I don’t know what psychopath decided to spend so much money on a movie version of Lost In Space, but I can say that the completely heedless application of money, special effects, and ornate set design represents the only joys in this completely misguided first step in trying to create a new franchise from a quaint, old television show. The story itself is such a giant jumble of ideas and an ensemble all working in different directions that nothing settles into a groove long enough for an audience to latch onto narratively. It’s not a completes slog, though. It’s fast pace means that the wild special effects (all in their late 90s CGI glory) keep changing enough so that there are at least new sights pretty frequently.
It’s obvious that something is wrong in the opening seconds of the film. William Hurt, who plays the patriarch of the Jupiter II mission John Robinson, does a flat voiceover narration of the geopolitical situation on Earth. It would be functional as a text crawl, but coming from Hurt it feels unnatural. Then we get an action scene. I’m wary of movies beginning with action scenes before anything else. They’re usually off tonally because they insist on the audience sharing an emotional sense of danger with the characters, but we don’t know the characters at all, much less like them. The scene show Major Don West fighting off a pair of seditionist starfighters in his own starfighter along with his best friend, Jeb Walker. If this were just to show us Don’s fighter pilot skills then that would be one thing, but it edges too far into earnestness by the end as Don saves Jeb from death, defying orders doing so. This scene defines Don for the rest of the movie, which is good at least in so far as it amounts to pretty much the totality of his character. Oh, he also digs Heather Graham because Heather Graham is pretty. So, there’s that.
To make the opening sequence worse, it’s kind of hard to watch. I don’t hold the soft, textureless CGI against 90s CGI as much as some, so the visuals are fine in that regard. The designs are unique, which is nice as well, but the fighter pilot pods have so many moving parts and the action is filmed so close, predominantly in closeups, that it becomes incomprehensible. This movie simply starts on the wrong foot.
Then we get our introductions to the rest of the characters, and it’s a lot. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Ensemble pieces are hard. Lost in Space has, for all intents and purposes, seven main characters. There are the five members of the Robinson family, going to the planet Alpha Prime to set up a hyperspace gate to allow for instant travel from Earth to the only inhabitable planet they can detect, John, Maureen, Judy, Penny, and Will, Don West the pilot, and Dr. Zachary Smith, the stowaway. If there’s a main character thread in this film, it’s about John being unable to connect with Will because he’s so busy preparing for the mission. That’s as good a backbone for a story as anything, but it’s lost in the other stories. West dealing with the fact that he’s not piloting his fighter anymore while trying to pick up Judy, Penny being a teenage girl while torn from her life to go on a 10 year space mission, and Dr. Smith having tried to sabotage the mission (because he’s a sympathizer, or just a mercenary, not quite clear, for the Seditionists) trying to survive. That’s a fair amount, all competing for screentime, and they don’t really come together in any thematic way. It’s a hodgepodge.
And then there’s the time travel. Okay, so Smith’s efforts to destroy the Jupiter II partially succeed, only stopped because the Seditionists somehow turned his personal device into a knockout electronic that kept him asleep through the violent launch while laying in a tunnel without any kind of harness (I mean…he should have died), getting the Robinson family awake quickly enough so that they could deactivate the reprogrammed robot so that they don’t die but not so quickly that he doesn’t completely wreck their navigation equipment. In a last bid effort to save their lives, they engage the hyperdrive, sending the Jupiter II careening across the galaxy without a set destination. So, they become lost in space.
Lost they don’t know where, they very quickly find a tear in time (it makes sense later, so I’m fine with this) where they discover a rescue ship that was sent looking for them decades earlier (how the ship managed to find them at all in the first place is unclear), commanded by Jeb. They’re quickly attacked by space spiders, Smith gets hit but survives, and West blows up the rescue ship, crashing the Jupiter II on the planet below. I think I know why they went in the direction they did with the time travel. It relates to what should have been the central character-driven storyline about a father having never made time for his son, and there are moments of that in the third act. The ship crashes next to a time bubble, and inside is another Jupiter II, decades older with only Will Robinson having grown into Jared Harris surviving. Why the Jupiter II from the future is a few hundred yards from the current one, I don’t know.
Anyway, future Will describes a possible future where everyone died from the space spiders but him, and he’s spent decades perfecting time travel, trying to send himself back to before he got lost. The secret is that Dr. Smith has also survived in mutated form, becoming a human/spider hybrid. It was Smith who killed the rest of the family and is using Will to send himself back in time to Earth. There could be a connection here between the mutant nature of the Seditionists and the mutant nature of Smith, but the movie makes nothing of it. So, points for trying, I guess? With the planet collapsing around them because of Will’s activation of the time machine, the rest of the crew of the Jupiter II try to leave, exploding in the wreckage, and Will decides to send John back to…right before the ship explodes. Not right before, say, the robot goes mad hours into the mission originally or anything because then there would be no story anymore.
And this is why time travel is a tricky narrative technique. There’s simply way too many “Why didn’t he?” questions to ask. It creates holes, and it makes me question the use of time travel at all. Time travel is not intimately considered with the original show, as far as I know. The time travel aspect feels like a really complicated extra bit of business to include in a movie already overstuffed with characters fighting for screentime. The actual story needed to be greatly simplified. Weird new sights and sounds without any way of getting home is an interesting enough place to have your story.
As I said, though, I do like the look of the film overall. Sure, the CGI has dated horribly, but it’s interesting. The spiders look scary. The final design of Spider Smith looks good. The ships and planets look fine. It’s a thin reed on which to ask anything of an audience though when the rest is just a tangle.
Gary Oldman is having fun as Smith, though. So that’s something.