Friday, May 16, 2014

Lost in Space (USA, 1998)

A remake that works better now 16 years after its initial release than when it first came out.
When viewed as a kiddy film, which it actually is, Lost in Space does become a bit more enjoyable, but nonetheless it seems to be lacking some unknown ingredient, the special zing needed to make it truly likeable.
The original television show, for all its verbal adherents, is actually much better in memory than in real life, as are the other "classic" Irwin Allen TV adventure series of the 1960s that we watched the most, The Land of The Giants (1968-70 / trailer) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68 / promo). And perhaps that's one of the reasons why the movie — despite being a financial success — was viewed as such a dud: adults, blinded by gold-tinged nostalgia, failed to see that despite all its flaws, the movie was simply a contemporary and updated kiddy film, a product of both new technical possibilities and new socio-cultural truths, but still meant for youngsters. Unable to live up to adult expectations, word-of-mouth remained lukewarm at best, with neither the nostalgic nor the children that came to watch it being overly thrilled by a film that not only feels like three episodes of a big-budget television show strung together but also has an ending promising a new episode next week.
Scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman is hardly the Hemingway of Hollywood, as such past turkey's as Silent Fall (1994 / trailer), Batman & Robin (1997 / German trailer) and the two abysmal hits I, Robot (2004 / trailer) and I Am Legend (2007 / trailer) have proven — films, one and all, that are far more entertaining as trailers and that offer testament in their success to the complacency and simplicity of the masses. Here, in Lost in Space, his big weakness of not being able to offer believable character development or narrative coherence is in full force. The lack of believable character development is also aggravated by some unbelievably weak acting on part of the cast, particularly Matt Le Blanc and Heather Graham (the latter of whom simply can't compete with the original Judy Robinson, Marta Kristen, who was perhaps just as bad an actress but somehow dreamier), while the lack of coherence is amplified by a plot that stuffs three noticeably separate stories into one film.
What Lost in Space (the film) needed more than all its special effects was the time (only a weekly format offers) for character development and continuity. On television, for example, it took months for Jonathon Harris's Dr. Smith to go from cold and calculating to campy and cowardly; in the movie, Gary Oldman has to flip-flop scene to scene – charismatically, perhaps, but still unconvincingly. That Lost In Space suffers greatly by not being a weekly is made even more obvious by the alternative scenes found on the DVD, which reveal an entire feel-good women's episode obviously (and rightly) deemed too schmaltzy and boring for the theatrical release, but which would have worked well for a weekly format in which all characters not only have to have their appearance but multiple storylines can be effectively narrated, and characters and their relationships can be shown to grow.
Among those with whom we watched the film, there were complaints that the characters had been updated a bit too much, with the kids using swear words and the parents having marital problems. We see that as hardly something to get upset about; indeed, in that regard the movie works much better than the following year's remake of The Avengers (1999 / trailer), which updated the proto-feminist, ass-kicking Emma Peel into a women eternally in need of (male) help. That pre-peach-fuzz Will (Jack Johnson) says "shit" is hardly something to get upset about, for even back in the 60s kids said it, if only more secretly. Likewise, that the new Family Robinson is somewhat dysfunctional is less a flaw than added realism: they have problems like every real family (and unlike the original television show), but unlike every real family, they talk, solve them and even get touchy-feely — besides, how dysfunctional can a family be if its 6-year-old can repair robots, their pre-teen bratty daughter can do video mechanics, and their oldest daughter (18? 21? 25?) is a medical doctor? Excuse me, if this family is dysfunctional, where are the drugs, emotionally dead relationships, alcohol, switchblades, incestuous parental figures, illiterate kids, runaways, disrespect, or even zits? Get real people, you wish your family was this good.
Lost in Space (the movie) is basically three episodes of Lost in Space (the television show) on speed and with a huge special-effects budget and some truly wonderful homoerotic S&M spacesuits. Opening with a rather unconvincing Star Wars inspired space shootout in which one of the film's reoccurring themes is first exemplified — that of friendship and responsibility — the first episode sets up the situation of why the Family Robinson is going off into space, where they are going, who the characters are, and what fucks up. (It also allows the nostalgic viewer to play "spot [four of] the original surviving cast members".) Basically, earth has no resources left and the next inhabitable solar system is ten years away with normal space travel, so Family Robinson is going there (in suspended animation) to build a "hyper-gate" to allow all future ships to travel there faster than light.
But, of course, terrorists are out to stop them. After programming the robot to destroy the Family Robinson 16 hours into the flight, Dr. Smith gets double-crossed by his superiors and knocked out, only to revive in time to wake the Family and prevent total destruction of the ship. Now trapped in the gravitational pull of the sun they are forced to use the hyper-drive and land in an unknown, uncharted universe, lost in space.
Thus the second episode cues in, which has them: discover two ships, find a cute alien that Penny (an excellent Lacey Chabert of Black Christmas [2006 / trailer], Sanitarium [2013 / trailer] and Ghost of Goodnight Lane [2014 / trailer]) eventually takes on as a pet, deal with nasty silicone space spiders out for food (?), have the robot destroyed, and barely escape with their lives. Oh, yeah, there's also some distracting sub-plot thing about how one of the ships they find is an earth ship sent to find them after their ship disappeared that raise more "huhs?" than it does intrigue.

Episode three has them crash land on a planet that is gonna explode, has the robot rebuilt in a form more true to the original series — admittedly a far cooler design than the contemporary one the robot started out with — and has all the men experience a really confusing and illogical adventure with time travel and alternative futures that ends with everyone getting away only to be pulled into a black hole taking them god knows where... episode four five and six would have happened, had it been decided by the powers that be that Lost in Space merited a sequel.
A children's film too all over the place for children to follow, Lost in Space still is more fun than such other unnecessary remakes of around the same time such as Flubber (1997 / trailer), The Nutty Professor (1996 / trailer), The Saint (1997 / trailer), or Doctor Dolittle (2001 / trailer), not to mention a much better updating of a television show than Star Trek — The Motion Picture (1979 / trailer) or the previously mentioned The Avengers, not to mention much truer to the original source than any of the sometimes enjoyable Mission: Impossible or Charlie's Angels films. In short, Lost in Space has too much action, too many special effects, too little time — despite a snooze-inducing and excessive running time of over two hours! Still, it's an okay film for a rainy Sunday afternoon with the kids, if your television screen is large enough.

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