Lost in Space’s only claim to fame seems to be as the answer to the trivia question “Which film ended Titanic‘s 15-week run as the top of the box office champ” (the more you know!). Largely dismissed by critics as a tedious failure in imagination, the film was even nominated for a Razzie for worst remake or sequel. Hardly the stuff of legends. But perhaps the film deserves more than the critical savaging and relative obscurity it has received.
The first hour of the picture is among the more tightly edited and soundly structured action-adventure pictures in recent history, moving at a brisk pace and trading character development for sci-fi action with ease. It strategically delivers information at such a pace that the audience is given just enough about these characters to care (if only briefly) before trying to knock them off.
Take for instance the opening scene, which informs just enough about the world and the situation to get the plot rolling, and even manages to introduce two characters for the price of only showing one. An opening is like a handshake between two strangers, the audience and the film, and it’s the responsibility of the filmmakers to be aware of the first impression. They may subvert if they so wish, but they must be aware nonetheless. For example, the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark puts characterization on hold for action and spectacle. The contract between film and audience is implicit, if not oh-so subtly screamed at you: if your blood wasn’t pumping as he ran from that boulder then piss off because this film’s balls are just going to get bigger. If you’re looking for a somber meditation on the meaning of Indiana’s life, you’re going to be painfully disappointed. I wish more films were this honest and upfront about their intentions. In the case of Lost in Space, the opening scene accomplishes two primary tasks some films avoid altogether. The first feature is that it sets the tone by providing a succinct taste of everything this film is going to offer. Notice how by starting the movie with a bombastic action scene the film suggests to the audience that the film will be an action spectacle, which of course it tries to be (I stress this only because I’m consistently amazed by how many filmmakers need to be clever and trick the audience into thinking the movie will be something that it’s not. Why start the party off by tricking your guests?). The second feature this scene accomplishes is that it introduces characters: William Hurt’s Dr. Robinson by using off-screen narration to stress the somewhat aloof and distant quality of his character; as well as Matt Leblanc’s hot-blooded top-gun crack-shot (see a pattern recurring here?) character Major West. It’s rather clever, even if the filmmakers didn’t intend it, to have a film about an absentee father begin with the distanced voice over of said father, absent from the screen. He even offers exposition in a tone vaguely reminiscent of a tone all fathers have mastered, that one of exasperated condescension as he explains just how bad the situation is. “Finally,” he begins, “the warring nations of Earth had forgotten their differences and banded together to save our planet.” The narration also functions as a kind of rebuke, such that a father might give his son, a subtle condemnation about the wastefulness of today, and the consequences it will have for the future Dr. Robinson inhabits.
Before the audience has a chance to get bored however, cue explosion in space, and Matt Leblanc’s character comes racing across the screen. The contrast between the two characters is palpable, if prosaic, but the drama is intensified by making Leblanc a hot-shot pilot who cares more about people than trillion dollar vehicles. Turns out Dr. Robinson’s father was something of an aloof pilot himself. And so we’re immediately introduced to the concept of neglectful fathers that will form the emotional crux of this film. The film could have benefited from making more of this dynamic between the two characters, which would have also given Leblanc more to do than serve as male eye-candy. But then I never claimed the last half of this movie was exceptional. So he’s only got traits, his character doesn’t have an arc, but then he doesn’t need one. This movie isn’t about him (although it’s admirable they took a minute to flesh him out that much). No, this movie is about Dr. Robinson learning how to love his son, a compelling struggle if not altogether maudlin when addressed. What’s unique is the way the film uses the science-fiction trappings to explore this issue. The irony of the film becomes that the father needs to get lost in space to find his son.
The family dynamic is also unique to the genre, which tends to deal primarily with dodgy scientists and gung-ho soldiers (though before I get your hopes up, the film still resorts to these tropes), and though it’s only thinly sketched, and the characters are all clichéd stereotypes, it’s laudable that the screenwriters actually attempted to make this a family affair.
The production design is what really makes this film shine, with sleek and sexy being the buzz words bandied around the art department, showcasing ergonomic technology that flows over the user. The cryo-stasis scene is a prime example, where the restraining harness and metal LEDS uncoil over the skin-tight space suits. The production creates a slick, implausible world, every nook and cranny overstuffed with visual ideas, and DP Peter Levy captures it with a Vaseline gloss only the 90s got right.
The film introduces characters at a breathless pace, all of it under the chapter heading of “preparing for the launch”. The introductions are a textbook example of adventure writing 101. Like all great adventure films, this is an exercise in plot, not character; the characters are used in service of the plot, rather than the other way around (as opposed to, say, a Terrence Malick film). That’s not to say that an adventure film can’t also provide compelling characters. They may be thinly sketched, but the script throws so many types at the audience that they’re bound to connect with at least one of them. Identify with the father struggling to make time for his family, or the son who wants only his father’s attention. Or the horny guy just trying to get it on with Heather Graham (a common trope of the 90s). Or the teenage daughter dealing with the loss of her life as she knows it, or the mother trying to keep her family together. Or maybe identify with the sociopathic villain, played with aplomb by Gary Oldman. If nothing else, watch this film to witness an exercise in restrained campiness.
