Watching the movie, I vowed to subtract half a star from the review because the filmmakers included a saccharine syrup, cute ‘n cuddly, computer-generated monkey. If the monkey died, the movie got an extra half star. Alas, the monkey showed up at the end, unharmed, to the wet sickly sound of gagging and rolling eyeballs.
What that means is that Lost in Space actually deserved 2 stars. That’s pretty generous, considering the movie’s camp lacked any hint of tongue in cheek. When Will Robinson (Jack Johnson) teaches his pet robot about friendship, you are actually supposed to buy it.
So why such a seemingly high rating? There are a few reasons that made me unable to throw away the experience with the garbage. First, we saw the movie on opening night of the first day of operation of a brand new theater. The sound and screen kicked ass. Nobody in the country enjoyed the movie as much as my audience did (and I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way). Also, there were more than zero scenes where I found myself rooting for the Robinsons, or getting caught up in the movie’s tension. I even liked the computer-generated settings. I usually prefer to see models or sets, but the CG was more detailed than I’ve seen in a lot of movies; it looks like someone spent a little overtime to render some of the futuristic cities.
Also, Gary Oldman is never a bad actor, even though he is typecast as a villain. William Hurt isn’t too bad either. Neither actor had a great role, but their performances were watchable.
And perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but something about the tone and outlook of the movie brought me back to my childhood. There is very little swearing or blood; there is a strong moral message, saccharine though it is; there is a bit of romance (whose culmination after 2 hours is a “real” kiss — no sex). It felt like one of those Disney movies that I so looked forward to when I was six. Those movies were probably as bad as Lost in Space, but at the time, they were manna from Heaven. That type of moviemaking is a lost art.
Now for the bad news.
Worst and most unforgivable was the incredibly bad dialogue. It’s squeaky-clean, family fun, trying hard to be as hip as Pulp Fiction. “You better hold on to your joystick,” is one such line. And when a Robinson is called upon to deliver a line about warp conduit thingamajigs, they inevitably stumble badly enough to embarrass even the lowliest Star Trek ensign.
Second worst, and closely related, is the screenplay. The story’s exposition takes place at a press conference, which allows the writers to explain what’s happening with the least amount of creativity, effort, or interest. Once the story gets going, I do concede a momentary burst of interest once in a while, but on the whole, the situations that arise are silly and contrived. When Gary Oldman easily reprograms Will’s pet robot to kill the Robinsons, my friend summed it up perfectly: “he flipped the switch to ‘evil.’”
Then there’s the tone of the movie. The Colorado Daily said the film would have been more interesting if the central character was Will Robinson and not his father John Robinson. Then it could be an adventure movie. They’re mostly right, except that Johnson (Will) wasn’t a good enough actor to carry it off. Still, that the film has the Robinson patriarch as our hero shows a lack of imagination. Just because a movie is tame enough for kids doesn’t mean that we have to bow to a “promise keepers” notion of who’s the center of a family. Many quality family films have been made with a non-traditional family structure (Fly Away Home comes to mind) to much better effect.
And the politics of the time seem a bit conservative and regressive for a futuristic movie. In Star Wars, the rebels were the good guys. We were rooting for those who were fighting against the system. In Lost in Space, the rebels are the bad guys, a terrorist force that must be killed, crushed and silenced so that our children may live free. That ominous excuse for violence almost makes me sympathize with the terrorists.
Finally, a few specific details deserve criticism. The movie tells us that the setting is the year 2056. Why? Why bother saying what year this is. Just tell us it’s the future. I bring it up because the TV series was supposed to take place in 1997. Setting a specific date only dates the movie and guarantees that it won’t be timeless (not that this movie was really in the running anyway.). Then there is a scene that shows John Robinson checking one of his controls on a chair that rises about fifteen feet on a pole. This silly waste of money reminded me of Bugs Bunny’s barber chair, and only shows that the future is a time when spaceship designers haven’t learned a thing about ergonomics.
One vaguely redeeming quality is that the end credits succeed where the rest of the film failed: it made Lost in Space look cool. The strong techno beat sampled the cheesiest dialogue and, out of context, made it sound hip. This is overlaid on a cool jumpy credit sequence with interesting distorted clips from the movie.
But if that’s the best part of the movie, I can’t in good conscience recommend it. Still, if you get stuck seeing it, as we did, you might be able to appreciate it if you keep your distance, think of liking bad movies as a child, and bring along your “bad movie bingo” cards.