On this day in 1998, the Lost in Space movie was released in theaters. For a twentieth anniversary post, I decided to review each of the film’s shortcomings (or at least as many as I could cover in a ten-point list) and explain why director Stephen Hopkins failed to revive the beloved 1960s franchise.
To start off, I’ll mention the few aspects of the Lost in Space movie that I actually enjoyed. The film’s episodic structure, for instance, offered a fresh and exciting new take on “The Reluctant Stowaway,” “The Derelict,” and “Flight Into the Future”—three outstanding episodes of the original series. I also liked that the Robinsons discovered the truth about Dr. Smith, who originally went unpunished for sabotaging the Jupiter mission. I even admired the new Robot design, which benefits from a modern, upgraded exterior while still maintaining the essence of the original B-9 model.
Nevertheless, the drawbacks of the Lost in Space movie far outweigh any positive elements, as many fans of the television series will undoubtedly agree. Below are the ten most important reasons why the Lost in Space movie didn’t work. Hopefully, the creators of the Netflix reboot series (scheduled to premiere later this month) will take care to avoid the following mistakes.
10) Bad CGI
Though passable by 1998 standards, the visual effects in the Lost in Space movie may induce cringing from modern audiences. The space spiders, for example, resemble cartoon monsters while interacting with the human characters and physical ship interiors. During the hyperdrive sequence, a terrible freeze-frame shot is used to illustrate the time distortion effect of the experimental device.
Worst of all, however, are the graphics that comprise the movements and appearance of Blarp—a reimagining of Debbie the Bloop, Penny’s alien pet chimp from the original series. Resembling a hairless monkey in the fetal stages of development, Blarp—marred by poor animation and horrifying facial aesthetics—earns its reputation as the Jar Jar Binks of Lost in Space.
9) Chipmunk Voices
In contrast to their counterparts from the original show, the new versions of Will and (especially) Penny speak in whiny, high-pitched voices that serve only to irritate the audience. I understand that Lacey Chabert was likely entering puberty when the Lost in Space movie was made, so I don’t mean to insult the actress for something that was beyond her ability to control. That being said, the producers could have easily cast a young actress with a smoother, more pleasant-sounding voice in the role of Penny—perhaps someone with a similar voice to that of Angela Cartwright.
8) Illogical Sci-fi Aspects
In the third act of the movie, the characters enter a hypothetical future where Penny, Judy, and Maureen have all been killed by Dr. Smith—transformed into a giant, mutated creature after sustaining a scratch from one of the spiders aboard the Proteus. As Lost in Space fans will observe, the final scenes of the movie resemble the narrative structure of “Flight Into the Future” from season three of the television series. In that episode, Will and Dr. Smith travel to a futuristic planet controlled by a malevolent, machine-like entity. Only by rejecting the illusions of a false future does Will succeed in defeating the alien mechanism.
Despite drawing inspiration from one of the better Lost in Space episodes, Hopkins decided to omit a crucial narrative point from “Flight Into the Future” and by doing so, undermined the very foundation for his time travel subplot. Namely, the future reality in the Lost in Space movie exists as a byproduct of Will’s time machine—not an illusory construct as in the original episode. Therefore, the future versions of Will, Dr. Smith, and the Jupiter 2 should have disappeared as soon as the present-day characters (including the younger versions of Will and Dr. Smith) are killed in an asteroid collision while escaping the planet’s gravity field.
Speaking of which, how is it that Major West—when warned of the impending collision by Professor Robinson—manages to pilot the Jupiter 2 directly through the core of the disintegrating planet? The likelihood of a smooth, continuous tunnel leading from one end of the planet to the other, even when breaking apart from within, seems a bit more than “astronomical” when considered from a logical perspective. Obviously, dodging a few asteroids would be a simple task compared to flying through the planetary core in a straight line.
While Lost in Space was never known for its realism, the 1998 reboot could have improved on the original concept. Instead, Hopkins frequently resorted to the same lazy, hackneyed plot devices that marred so many episodes of the television series.
7) Villain-of-the-Week Antics
In his hilarious review of the Lost in Space movie, Nostalgia Critic repeatedly mocked the Dr. Smith character for his one-dimensional villainy. As opposed to his counterpart played by Jonathan Harris, the new Dr. Smith spends a great deal of time justifying his motives from a philosophical framework, even embracing the title of “monster” after Maureen describes him as such.
