Lost in Space (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Lost in Space is New Line Cinema's bid to enter the space franchise race. Undoubtedly impressed by the long-term, consistent profitability of Paramount's Star Trek movies (the ninth of which will be released this year), New Line has decided to resurrect another late-'60s science fiction television enterprise, Lost in Space. Admittedly, thirty years ago, there weren't many similarities between the two programs. Star Trek was a relatively serious, socially-conscious series while Lost in Space became infected with what I'll call the "Batman sickness," and, over the course of its four-year run, devolved from a semi-straight program into pure camp. Much of that silliness has been removed for this big-budget, big-screen effort.

Fans of the original Lost in Space will likely not be displeased by the direction this movie takes. In addition to retaining the basic premise of the series, all of the characters are back, as well – right down to the nameless robot (whose voice is provided by the same man who did the job in the TV program, Dick Tufeld). There are also cameos by four of the '60s cast – June Lockhart (who played Maureen Robinson), Mark Goddard (Don West), Angela Cartwright (Penny Robinson), and Marta Kristen (Judy Robinson). Despite all of these nods to the past, however, the special effects are strictly state-of-the-art. Unfortunately, there's not much to supplement all the eye-popping visuals. The story is unfocused and the character development is virtually nonexistent.

One of the problems is that Lost in Space uses more than 30 minutes setting up the plot, and it's not a particularly interesting half-hour. (If a strong box office response warrants future installments, at least we will have gotten over this tedious hurdle.) The remainder of the film is divided into two parts – the investigation of a seemingly-deserted space ship and the exploration of an inhospitable planet. All the while, the space traveling family Robinson are trying to find their way home while dealing with a dangerous stowaway.

It's 2058, and Earth is a dying world. The Robinsons, John (William Hurt), Maureen (Mimi Rogers), Judy (Heather Graham), Penny (Lacey Chabert), and Will (Jack Johnson), along with their pilot, Don West (Matt LeBlanc), have boarded the space ship Jupiter 2 on a colonization mission to the planet Alpha Prime. Thanks to a stowaway saboteur named Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman), things don't go as planned. 16 hours out of Earth orbit, disaster strikes the Jupiter 2, and, to keep the ship from plunging into the Sun, West is forced to activate the hyperdrive, which saves the ship but throws it light-years across the galaxy into uncharted space. Seven people and one robot are lost, looking for the way back to Earth.

The set design in Lost in Space is impressive. The interior of the space ship is suitably futuristic-looking, while the Earth-based scenes, with their visually-stunning backdrops, recall last year's The Fifth Element. Most of the model sequences are equally flawless, but the computer-generated spider-like aliens have the same flaw exhibited by similar creatures in Starship Troopers – they look fake. On the whole, however, Lost in Space has a polished, high-budget appearance. Too bad some of the effects money wasn't spent on the script.

Lost in Space is infected with a meandering storyline and lifeless protagonists. 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. There isn't a clear villain, either, since Dr. Smith is more of an anti-hero than anything else – his motivation is self-interest, not malice.

In the TV series, Smith, as portrayed by Jonathan Harris, was the standout, and Oldman does a superb job re-inventing the character, bringing back many of Harris' mannerisms while leaving his own indelible mark. Smith becomes a fascinating blend of charisma and delicious nastiness. Beyond Oldman, however, the cast is disappointingly bland. As John and Maureen Robinson, William Hurt and Mimi Rogers fizzle. Heather Graham, who was wonderful as Rollergirl in Boogie Nights, fails to do anything interesting with Judy. Friends' Matt LeBlanc displays no range whatsoever. Only the two children, helium-voiced Lacey Chabert and cool-as-a-cucumber Jack Johnson, show signs of having a pulse. Chabert especially shows spunk, but she has the least screen time of the major players. Incidentally, it could be argued that it wouldn't have mattered if everyone in the cast had been in peak acting form, since the script delivers the kind of two-dimensional characters involved in shallow relationships that even top-notch performances couldn't do much with.

Lost in Space features a few action sequences that generate adrenaline jolts, but this is not an edge-of-the-seat motion picture. And, to satisfy the kiddy crowd, there's the likable robot and a friendly (read "cute") alien called Blawp, which is the product of Jim Henson's Creature Shop and seems designed to appeal to younger audience members. This may add to the film's attraction in some quarters, but not as far as I'm concerned. I wanted a little more energy and a story that went somewhere. As a result, while I can offer a mild endorsement of Lost in Space as a comic book come to life, it's too weak a film for me to stamp with an unqualified recommendation.

Lost in Space (United States, 1998)

Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Gary Oldman, William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Matt LeBlanc, Heather Graham, Lacey Chabert, Jack Johnson, Jared Harris
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman
Cinematography: Peter Levy
Music: Bruce Broughton
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 1998-04-03
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1