Space Family Values
I was one of those kids who missed the first half of each week’s Batman episode because it was on up against CBS’s sci-fi/camp hit Lost In Space. As science fiction, the series wasn’t far above Captain Video – the spaceship ran on a rare fuel known as “petroleum”, for cryin’ out loud. But the series had a great deal of charm and good characters – good enough that I didn’t mind that the weekly adventures never seemed to live up to the series premise. Good enough that I formed an attachment to it. The best Christmas present I got from Santa in 1968 was a big Lost In Space adventure set, complete with a motorized “chariot” vehicle that shot rockets.
I’m not the only one that felt that way. Producer Irwin Allen claimed it as his favorite series, and ever since Star Trek became a movie franchise he’s been pushing for a big screen version. Billy “Will Robinson” Mumy has been instrumental in keeping the series alive, mainly through a recent comic-book revival. And so, Lost In Space the Movie is something a bit more special than any other recent movie redressing of an old TV property.
And it’s that affection and attention that saves the movie. Immersed in even more amazing special effects than we’ve been treated to in last year’s spectacles is a story of a troubled family that tries to band together in the face of even bigger trouble. For the first time we learn the full details of what the situation was on Earth and why it demanded that the Robinson family attempt an interstellar mission. The characters are all given a decent background and personality that they never had on television. The demons that drive Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman, nicely recreating Jonathan Harris’ theatrics) are given equal worth to those of Major Don West (Matt LeBlanc).
Adding depth to the tale is that they don’t always succeed. Little Will Robinson (Jack Johnson) is still disconnected from his father (William Hurt) at stories end, although they’ve at least made a start. Oddball daughter Penny (Lacey Chabert) only begins to find a sense of purpose within the family through their struggles. And so on.
The drama and comedy inherent in the material is very nearly overwhelmed by the action, f/x, and production design. I’d say most of the blame for what’s wrong with the picture should go to scripter/co-producer Akiva Goldsman, who did a whole lot more damage as scribe for Batman and Robin. The same offhand, scattershot approach to the material is in evidence here. Director Stephen Hopkins, in an effort to knock our socks off with Big Bang Moments, keeps the pace lively, but damages the complexities of the ensemble in doing so. This is especially true in the latter part of the film, when new and annoying elements take over the plot before it can recover from the second act. Reportedly, much of the story toward the end had to be trimmed for budget, but it’s hard to say whether drawing out the third act would have helped.
It’s a desperate attempt to try to hide the story’s biggest flaw. They’re trying to make light-hearted, fun entertainment in the face of a dismal situation – a situation which can’t be resolved without shattering any hope for a decent sequel. After all, the movie’s not called Found In Space, so the final scenes come glossed with a false atmosphere of cheer that left a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it’ll go down smoother if they get to make a sequel in which everything comes out okay.
It’s an age-old conflict that drives so much fiction, the spirited adventure to be found in a lonely voyage homeward. Irwin Allen stole it from a novel (and more directly from a Disney movie). And more recently, Star Trek Voyager stole it again. Lost In Space is a great piece of entertainment, but it could have been much better if it had stuck with what works more than trying to be impressive.