Now, I’d like to clarify that by no means am I a fan of the campy, flamboyant version of Smith portrayed by Harris. If anything, a more serious interpretation of Dr. Smith—arguably the most annoying, buffoonish character in an otherwise enjoyable science fiction program—should come as a welcome change to the source material. Unfortunately, the new Dr. Smith tries too hard to present himself as a dangerous and untrustworthy companion to the Robinson family, offering long-winded villain speeches instead of acting in a manner that viewers would find deplorable. As a result, Dr. Smith’s laughable attempts to intimidate or gain the upper hand over his fellow travelers—though less embarrassing than the antics of his original series counterpart—end up falling flat in nearly every instance.
6) Poor Casting Choices
Despite resembling the original cast, the actors in the 1998 movie failed to capture the essence of each character. William Hurt, for example, embodied neither the pathos nor the quiet strength that defined Guy Williams’ role in the original series, instead giving a lackluster effort as the Robinson patriarch. Likewise, Mimi Rodgers approached the character of Maureen with a bossy, empowered spirit lacking maternal warmth or sympathy—the exact opposite of how June Lockhart portrayed the Robinson mother over thirty years prior. And while I’m not familiar with his work on Friends, Matt LeBlanc seemed way too cocky as Major West—originally depicted as a likeable young man who, though willing to challenge the decisions of Professor Robinson on occasion, maintained a respectful tone at all times.
To be fair, the modern interpretations of each character leave much to be desired in more than a few areas (I’ll explore this topic in the following sections). Nevertheless, none of the new cast members exemplify the core qualities of the old characters, physical traits notwithstanding.
5) Sappy Dialogue
The Lost in Space movie also deserves criticism for its poorly-written, if not groan-worthy, interactions among the characters. Lacking the chemistry of Mark Goddard and Jonathan Harris, Matt LeBlanc and Gary Oldman exchange a number of weak, forgettable insults throughout the film. When parting with his wife near the final act, Professor Robinson—also lacking the charisma of Guy Williams in the original role—says “I love you, wife” without bothering to address Maureen by her first name (Nostalgia Critic had a field day with that one). Even Will’s cheesy dialogue with the new Robot, though voiced by Dick Tufeld of the original series, fails to establish an organic friendship between both characters (in one saccharine display, Will encourages the Robot to listen to his “heart” instead of his “head” when confronted with a moral dilemma).
Despite many silly and over-the-top scenarios, the original Lost in Space always benefited from poignant, natural dialogue among the characters—an element that remains sorely absent from the 1998 reboot.
4) Degrading Cameos
Having portrayed Major West in the 1960s show, Mark Goddard was given a significant cameo in the Lost in Space feature film. Specifically, Goddard played the general who assigns the new Major West to the Jupiter mission. I thought this was a very clever and dignified role for Goddard, who never received sufficient praise for his topnotch acting in the original series.
That being said, the cameos of June Lockhart, Angela Cartwright, and Marta Kristen will no doubt leave Lost in Space fans longing for more. Playing reporters at a pre-launch press conference, Kristen and Cartwright never exchange any meaningful dialogue with the younger actors (Goddard, in contrast, shares a “passing of the torch” moment with LeBlanc prior to the Jupiter 2 launch, allowing diehard fans to accept a new face for the Major West character).
Of course, one can forgive the lack of screen time spent on cameo appearances in a two-hour movie. What is unacceptable, however, is the embarrassing treatment of Lockhart as the school principal. Notably, Will tampers with a hologram of Lockhart’s character, swapping her body with that of a gorilla, a muscle man, and a female swimsuit model. In addition to its cringe-worthy humor, the Lockhart cameo demonstrates a severe lack of respect for the source material—an important, if not essential, reason why the Lost in Space movie failed.
3) Missed Opportunities
Upon entering a hypothetical future in the final act, Professor Robinson and Major West encounter a thirty-year-old version of Will inside the Jupiter 2. Many Lost in Space enthusiasts felt that Bill Mumy, known for playing Will in the original series, should have reprised his iconic role in the futuristic scenes of the 1998 movie. However, the director decided not to cast Mumy as the older Will Robinson, feeling as though Mumy’s presence in the film would “confuse” the audience. Huh? Diehard fans would instantly identify Mumy with the Will Robinson character, while casual viewers wouldn’t recognize him anyway. Can anyone imagine the level of fan outrage if, when casting the role of Spock Prime in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, J. J. Abrams had chosen to replace Leonard Nimoy with a new actor, fearing that Nimoy’s cameo might “confuse” the audience?