The first hour sets up the film to calculated perfection. The action is breathless, and the tension builds from climax to climax, screaming to a crescendo so chaotic that the film threatens to run off the tightly wound rails the filmmakers have so skillfully laid. While the stream of “out of the frying pan and into the fire” style action has the Jupiter II hurtling towards the literal fire of the sun, the film navigates the tension with dramatic flair. But like Icarus, the same fate befalls the film. “We could wind up anywhere,” Matt Leblanc’s Major West cautions Hurt’s Dr. Robinson when he proposes to hyper-jump through the sun’s core. “Anywhere but here,” he replies. Sadly, the same is true of the film’s structure. The ship smashes into hyperspace, the film literally pausing as if to allow the audience to catch their collective breath, and then explodes out into nowhere, and nowhere the film goes.
Lost in creative space, overloaded with boundless options, the film goes as wayward as the voyage. By the time we get to space wormholes and galactic spider pirates it becomes clear that the filmmakers forgot which movie they were making. It’s strange that for all their attempts to break away from the confines of the original television show they should try to remain so faithful to its episodic structure. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman used the first two episodes of the original series as the basis for the script, and then borrowed freely from others to create a convoluted third act that caused more problems than it resolved. Episodic isn’t necessarily a negative, Spider-man 2 and The Empire Strikes Back are just two examples off the top of my head that used episodic narrative structure to great effect, but episodes in a film are only effective if they are used in service of an over-all cohesive narrative. The problem with the detour on the space ship Proteus is that it serves no bearing on the plot. They enter a wormhole, explore a spaceship, then crash-land on an alien planet. The film could just as easily have taken them straight from the robot attack on the Jupiter II to the crash landing on the planet. The only thing that would have been lost would be the entirely unnecessary and poorly conceived Blawp character—a needless throwback to the TV show and a travesty of visual effects engineering so poor that you can even see the ghostly profile of the puppeteers hands, rotoscoped out of sight, leaving only heavy digital noise in its absence. It’s flabby cinema, and it cripples the film’s narrative.
Adrift and on quickly dwindling life support, the film leaves that pointless episode behind only to have the ship (and the film) crash land on an alien planet. Once again faced with an infinite array of story directions, the story instead decides to stop dead yet again to deal with time bubbles and alternate realities. Whodda thunk that creating a plot mechanic that allows the neglected son to appear as a future version of himself to his beleaguered father in a quasi-ghost of Christmas future scenario would be so devastatingly dull? Though the script may have gotten lost, let’s not forget the original premise was “get your ass to Alpha Prime”, so while it’s interesting that they made the climax of the film about the father-son relationship they initially introduced, the story should have found a way to braid these two strands, the thematic and the narrative, into a cohesive whole. Instead, the film gives us the completion of the former at the expense of the latter, which is not a problem in and of itself, but when it’s done so haphazardly just to leave room for a potential (but never realized) sequel, then it’s a serious flaw in the story. It even makes the unfortunate mistake of structuring the film as a showdown between William Hurt and a monstrous incarnation of Dr. Smith. It makes about as much sense as ending with a musical number about robots; either is equally gratuitous in its own pointless way.
William Hurt has never particularly been an enthusiastic actor, but he does lend a certain withdrawn gravitas to the role which suits the character of a withdrawn and disinterested father tasked with saving the entire human race even if it means destroying his family to do it. It lends a balance to the hammy, but oh-so-delicious, antics of Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith. Over the top though his performance may be in certain scenes, boring it is not. That the film fails to incorporate him within the dynamic the cast, and leaves him as an obtuse villain with no arc is regrettable. There was a chance for growth in this character, but the script pushed it into the monstrous. This would have been interesting enough if the film had tried to show some sort of conflict within Smith from the beginning, whether he wanted to be a villain or simply didn’t care that his actions were villainous, yet the film is more pre-occupied with cramming as much stuff into the mix and hoping that something sticks. For example, after encountering his future self, transformed into a chilling vision of evil, the film doesn’t allow Oldman or Smith even a single beat to reflect on the monster he may become. Ironically, the film does give this moment to the creature, Dr. Smith-cum-spider-man. When confronted with the last remnant of his humanity, the creature seeks to literally destroy his human body, a metaphorical representation of the humanity his character has so despised for the entire movie. That’s some powerful stuff, and that kind of storytelling is unique to science-fiction, it’s what it was created for, but the idea is underdeveloped and largely abandoned in favour of a poorly choreographed and frankly implausible fight scene between William Hurt and a CGI monster.
