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Lost in Space, written by Akiva Goldsman, directed by Stephen Hopkins, 1998, 120 min.

Two factors conspire to send Lost in Space spiralling down into silliness and forgettability: the writer and the director. That is, blatant hackwork on the part of both. Goldsman was responsible for writing the script for last year's Batman and Robin, another movie which didn't know what to do with its cast or premise. Hopkins has himself fizzled away a number of exciting premises (such as explosives experts in Blown Away, rampaging lions in The Ghost and the Darkness, etc.) in his directorial career. Lost in Space shows no sign of sudden, compelling storytelling ability in either the writer or director. And while I only laughed once where I was intended to, I admit that I did enjoy the experience of this movie. Unfortunately, Lost in Space didn't have enough energy or flamboyant vision to make up for its flaws (The Fifth Element begins to look better in retrospect!), and the flagrant disregard for science makes the movie a painful one to think back on.

The plot does have promise, but none of that potential is realized, as is sadly the case most often when the options are limitless. Onboard the Jupiter 2, a mission from Earth departs for another solar system, in order to open the other end of a hypergate (which will solve all the problems on Earth, apparently, even though history has shown that colonization very seldom alleviates the problems in the home country). The mission is sabotaged, and in order to avoid imminent doom, the travellers decide to use the hyperdrive, which will send them to a random location elsewhere in the universe. Instead of something interesting, we find an ill-conceived time travel story and lots of opportunities for tiresome dysfunctional-family therapy. The plot difficulties are resolved in a silly way -- science is not magic, whatever Goldsman may think -- and the movie ends with a blatant set-up for a sequel.

The characters spout ridiculous dialogue and are trapped in phony character arcs. Onboard the Jupiter 2: the Robinson family, Major West, and Dr. Smith. Professor Robinson is an absent father, and this fact dominates the family dynamics for the entire length of the film. But as opposed to treating this important problem with realism or respect or even wit, Goldsman sends in cheap one-liners and over-obvious situations. Robinson's wife is continually reminding him of his shortcomings -- she is also a professor, but she isn't given much to do except nag her husband. All of Robinson's relations to his children are also slotted into this one pseudo-theme, and it rings very false -- human relationships are extraordinarily complex, which is why better characters and better dialogue are indeed tough to write. Robinson's oldest daughter has a degree too, and does some important things plot-wise, but she too is pushed into a bothersome character arc. Her cutting rejoinders to Major West's advances are in the context of her inevitable succumbing to his charm at the end -- Goldsman runs his clichés like clockwork. The middle daughter filled some screen time. Will Robinson, the famous boy genius, is very helpful in the scene where they fight evil spider beings. He is also the main placeholder in the (non-)receiving end of the whole absentee father relationship. We're supposed to believe this comes to dominate his life to the point of madness. None of the Robinsons act credibly or realistically, and even if Goldsman is making a point about how intelligent people have troubled emotional lives too, it doesn't come off. The other two characters onboard the Jupiter 2, Major West and Dr. Smith, are both stereotypes, the man of action and the man of evil respectively. They help the plot along, and that's about it.

The special effects are flashy, and there's lots to gape at, with nice attention to detail. Some of the design choices are bizarre, such as the fetishistic cryo-suits, and the CGI effects were fairly obvious in most cases. But what do the special effects add up to? Not much if that's the movie's only strong point. While watching this movie, I was thinking about how the studio threw ninety million at Goldsman's flawed script, whereas a brilliant (and flawed too, but no comparison to this flick) vehicle like Dark City from the same studio made do with twenty-two million. Unfortunately, it seems to be a cause and effect situation. Market pressure and the demographics of pushing a big budget film do strange things to internal coherency; witness the cutesy space monkey, which has no point except to bring in kids and sell action figures. Ironically, this makes Dark City lucky to have a low budget (in terms of my vast generalization of course -- there have been interesting big budget movies, but the only example that springs to mind readily is Men in Black).

But to which focus group is logic and science sacrificed? Who does that bring in? Not me. This movie would've done well to avoid time travel altogether, a notoriously tough thing to get right. Questions I'm left with include the following. Why was there a time bubble around the ship from the future? Or was there a giant one around the whole solar system and a smaller one on the planet, and if so, where was all the energy coming from, and why? Why was the time bubble destroying the planet? Why is the older Will Robinson worried about his central time-porthole when people travel through time at the edge of the bubble? That's an interesting effect to investigate. Was this an alternate universe that branched off? Or else, who is buried in those three graves (and remained buried there)? That is, do events persist or is time changeable? The internal evidence is contradictory.

But it's easy for Goldsman to evade questions about time travel, at least compared to the ending sequence where Jupiter 2 slingshots through a planet as it is disintegrating. Who knows what paradoxes "time bubbles" will allow (when we get around to building them...), but the laws of angular momentum and celestial mechanics are well-known now and quite strict. Were it in fact possible to slingshot through a planet (which it is not), you would have to check the position and motion of the planet with relation to its sun or there would be a chance that you would decelerate instead of accelerate even if you were burning fuel to come out lighter on the other side of the gravity well. Never mind that slingshotting doesn't take place in an atmosphere (or is there atmosphere near the centre of a planet as it is disintegrating?). Did some crucial bit of dialogue get cut in the final edit perhaps? I have my doubts about that.

What's good about this movie? One specific one-liner, when Professor Robinson shoves his hand through the time bubble and pulls it back quickly. Major West says, "Oh, that's scientific." It was funny in the context of the story, and it's also funny in the context of the failures of the movie. And as I said earlier, I chortled constantly for the two hour duration of Lost in Space, so I give the movie at least one bonus point for unintentional hilarity.


Last modified: May 17, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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