Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Stinker, Will Robinson!

By Devin D. O'Leary

APRIL 13, 1998:  How do you take a beloved television memory and turn it into a big-screen blockbuster? Well, you don't make it like the recent Leave It to Beaver movie. And you don't do it like the embarrassing McHale's Navy. And the less said about the Car 54, Where Are You? debacle, the better. The newest nostalgic TV series to make the rocky transition from TV screen to cineplex is Lost in Space--and, like its predecessors, it's simply further proof that reruns are better.

Yes, Irwin Allen's kiddie sci-fi series is back--complete with techno soundtrack and other "modern" updates. Akiva Goldsman, who wrote last summer's stinker Batman and Robin, is back with another tin-eared clinker of a script. Lost in Space follows the basic premise of the TV series: Robinson family blasts into space; ship is disabled thanks to mincing saboteur Dr. Smith (who, in the show was a card-carrying Communist, but is now part of some kind of ill-explained techno-mutant rebellion); entire crew gets lost in space. Rather strangely, Goldsman has chosen to toss in a time travel subplot. As a result, the Robinsons actually spend more of the movie lost in time than they do lost in space. Ah, progress.

Since this is the '90s, Goldsman has transformed the intrepid Robinson family into a dysfunctional clan to rival Archie Bunker's brood. Daughter Penny trades witty insults with her little brother. (She: "I can't wait to eject your body into space." He: "Have they come up with a name for what's wrong with you?") Jupitor 2 pilot Major Don West bandies barbed zingers with teen dream Judy Robinson. (He: "Is there room for two in these cryotubes?" She: "I don't think there's room enough for you and your ego.") Even mom and dad get in on the act, bickering like Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows on "The Honeymooners." ... Hey, now there's a great idea for a movie (just kidding, Hollywood).

This time around we've got big-name actors William Hurt and Mimi Rogers (adding far more dramatic weight than this movie needs) as the Robinson parental units. Lacey Chabert of TV's "Party of Five" (whose pubescent voice has mutated into a frightening Chip 'n' Dale imitation) is the newly rebellious punkette Penny Robinson. Heather Graham (doing a 360 from her Roller Girl role in Boogie Nights) is sexy older sib Judy Robinson. Matt LeBlanc (trying again to jumpstart a movie career after Ed, his baseball-playing chimp movie) is Major West. Some chirpy little kid named Jack Johnson takes over Billy Mumy's role as young Will Robinson. And rounding out the ensemble is Gary Oldman as the sniveling Dr. Smith. Of all these, only Oldman (who's no stranger to overacting) turns up the camp level and almost reaches the hysterical heights of his TV counterpart (though by the time he gets around to muttering: "The pain, the pain," it's a sad example of too little, too late).

The biggest problem in bringing "Lost in Space" to the big screen is that the show (though fondly remembered) was awful. Typewriter boy Goldsman and director Stephen Hopkins (whose previous résumé includes A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 and Predator 2) have shucked most of the campy elements of the '60s series in favor of some grim '90s realism (dad's a workaholic; sis suffers from separation anxiety; little bro craves parental attention). In the place of papier mâché landscapes, space Vikings and giant carrot monsters, Goldsman has settled for some scattered juvenile jokes ("Why did the robot cross the road? Because he was carbon-bonded to the chicken.") and a few winking references to the original series.

When it blasts off from Earth, the Jupiter 2 looks like the bulky flying saucer-shaped craft of yore. When it breeches the atmosphere, however, the Jupiter 2 shucks off its outer casing in favor of a sleek spacecraft that I'm pretty sure is a Norelco shaver. The Robot looks nothing like the original, but does sport the same booming voice (courtesy of Dick Tufeld). Remember Bloop, that stupid chimp with the blue fur glued to his head from the TV series? Well, in the name of progress, the filmmakers have replaced him with a yellow, computer-generated creature (now re-dubbed Blawp). Why bother? Stay true to the original elements or shuck them entirely, I say. Several surviving members of the TV series make small cameos--though even the most astute viewers will be forgiven for failing to notice anyone but June Lockhart (as Will Robinson's principal).

There's enough high-tech razzle dazzle on display to glue younger viewers to their seats (at a reported $65 million budget, there had better be). Unfortunately, the modern disdain for model work means that there are more computer-generated special effects here than in the latest Wing Commander video game. And since the film seems enraptured with precocious 10-year-old super-genius Will Robinson (shades of Wesley Crusher) and his toy robot (shades of Tom Swift), Lost in Space seems far more aimed at today's kids than at yesterday's. This ain't nostalgia, Hollywood seems to be telling us, this is business.

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