Oblivious to how the average viewer would react to his film, Hopkins also failed to consider how Jonathan Harris could have made the new Dr. Smith character more relatable to fans of the Irwin Allen series. Though likely too old to play Smith in any capacity, Harris should have been hired as a “Dr. Smith consultant” and brought on board as a personal coach to Gary Oldman. Without the sly deceptiveness or clever alliterative insults that defined Harris’ role in the original show, the new Dr. Smith came across as a bland, generic villain with none of the humor/menace embodied by his predecessor.
2) Unlikable Characters
In addition to being terribly cast, the characters in the Lost in Space movie often seem like obnoxious, poorly-written caricatures of their counterparts from the Irwin Allen series. Professor Robinson, for example, maintains a harsh and dismissive attitude toward Will, making no effort to understand the frustrations of his own son—a mischaracterization of John’s firm approach to disciplining his children in the 1960s show. Instead of exuding the confidence and charisma that defined Mark Goddard’s character in the original Lost in Space, the Major West played by Matt LeBlanc carries himself in an arrogant, disrespectful, and chauvinistic manner. Also, Dr. Smith now fails to exhibit the subtle charm that Jonathan Harris once brought to the role, instead behaving like an evil supervillain from a Saturday morning cartoon serial.
When reimagining the main characters, Hopkins probably assumed that the audience would have no trouble connecting with the updated versions of Will, Penny, Dr. Smith, etc. After all, the characters had been around for more than thirty years at this point, so why waste time on developing the individual personalities of each crew member?
The problem with this approach is that the new characters have little in common with their original series counterparts, preventing even diehard fans from identifying with the Robinsons, Major West, and Dr. Smith. It doesn’t help that when they aren’t whining about their circumstances, the characters are usually too busy bickering with each other to focus on finding a way back home. This brings me to the final and most devastating flaw of the entire movie…
1) Dysfunctional Family Relationships
In the original Lost in Space, the Robinsons were a warm, compassionate, and tight-knit family. Maureen and the children, for example, would always support, respect, and obey Professor Robinson given his difficult task of keeping the family safe from harm. Professor Robinson, on the other hand, provided his children with love and guidance while maintaining the strength, poise, and authoritativeness of an exemplary father figure.
It’s important to note that while John would never tolerate disobedience, he also valued the legitimate concerns and opinions of each family member. Likewise, Will always approached his father from a place of respect, acknowledging his position in the family unit. When one family member would critique the actions of another, he or she would take extraordinary care to refrain from accusatory or judgmental behavior. By exemplifying the values of a traditional American family, the Robinsons became instantly relatable to viewers with a strong moral compass.
When measured against the family dynamics of the original series, the Lost in Space movie fails in almost every regard. Though modeled after two of the best-behaved children in television history, the chipmunk-voiced Will and Penny demonstrate no respect for authority figures, often ignoring the commands of both parents when convenient for them. Rather than provide his children with emotional support, Professor Robinson makes every effort to avoid his fatherly responsibilities to Will and Penny. Even Dr. Smith, though driven by selfish motives, seems to do a better job of raising Will than his own father does. Finally, instead of honoring her husband and respecting him as the mission leader, Maureen goes out of her way to emasculate John in front of Major West.
Compared to the other innumerable flaws present in the Lost in Space movie, the lack of cohesion among the Robinson family stands out as the most egregious. Given that none of the new characters manage to set aside their differences and function as a family unit, why should anyone care about the outcome of their mission? Though likely a reflection of the changing times, the dysfunctional relationships of the Robinsons, Major West, and even Dr. Smith (the original Smith would never attempt to murder Will in cold blood) ultimately serve to undermine the very purpose of a Lost in Space offering: to follow the adventures of a loving, traditional family as they help each other to survive in the nether regions of outer space.
What do you think of my list? Are there any additional points that I forgot to include? Was I overly harsh or unfair in any of my criticisms? Share your own thoughts in the comment section.
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