Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Time Warp

By Dominic Jesse

APRIL 13, 1998:  Think family values. At least that’s what the producers of Lost in Space were trying to do – take a space sitcom from the ’60s and update it with a family of the ’90s, complete with modern-day problems and dysfunctions.

But the family angle doesn’t quite work, and the result is a Hollywood special-effects showcase with a cast that resembles the bridge of the Enterprise more than a real family.

For those who didn’t watch the original TV series, the plot is simple enough. Take an all-American family – two parents (who both happen to be professors), two daughters (one of whom happens to be a doctor ) and a boy (who would put Thomas Edison to shame), and load them onto a spaceship as the colonizers of a brave new world. Add a villain to sabotage the ship and a hunky space soldier to mix and you have the basic storyline.

The parents, John and Maureen Robinson, played by Oscar-winning William Hunt and Mimi Rogers, leave much to be desired as characters. Hunt, who captivated audiences with his performance in Kiss of the Spiderwoman, completely wastes his acting skill on the father, John Robinson, who plays less the sensitive father and more the bearded action hero who takes a second to kiss his wife good-bye before leaving the ship.

Of the daughters, we have the smart young doctor Judy, played by Heather Graham, and the quintessential teeny-bopper, Penny (Lacey Chabert of Party of Five) who spends a good chunk of the film whining about all the boys and chocolate she’s leaving behind on Earth.

The son Will, played by Jack Johnson II, comes off as the whiz kid, the grade-school science-fair winner who experiments with time travel before he’s old enough to date and builds the show’s famed robot from scratch (his one witty line comes as he puts together the robot, saying, “Mom always said I should try to make more friends”).

Then there’s Don West (Matt LeBlanc of Friends fame), the soldier who acts like an immature Buck Rogers clone. He hits on Judy with such space-age lines as “My quarters are your quarters,” and gets zapped with high-tech responses like “Why don’t you just hang onto your joystick?”

The whole family side to the movie, however, is barely developed. Near the beginning, viewers get faced with a rather used dilemma – father Robinson, absorbed in his work, is ignoring his son, and at least by cramming the family into the Jupiter II, he’ll be able to continue his work without leaving the family on Mother Earth. But for the most part, the family operates like any other space opera – dad goes on reconnaissance missions with hero West, Mom does DNA analyses on alien tissues, young Will battles aliens with a robot, and the daughters sit at ship controls much like Star Trek fixtures Sulu and Chekov. It’s a pretty functional family, to say the least.

If the movie has these weak points in its heroes, though, it has its strong points in its villain and special effects. Gary Oldman, with a resume of playing such roles as the title role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a psychotic space-mobster in The Fifth Element, takes the evil but sophisticated antagonist of Dr. Zachary Smith to its extreme. Taking his cue from the cold but effeminate Smith of the sitcom, Oldman’s bookish rantings and convoluted movements establish him as the key character here (it comes as no surprise that the producers, when picking the cast, filled the role of Smith first). Oldman manages to make the physician-turned-terrorist at times hilariously flamboyant and at other times pure evil. Smith ranges from high-pitched whining (he uses his most famous catch-phrase, “Oh the pain, the pain!” at least once) to diabolical calculation as he sabotages the ship at the start, hoping to wipe the family out in the process.

Overall, though, Lost in Space doesn’t come off as the ’90s version of the television series. The screenwriting, by Akiva Goldsman resembles his work on Batman & Robin and Batman Forever rather than The Client. Like the Batman movies, it’s a serious situation offset by ridiculous characters. But while the Batman movies never even try to come off as serious, Lost in Space does.

Then there are the special effects, which are being touted as the most advanced sci-fi effects yet (a dubious claim since the advent of computer design, when just about every special-effects sci-fi movie has used that label). In addition to stunning holographs and spacescapes, several alien creatures are nothing but binary. Blawp, the wide-eyed, monkey-like alien “adopted” by the Robinson family, is a generated image, as are the deadly space spiders that threaten the ship. The effects are awe-inspiring, but in these days where computerized image generation is taking off, not exceptional.

In the end, it comes down to what you’re looking for. Most of the admitted “campiness” of the show is gone. Fans of the original TV show who fondly cry out “Danger Will Robinson!” will find only a short twinge of nostalgia in Dr. Smith. Those who like deep sci-fi might not enjoy a tale that clashes the technology of the next millennium with the culture of the 1950s. For some good special effects, or to see what cute alien creatures Jim Henson Productions can still pull out of its hat, or to watch a movie that goes down smooth and leaves you feeling good, Lost in Space is a perfect family movie.

In this sense, at least, it upholds some kind of family values.

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