Lost in Space

Lost in Space

Remember your favorite science-fiction TV show from the 1960s? No, not “Star Trek” or “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits” or “The Time Tunnel” or “My Favorite Martian” or “The Jetsons” or “It’s About Time” or “Land of the Giants” or “Dr. Who” or “The Invaders” or “The Prisoner” or “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” or “The Wild Wild West.” The other one. “Lost in Space”! Back in the 1990s, when Hollywood was rummaging around in its attic looking for old TV shows to turn into movies, somebody found “Lost in Space” lying under a pile of “I Dream of Jeannie” and said, “Hey, I bet we could spend a lot of money to make this into a sharp-looking but very stupid movie!”

And it was so. The “Lost in Space” movie is now best-known for being the film that dislodged “Titanic” from the top spot at the box office after 15 weeks at No. 1. In the realm of trivia, “Lost in Space” is the Nancy Zerg to “Titanic’s” Ken Jennings.

The film is set in 2058, at a time when the inhabitants of Earth have just about figured out how to colonize other planets. The problem is that it takes 10 years of space travel to get to the nearest habitable planet, plus you have to be at the airport like three hours early. To alleviate this problem, scientists are building a hypergate, which is like a regular gate only really, really excited. You’ll enter the hypergate just above Earth, and come out of it a second later at the corresponding hypergate at the new planet, because of Science.

But first someone has to take that 10-year trip and oversee the building of the other hypergate. Thus begins our story (finally)! Brilliant scientist Prof. John Robinson (William Hurt) has volunteered to make the journey, on the condition that he be allowed to take his wife and kids with him, which it seems like would defeat the purpose of taking a 10-year work trip, but whatever. His wife, Maureen (Mimi Rogers), is also a brilliant scientist, and so is their oldest daughter, Judy (Heather Graham). Their little boy, Will (Jack Johnson, but not the singer) is a budding science nerd in his own right. That leaves only teenage Penny (Lacey Chabert), the middle child, to disappoint everyone by being uninterested in space exploration. In fact, old party-pooper Penny doesn’t even WANT to spend 10 years of her youth stuck with her family in cryogenic sleep on a spaceship, never to see Earth again. Ugh, what is she, a communist?

Their space vessel, the Jupiter, will make the trip mostly on autopilot, just like the movie, but the Robinsons need a human pilot for the early stages, but they get Matt LeBlanc instead. His character is a fighter pilot named Maj. Don West, and he’s one of those mouthy, arrogant, alpha-male types who says “Top Gun”-ish things like, “OK, last one to kill the bad guys has to buy the beer!” These glib one-liners would sound a lot more badass if they weren’t coming out of Matt LeBlanc, but what could you do? It was 1998.

Maj. West doesn’t want to be on this boring journey on this boring ship, but he does want to make sexytimes with Judy Robinson, even though she’s the boss’s daughter. Judy thinks he’s a doofus, so they engage in ceaseless wry banter like this:

MAJOR WEST: [before doing something dangerous] I’m thinking this is your “kiss for luck” situation.
JUDY ROBINSON: Thinking. Not your strong point, is it?

It is just like watching a screwball comedy from the 1930s, if instead of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn it starred Matt LeBlanc and Heather Graham and was written by people fired from the writing staff of “Yes, Dear.”

Meanwhile, the medical adviser for the journey is Dr. Smith (possibly an alias), played by Gary Oldman, who at the time was still Gary Relativelyyoungman. Dr. Smith has taken a bribe from some bad guys to sabotage the Jupiter mission, as this will enable a rival space-exploration alliance to build the hypergate first. His plan is to program the ship’s robot, named Robot, to wait until the Jupiter is in space, kill everybody onboard, then blow up the ship. Unfortunately for Dr. Smith, he isn’t able to disembark before the ship launches, and is therefore stuck on a vessel that is now scheduled to have all its inhabitants murdered in a few hours. You can tell Dr. Smith does not have a lot of experience planning terrorist attacks.

The Robinsons and Maj. West are all in their cryogenic sleep chambers when Robot starts barging around proclaiming, “Destroy Robinson family!” (Robot is the type of robot who announces everything he’s going to do before he does it.) Dr. Smith wakes everybody up from sleepytime so they can help him disable Robot and save all their lives. They accomplish this, but then they’re faced with the awkward fact that they’re now stuck on a spaceship with a non-functional robot and a madman who tried to kill them. Imagine taking a family vacation and discovering halfway there that a deranged hobo has been hiding in the backseat the whole time, and now you’re stuck with him until you get to Branson. It’s like that. Oh, and then they have to jump into hyperdrive to avoid being pulled into the Sun, and so now they’re lost. IN SPACE. With a dead robot and a would-be murderer-doctor.

Well, this all sounds like a scenario for some thrilling action! Thrilling action is what you’d be expecting, though, and Hollywood likes to keep you on your toes by giving you the opposite of what you expect, so instead it’s lukewarm and dull and brimming with lame adventures, and Matt LeBlanc never stops saying dumb, glib things. It’s like they wanted to make an adventure movie with some comic elements, but instead made a boring movie with some annoying elements. You know there’s no hope for success when the Robinsons encounter an abandoned spaceship populated by alien spiders and a CGI space monkey, which they adopt as a pet. The words “CGI space monkey” alone should have been a red flag to the studio executives. “Not a lot of good movies with CGI space monkeys, are there?” someone should have said. “Does the CGI space monkey affect the story in any way?” someone else should have said. You have to ask tough questions when it comes to CGI space monkeys, and it seems like nobody is willing to ask those questions anymore, and that is why we are losing the space race to the Chinese.

— Film.com