsman (who also co-produced the film and was the major force behind getting the project made) is even denser and more illogical than his script for last summer's awful "Batman & Robin." It feels like Goldsman is using one of those computer program templates to lay out his scripts: they have form and multiple plot points that connect, but there's no substance to them. Everything that happens early in the film is carefully tied to later developments, but the story still conveys no weight; there's just no tension or excitement.
The last third of the film delves into a nearly incoherent mess about time travel that is both confusing and a cop-out (it allows Goldsman to kill just about everybody, but then bring them back). If anyone was confused by some of the time warping tricks in the "Back to the Future" trilogy, beware: "Lost In Space" condenses three movies' worth of time twisting into half an hour. Perhaps Goldsman was hoping the special effects would cover up all the plot holes and half-baked ideas.
And speaking of FX, considering the vast number of scenes in the movie that contain nothing but digital effects, one has to wonder how much control director Stephen Hopkins ("The Ghost and the Darkness") actually had. He might not bear much of the blame except for the fact that the scenes where he did have control aren't much better: the action sequences are mostly confusing and overwrought, and there is little if any emotional impact in the characters' relationships.
The actors don't have much to do in their one-dimensional characters, and they are constantly shadowed by all those digital effects. And what effects they are. Sometimes glorious, sometimes cartoonish, the special effects are as uneven as the entire project. For every spectacular planetary explosion that really makes you feel like you're there in outer space, there's an ill-designed effect that reminds you that it's all computer-generated.
The most egregious is a horrendously campy and ultimately annoying sidekick creature that resembles a cross between a monkey and a chameleon. It serves no purpose in the film other than the addition of a "cute" factor, and it's not even that cute because it never once looks like anything other than computer animation. Buzz and Woody in Disney's "Toy Story" looked more realistic and three-dimensional than this creature does.
Watching the cartoonish monkey-whatever-it-is bounce around, I was reminded of just how good the groundbreaking effects were for "Jurassic Park" five years ago. At least those effect were realistic, and they had purpose. Most of "Lost in Space" is just like that monkey-creature: a bezerk cartoon that emits nothing but a lot of annoying jabber.
©1998 James Kendrick