But who really cares? We’re never in doubt which father will win the love of the son. But what do any of them make of this crazy scenario they find themselves lost within? No time for that, it seems, the planet is about to explode thanks to some incoherent sci-fi voodoo. The rush is excusable, however, since so few films pull off a climax quite so satisfying. The finale, as banal as it becomes, still finishes with a slam-bang chase through an exploding planet. The story might be clichéd and trite, but the visual is not.
For a film set in the future, it’s also unavoidably of its time. The 90s were a period of extreme self-reflexivity, thanks in no small part to the explosion of the independent film scene in the wake of the videotape revolution. Now the tools were in the hands of the filmmakers and not just the studios. More importantly, filmmakers who had watched the studios from just beyond the barred gates of the Hollywood playground. So when directors like Tarantino and Soderbergh were given keys to the golden kingdom they, with their new-found power (and growing audience weened on a diet of MTV and distrust in the system, whatever system that may be), decided to turn the filmmaking process in on itself. In the process they created a new style of film not seen since the pure cinema of the French New Wave was exported to America only a few years before invigorated talents such as Peckinpah and Friedkin would emerge in the early 70s and rewrite the rules for how to shoot a film. The response in all of these paradigm shifts was a cinema that both loved its own image just as fiercely as it wished to destroy it. The film in a way reflects, perhaps inadvertently, Hollywood’s paradoxical impetus to create at the same time that it seeks to destroy. A more contemporary example would be the film Prometheus, which has characters spouting lines like “Sometimes in order to create one must first destroy” while the film breaks apart the DNA of its progenitor, Alien, in order to reconstitute it in all manner of cinematic monstrosities.
While Lost in Space certainly never strives for that level of grandeur, it is after all just some summer fun, it is nonetheless a product of those competing impulses. We see it in the launch of the Jupiter shuttle, when the original model, all boxy and achingly reminiscent of the clean and rigid futurism of that cold war era, shatters like some chrysalis of metal, and the sleek, streamlined, sexy behemoth cruiser of the future comes sliding out, a hummer for the Space Age. If there’s a better metaphorical image for “out with the old and in with the new” in cinema, I’ll report back. We see it again in the response of the monstrous Dr. Smith when confronted by his human self, seeing projected before him the unmistakable reminder of all that has come before. And when confronted with this mirror his only response is to destroy it. Or what about the time bubble, not so coincidentally functioning as a camera lens into the past, replete with editing and cinematography. Who’s perspective are we seeing? How the hell are we getting that shot of young Will Robinson? Again, who cares? I only care insofar as I can use it as support for my claim. Future Will Robinson, ravaged by the pain of loss and the unavoidable passage of time, looks down on his past self with loathing and contempt, hating the bright and cheery optimism of the cinematic images projected onto the bubble. One almost gets the sense he wishes he could call out to the poor boy, like a booming voice in the sky, and deliver his warning about the mission, just as the opening narration of the film functions along these same lines, whispering warnings to the ecological ignorance of the audience in the 90s. (Although we’re still a decade away from the heavy-handed sermonizing of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, ecological awareness was still a hot-topic issue in films from that decade.) But back to the image of future Will Robinson, one of a father looking down on his hapless infant in the crib, one oblivious to the harsh future that awaits, and the father’s face as he grapples with whether or not to give his child the knowledge that so often only comes through hideous hindsight. He loves that image of himself, before the mission would destroy him, and so he seeks to preserve it by destroying his current self. Heavy stuff for a summer blockbuster. Mad scientist becomes overzealous filmmaker, re-visioning history as he sees fit. Instead of using the lens of a film camera to rewrite history, Will Robinson uses the lens of a time bubble. Like father (Dr. Smith in this alternative timeline), like son, they’re both monsters now.
If nothing else the film is a tidy little time capsule of a 90s aesthetic soon to be given over to the harsh and necessary ugliness of films like The Matrix or New Line’s companion production to this film, Dark City (a fine complement to The Matrix if ever such a film existed); an era when sci-fi started getting philosophical, and new-age mysticism became key. The great adventure is dead, long live the great adventure.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Pairs nicely with:
Galaxy Quest (2000)
Impress your friends: Studio New Line Cinema was gearing up production on Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and VFX artists inserted a distinct golden ring in the upper right part of the screen among the parts jettisoned with Jupiter II’s escape from the Earth’s atmosphere.
Note to anyone seeking it on Bluray: there are two editions, one by New Line Cinema, and one by Alliance Atlantis Canada, the former has special features and 1080p video, the latter no special features and vastly inferior 1080i encode sourced from the DVD. One of these is the superior version, I leave it to you, dear reader, to figure out which one.
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Lost in Space [Blu-ray]