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Metro Pulse Oh, the Pain

While "Lost in Space" succeeds at marketing nostalgia, its script remains stranded.

By Coury Turczyn

APRIL 13, 1998:  True story: About four years ago, a buddy of mine from college was riding around with a friend on the streets of suburban Detroit. Pete works in a health food shop and does comedy and theater on the side when he isn't making his own short movies. His lifelong pal, meanwhile, had just gotten a job at a production company called Prelude Pictures, started by one of Michigan's many pizza-chain magnates. As they drove, they talked about all the movies based on old TV shows that were being released and how they all generally sucked.

"You know, there's one show that could be a really good movie," Pete remarked. "Lost in Space."

Great idea. Lost in Space has it all: A passionate cult following of sci fi geeks, Baby Boomer and slacker nostalgia, and a huge pop culture icon in The Robot ("Danger, Will Robinson!"). Just imagine it updated with cool special effects, a new all-star cast, and a rockin' soundtrack. With the right kind of story, it could be everything the Star Trek sequels are not: pretension-free fun.

Pete's friend—a bosom buddy from grade school—immediately saw the potential there and raced back to the office to tell his bosses the plumb idea. His idea, now. "You're a genius!" his bosses declared, and in short order, Prelude Pictures bought the rights to Lost in Space from creator Irwin Allen's widow after a short struggle with competing studios. They, in turn, sold it to New Line Cinema for a tidy profit, rewarding their savvy new executive with a handsome cut. Pete, meanwhile, still works at the vitamin store, writing his scripts, wondering when the hell he's going to get an even break.

It's probably a very typical story from the moviemaking trenches, but how many people can say their offhand comment resulted in a

$90 million movie four years later starring Gary Oldman and William Hurt? Although Pete's story treatment was jettisoned early on—unknown guys from Michigan aren't often hired to write a $90 million picture, no matter how good their ideas are—it's regrettable that New Line chose Akiva Goldsman to be their visionary wordsmith. This is because Goldsman—the hot A-list writer of the moment who's behind such masterpieces as Batman and Robin and a couple of Grisham knock-offs—has little grasp of how human beings actually converse. Despite Lost in Space's intriguing cast, arresting special effects, and decent action sequences, its dialogue is so crushingly awful as to nearly render the entire movie a black hole.

What a shame. Speaking as a former TV-obsessed adolescent (though the "former" part is debatable), I have no doubt that Lost in Space still has much potential for great movie entertainment even though it's a fixture of '60s TV nostalgia. (Back in second grade, I wished I was Will Robinson so fervently that I literally dreamt of my own missions on the Jupiter 2.) Despite the TV show's inherent campiness and silly characters, it had a genuine sense of wonder and adventure—two commodities sadly lacking in today's science fiction films, which are mostly about not getting disemboweled by distant cousins of the thing from Alien. Rather than tap into that sense of wonder, Goldsman simply transplants the Robinson family into today's action movie paradigm: Watch characters wisecrack, watch characters run and shoot guns, watch something big blow up, the end; wait for sequel. That might be acceptable if it was done with some flair, but Lost in Space's story is mostly just the same ol' same ol'...with exceptionally crappy dialogue. Even the wisecracks stink.

The casting is really quite canny, however: Acclaimed thespian William Hurt stars as Professor John Robinson, the egghead scientist leading his family on a doomed mission to pave the way for colonization of Alpha Prime, the only other habitable planet in the galaxy. Gary Oldman is the weasely Dr. Zachary Smith who sabotages the expedition but finds himself stranded with his victims. Then there's Matt LeBlanc (Friends) as Major Don West and Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) as Judy Robinson to reel in the twentysomethings, and Lacey Chabert (Party of Five) to bring in the teenyboppers. And let's not forget Mimi Rogers and Jack Johnson who are, well, mostly forgettable.

Sadly, even with this degree of talent, the horrendously clunky lines can't be overcome. There's nothing more sad than a seeing tired, confused Hurt jammed into a plastic suit and forced to meaningfully grip Rogers while saying, "I love you, wife." Or watching an uncomfortable Oldman stare at a pulsing glob of goo and sagely remark, "Evil knows evil." (Huh? What? Where?) Or even hearing The Robot profess his "heartfelt" friendship to Will Robinson. Worse, Goldsman felt compelled to recast the Robinsons as an up-to-date '90s family—that is to say dysfunctional. Therefore, we must suffer through all the family dynamics of "A Very Special Episode" of Home Improvement—Dad is too busy to see his son win a science prize, so son resents him; daughter becomes a wannabe club kid because she's bored at home and resents her parents; wife isn't getting enough affection, so she resents her husband... blah, blah, blah. Granted, a movie requires more complex relationships than a typical TV episode, but do they have to be so damn trite?

There's no clearer indication of the filmmakers' true intentions than the introduction of Blawp, a cute li'l bug-eyed creature that serves no actual purpose in the movie other than to sell plush dolls at Toys "R" Us. In terms of marketing, Lost in Space is a blazing success. As for matching its predecessor's standards of imagination... welcome to the vacuum of space—or of studio executives' minds.

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