With the internet going crazy over Netflix’s new Lost in Space series, I thought it would be a good idea to look back at the 1998 movie. Sigh. I was wrong. I was so wrong. History, it turns out, judged this film quite fairly. It’s cinematic garbage, on the absolute low end of the 90s blockbusters. There is, however, one rather clever moment which is surprisingly similar to something in Black Panther (more on that at the end). That’s about it for Lost in Space’s redeeming qualities, though.
The film, which is currently available to stream on Netflix, wastes no time getting started. After the old New Line Cinema logo flies by, we’re treated to a voiceover from a sleepy-voiced William Hurt detailing one of those pollution-destroyed-the-Earth-so-now-we-have-to-find-a-new-home sci-fi scenarios. There are rival factions fighting over who gets to be the first to colonize the new planet. Honestly, there’s even more to it than just that, but before you have time to process everything you’re watching Matt LeBlanc (played Major Don West) and Morgan from The Walking Dead trade gay panic jokes as they pilot spaceships and track down bad guys.
It’s an admirably busy opening, with director Stephen Hopkins clearly wanting to drop audiences straight into the action like an especially caffeinated Star Wars, but it’s also rather pointless. The bad guys LeBlanc shoots down? The plot forgets all about them just a couple of minutes later. The flashy orange-eye tech LeBlanc uses to help with targeting? This is its one and only appearance in the film.
Still, it was enough to fool me into thinking this Lost in Space movie might not be so bad after all. At least the special effects don’t look quite so terrible, and LeBlanc’s false bravado is instantly fun to mock (he could have benefited from some more lessons in the Tribbiani school of acting). Might we actually have a semi-competent late-90s space movie on our hands? Danger, Kelly’s misplaced optimism.
We then meet the Robinson family, led by genius workaholic John (Hurt). His technological breakthroughs will allow humans to successfully leave the planet, and he’s volunteered his own family – wife Maureen (Mimi Rogers), daughters Judy (a post-Boogie Nights/pre-Austin Powers Heather Graham) and Penny (Party of Five’s Lacey Chabert, who talks into a video recorder on her wrist like an early version of vlogging), and son/kid genius Will (Jack Johnson – no, not that Jack Johnson) – to be the guinea pigs. LeBlanc’s West is the highly annoyed hotshot pilot assigned the babysitting task of escorting the Robinson’s on their ten-year journey, almost all of which will take place in hypersleep.
Of course, their mission goes haywire almost immediately. Soon enough, there’s a scheming Gary Oldman (over the top as always), rampaging robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld, just as he did for the 60s TV series), and unbelievably fake-looking CGI spiders to contend with and a series of time travel-dependent twists that create plot holes the size of Jupiter. You do get to see a youngish Jared Harris (won’t spoil who he plays) clearly having all of his dialogue dubbed by someone else, a bizarre sight which either adds to Lost in Space’s so bad, it’s good enjoyment factor or simply piles on the misery (I can’t decide which one).
Not surprisingly, William Hurt looks like he’d rather be anywhere else and his familiar arc of being a workaholic father who needs to pay more attention to his kids never fully connects. Matt LeBlanc’s meant to be playing the “Can’t believe I got stuck on this stupid mission with these yokels” and “I will have sex with Judy. Oh, yes. I will” of it all, but it comes off as almost sociopathic and impossibly creepy. He hits on Judy pretty much non-stop, often in earshot distance from her dad.
The Robinson family never really feels like an actual family. The women in the story spend nearly the entire second half putting on their best worried face while looking out a viewscreen. The special effects quickly take a turn into astonishingly bad territory. The time travel plot doesn’t make much sense. And don’t even get me started on the breast-hugging costumes.
But, eh, what can you do? It was the 90s.
I blame Mission Impossible. Or The Fugitive. Or The Brady Bunch Movie. Or maybe just all of them. Hollywood, after all, has never met a good idea it couldn’t run into the ground, and when the first half of the 90s gave us a couple of successful film adaptations of old TV shows the tail end of the decade gave us crap like Lost in Space, The Avengers, and Wild Wild West.
As a kid of the 90s, though, I’d somehow gone all this time without ever seeing Lost in Space. It came out in 1998, at which point I was already in the bag for anything Friends or Party of Five-related. Plus, I recall having a crush on Mimi Rogers. Lost in the Space ticked all three of those boxes, yet the word of mouth was so, so toxic. I stayed away. Even when Best Buy later gave me a free DVD copy of the film (along with Wild Wild West, The Perfect Storm, and two others) with my first DVD player I still never gave it a look. That’s one DVD that went straight to the garage sale pile.
And until Netflix came along with its reboot I forgot all about Lost in Space, both the 60s show and ‘98 film. I’d grown to believe Matt LeBlanc’s filmography couldn’t sink any lower than that chimpanzee baseball movie. I was wrong. As SyFy.com recently declared in its own Lost in Space retrospective, “It’s rare to see a movie that fails on just about every level.” Kudos for pulling that off, I guess.
Lost in Space is a movie which always feels like it’s in a rush even though it’s over two hours long, as if barreling to the next action setpiece will distract from the poor performances, tonally-challenged script, and atrocious visuals. Ultimately, they tried to make a gritty action film out of a campy old sci-fi show, yet now it is the Netflix series which is trying to be the gritty reboot to the campy old movie. So, let this serve as a remnder for whenever we might want to complain about the current state of the Hollywood blockbuster. As Lost in Space shows, it’s not like these things were so much better 20 years ago.
Chabert’s Penny says its best: “This mission sucks.”
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
1. Did anyone else see this…
…and think of this?:
At one point, Will, safely tucked away in his science lab just like Shuri, uses a similar technology to remote-pilot the robot and fight off CGI spiders on a nearby ship, and as with Shuri’s situation a VR outline of the robot animates around Will in the lab. Sure, in Lost in Space it looks closer to Tron than Black Panther because of the subpar special effects, but kudos to them for running with such a cool idea.
2. Lost in Space is so, so 90s, from its Schumacher-esque costumes to its crystal meth look for Chabert to well, Matt LeBlanc to its embarrassingly dated special effects to its questionable sexual politics. The closing credits, though, take the 90s cake with a Mortal Kombat-wannabe techno theme song (a remix of the original show’s theme) playing over images of space and quick shots from the movie like some kind of cyber punk music video.
3. Siskel & Ebert weren’t exactly Lost in Space fans, but Siskel actually gave it a mixed, as opposed to outright negative, review: