I had a great urge to watch the 1998 blockbuster Lost in Space. The huge success of The Force Awakens had me craving bigger, better galactic adventure movies. And rewatching some fond, silly episodes of the 60s television adaptation of Lost... finally peaked my interest. The box office dominance of TFA has just ended thanks to Ride Along 2 and Lost in Space ended the streak of James Cameron's Titanic. So you can see how this film is very relevant to the film business today.
Lost in Space is one of Hollywood's first reboots of an old franchise and one of the more successful, given the right context. The trend started in the 1980s with Star Trek movies and 1989's Batman, two campy and beloved television shows from the '60s made bigger, darker and more accessible by Hollywood. Arguably, they were better than ever. So then every film producer joined the wave. We saw the return of everything from The Addams Family to The Beverly Hillbillies to Mars Attacks! to The Little Rascals. Everything got the '90s treatment. Lost in Space is probably the most expensive and most serious reboot of the bunch. And unsurprisingly the most inventive and influential. But it makes some very odd and catastrophic mistakes that killed the chance at a new franchise, unless you count its many copycat films as later entry into its unofficial franchise of big glossy reboots. Has Hollywood learned anything positive from Lost in Space or are they simply repeating it with more money and less pushback from fans?
What does the film do right? Well, the concept of Lost in Space is here for the most part. It has the same cast, same plot structure and same basic idea as the show. In fact, the movie is really a modern rewrite of the original pilot. The filmmakers knew that they were dealing with pop-scifi royalty here, so they loaded the film with epic futuristic art design and gloriously rendered CGI (even by 2016's standards!). All of that ensures that the film is beautiful from its first second to its last. You feel like you're in another world when you watch this film. Not exactly the world of the original Lost in Space though. The film has its own identity which makes it feel like a more sinister, cold version of the classic story. This is Lost in Space's evil twin.
The film strives to carve out its own identity which alienates the purpose of resurrecting it. While the big things are all copied, the little things are changed when they shouldn't be. The most essential parts are warped or made tedious to be politically correct or "enlightened". Mainly, the characters. The Robinsons, Major West and Dr. Smith just barely resemble their original versions because of their names and situation. So why not just make them new characters existing in the same continuity of the old characters? Then, their poor characterization would be less offensive and the lack of similarity could be forgiven. Because the loving, inspiring family dynamic of The Robinsons is lost, Major West is now a non-threatening, wisecracking "pretty boy" cliche and Dr. Smith, the breakout star of the original show, is so unlikable that his existence in the plot becomes a logical fallacy (why give him so much freedom?). Even The Robot and the family's pet alien monkey are simply annoying, upgraded parodies of themselves.
The biggest blasphemy to the original formula is how the relationship of Dr. Smith and Will Robinson is treated. In the original show, the cowardly and scheming Dr. Smith has a soft spot for the family's young son and becomes protective of him, thus becoming one of TV's first "bad guys turned good". The reboot spins this relationship into something much sicker. We find a dark future's version of both characters living in some kind of parasitic, vaguely-homosexual relationship as the film's villains. Its so far-fetched and disorienting to fans of the originals that Will would end up a mad scientist and Dr. Smith a literal mutant spider being pregnant with offspring (putting Will in a strange fathering role to the monster version of Smith). Its such bizarre, nightmarish, homophobic weirdness that it just kills all of the momentum and promise that this reboot had. The secret of Lost in Space's success was the story of friendship between this boy and this man without any perversity involved. To not only reference it but examine it and make it the focus of a big budget, family-friendly reintroduction was artistic and financial madness.
What kills the film is its script by Akiva Goldsman. He figured out the basic mold of Lost in Space but completely ignored the emotional core of it. Its too dark and too weird to be Lost in Space. Which is sad because the very first episodes of Lost in Space were very serious and dark, but this is overkill. The film is successful in its first 40 minutes, which stick strictly to the original concept. But when it takes liberties and throws out everything we know for something new and not asked for, it loses the audience. But despite this horrible murder of a classic story concept, we are treated to incredible direction by Stephen Hopkins and all of the visual effects and production value. And the comfort of knowing that this is only a Hollywood reboot continuity that can never truly replace or damage the original.
This film is almost 20 years old and we have had many films like since: The Star Trek reboot, The Star Wars reboot, the Transformers reboot. Lots of money gets thrown onscreen and there's plenty of winking to the nostalgic, updated audience, but not much respect or understanding of the source material. Some stuff doesn't need to be upgraded or given a facelift, even if there's a demand for it or profit to be made. Lost in Space was a successful movie, but thankfully that didn't always guarantee a sequel back then (even though the film sets one up). Now, reboots are made with sequels already greenlit. Fans don't get a say in it. And while many fans rejected the inconsistencies with this reboot, the filmgoing public welcome blatant laziness and minor cosmetic tweaking in today's films. Its a different film climate. Lost in Space would probably get great reviews if it were released today, despite its terrible characterization, dialogue and underlying themes; or maybe it would be celebrated because of them. But its still a bad movie, no matter how familiar or flashy or futuristic it is. Lost in Space marks where Hollywood really started to give up on originality and craftsmanship, so for that it has to be damned. But it also ushered in the era of brainless multi-million dollar video game/comic book cinema, which I find myself enjoying every so often. Its a game-changing film, but its still harmful. When will we enter an era where a big Hollywood movie based on an old show or toyline or comic book is actually not an insult to the original? Maybe when filmmakers leave the classics alone and bring them back only when they need to be rediscovered. Maybe this film did that for the original show. It certainly makes the show look better than it ever was.