Before you say anything—Yes, I have watched the original Lost in Space television show. Yes, it is kinda weird because I was born decades after its premiere. Yes, I did enjoy it. Yes, I am obsessed with stories featuring kids who have friendships with robots, and queer codified villains. I also learned that John Williams had written the theme song, which was a very high recommendation in my kid playbook.
The 1998 reboot came along and also swept me off my feet for a brief period of time. (I was very young, shh.) But looking back on the film now—awkward as it was—it’s strange to realize how much I learned from it.
It’s important to note that Lost in Space was far from the first reboot the world had ever seen, but rather part of a quickly growing trend. That year it lost the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Remake or Sequel to a never-before-or-since-seen three way tie between Godzilla, the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, and The Avengers. (The spies, not the superhero team. I watched that 1960s show, too, as a kid. I was weird.) Reboots and revivals have always been a thing, but the late 90s were absolutely filthy with them, in addition to a specific kind of pop sci-fi film—movies that were typically colorful and grungy, by turns both camp and incredibly grim.
Many of these remakes and reboots heralded our new status quo, one which sees practically every blockbuster contender today as a reimagining or furthering of some familiar story that audiences once adored. The late 90s were the frontline of that soon-to-be all-encompassing MO, taking beloved properties of the 60s and dressing them up for modern Americans who wanted a bit more sex’n’explosions in their media. It was trashy, but also fun? And Lost in Space was a perfect sampling from that period. A textbook example, if you will.
Here is a film chock full of goodies for fans of the original. There were cameos by all of the original ladies in the Robinson family—June Lockhart, Angela Cartwright, and Marta Kristen—plus Mark Goddard, the original Major West. (Of course, there was the big missing cameo from Bill Mumy, who obviously should have played older Will Robinson, but was denied the role because the studio thought playing an older version of the character he originated would be “confusing.” Somehow. J.J. Abrams would later prove this utterly wrong when Leonard Nimoy showed up in 2009’s Star Trek.) Penelope’s old pet Debbie—now called Blarp—is given a brand new CGI treatment, the Robot is rebuilt into its signature look by Will, and the Jupiter 2’s original design is glimpsed as the launching ship that gets the updated Jupiter 2 into space. They’re fun bits that don’t overplay their hand or rely too much on the previous incarnation.
While it’s full to the brim with action and bankable stars, Lost In Space is still not a good movie, but that is not entirely on its own head. Commentary tracks from its Blu Ray make clear that the film was grossly rushed and underfunded, making sense of the unfinished-looking special effects and the rough pacing. If the studio planned to make sequels—and the end of the film makes it clear that they were hoping for one—they had a funny way of showing it, cutting it off at the knees for vital resources. It seems to be a mistake that engendered some form of lesson, given the sky high budgets that blockbusters get these days. The film also suffers from certain 90s faux pas that date it in the most hilarious fashion… particularly the fully articulated rubbery body suits that the Jupiter 2 crew are meant to wear in cryosleep. They give Batman & Robin a run for their money, which should be impossible.
And even with all of that hindering it, there are plenty of ideas in this reimagining that are quite clever. The majority of the casting is sharp; William Hurt and Mimi Rodgers are perfect anchors as the Robinson family patriarch and matriarch. Gary Oldman is a dream as the conniving Doctor Smith, equal parts shifty exasperation and the nastiest sarcasm. In the most important get of the film, the Robot is voiced by his originator, Dick Tufeld, who sounds as though he never took a break from the part. Messing about with time travel is an interesting tack to take in a film about being lost out there in the universe, and though the execution falters, its oddness in such a seemingly straightforward yarn is appealing.
The decision to make the Robinson family a less jovial unit only works to its advantage. (The previous iteration might as well have been marketed as “The Brady Bunch in Space” for all the tension between them.) Making a point of giving Will and Penny some pre-teen and teen angst is an excellent touch, particularly where Penny’s video diary chronicling her journey as a “daring space captive” is concerned; their lives are actually affected by this journey, and they don’t gloss over the fact that the change is not an easy one. And there are many more points where the film enjoys its premise and fiddles with its factory settings, as it were; before Will reprograms Robot to behave more as he did in the television show, the kid pilots it remotely to help his family explore a ship from the future—there’s nothing quite so hilarious as hearing Will’s lines issued in the Robot’s voice: “Mom says try it now!”
And then there are certain aspects of this film that are unforgivable, particularly when juxtaposed with its odd twinkles of promise. (As I said, it is a bad movie. Fun, but also bad.) The dialogue is trite, and often downright offensive in its badness. It gets particularly egregious where Matt LeBlanc’s Major West is concerned; he and his army pal utter lines like “This cold war just got hot!” and “Last one to kill a bad guy buys the beer,” and the film is clearly desperate to give West that Han Solo devil-may-care sheen, but it only ever makes him come off like a jerk. Such a jerk. He’s completely insufferable, it hurts. And if you’re not a fan of Friends—which I never was growing up—there’s no reason to enjoy him in the film at all. William Hurt gives a few of the worst line readings of his career here, and he’s a guy who usually knows what he’s doing in front of a camera.
The plot is unnecessarily convoluted all because Will-from-the-future has to make it clear to Papa Robinson that he should tell his kids his loves them more often. That’s it. That’s the summation of the entire theme of the film, the reason for almost collapsing the universe with time travel shenanigans. It’s too simple a theme to create so much strife when the Robinson family seems relatively normal in their hiccups. In addition, the romantic subplot between Judy Robinson (played with careful blandness by Heather Graham) and Major West is gag-worthy for all the reasons mentioned above.
And then there’s the fact that Doctor Smith gets transformed by space spiders into a giant monster spider person who plans to birth a master race of more space spiders in the past via the time machine built by future-Will.
Yeah, you could say they bit off a little more than they could chew.
It’s too bad because this film could have revived such a funny little patch of sci-fi history. If they had leaned a little harder on the dynamic between Will and Doctor Smith (who drove the show entirely back in the day), there would have been enough intrigue and comedy to keep audiences smiling. A little more funding and the movie could have been gorgeous. A little extra time on the script and some of those hideous one-liners could have been retracted, and the sci-fi elements of the plot rendered more lovingly.
This movie had an unexpected number of positives working in its favor, but at the end of the day, it was clear that it didn’t have any real zeal behind its reconstruction. No one loved it enough to give it a fair chance at life. It was a perfect harbinger of where Hollywood was headed in the long-term, with equal examples of what should and should never be done, especially with reboots and reconstructions of old favorites. Having seen it at a tender age, I was duly prepared for what the future of film was going to look like. And just like then, I am well aware of how ridiculous it all can be… and I love it just the same.
Emily Asher-Perrin is going to listen to that wild theme song remix from the credits now. No, but she actually likes that part. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.