The screen version of Lost in Space starts like a movie trailer and ends like a television episode of Star Trek. In between, it tries out a little bit of everything: retro camp humour, horror effects reminiscent of The Thing (1982) and Starship Troopers (1997), and a father-son melodrama straight from the Star Wars back catalogue.
For a project that tries to mix irony and thrills, however, the bottom line is this: Lost in Space singularly fails to be either funny or exciting.
The transplanting of 1960s TV sitcom families into contemporary, big screen, mainstream cinema has proven to be an extremely difficult task. Screenwriter and co-producer Akiva Goldsman (Batman & Robin, 1997) struggles here with the problem that befell the screen adaptors of The Addams Family (1991): should a film magnify one classic story from the TV series, or cobble together a thinly disguised anthology of many classic episodes?
This Lost in Space never quite fulfils the contract it establishes with old, faithful fans of the TV series. Some aspects of the original remain – same character names, same basic narrative set-up, same bleating voice for the fickle robot. Other elements are somewhat modernised or tarted up, including the diary musings of sulky teenager Penny (Lacey Chabert) and the love-hate banter between Don (Matt LeBlanc) and Judy (Heather Graham).
Dr Smith (Gary Oldman) is still a snivelling rat, but here he undergoes a rather radical, literal metamorphosis into the 'monstrous effeminate'. Liberties are also taken with the basic relationships underlying the daily exchanges of the Robinson family – John (William Hurt) is now an extreme case of an emotionally neglectful father, and his troubles with son Will (incarnated by two actors, Jack Johnson and Jared Harris) are given a grandiloquent treatment via the introduction of Star Trek-style time warps and parallel realities.
Ultimately, this film disappoints by being neither a pedantic homage to the original TV show, nor a radical re-take on it. Australian expatriate director Stephen Hopkins (Judgment Night, 1993) mostly refuses the option chosen by the makers of the Brady Bunch movies – that is, to milk the postmodern joke of placing a daggy, cheesy, '60s-era TV family amid the sex, violence and spectacle of 90s cinema action.
This is a real pity, because Lost in Space simply never finds the right pitch in its presentation of the Robinson family's petty squabbles set against the vastness of black holes, hyperdrive blast-offs and interplanetary explosions.
© Adrian Martin April 1998