One of the most endearingly dumb baby-boomer tube faves finally makes it to the bigscreen with “Lost in Space,” New Line’s most commercially ambitious, and costly, production to date. The $90 mil pricetag reps a considerable risk, although a strong opening is assured due to the major promo push, appeal to both nostalgic adults and current kids, plus canny launch time with no similar blockbusters in view. Still, word of mouth among grownups is likely to taper fast for a pic that provides one hour’s decent, eye-filling ride, then crashes and burns amid some of the worst writing since … well, since scenarist/co-producer Akiva Goldsman’s last effort, “Batman & Robin.” Whether this flies as a new franchise will depend on response from very young viewers, and even they may find some aspects painfully cornball.
The original series started on CBS in 1965 as an earnest, if not particularly bright, B&W primetime space adventure. When the run ended three years later, the show had long since gone color — and very self-consciously campy. (Its silliness was no doubt one reason why older sci-fi fans instantly embraced the comparatively sophis-ticated “Star Trek,” which debuted one year later.) The simple premise updated “Swiss Family Robinson,” placing a traditional, all-American nuclear family — plus one romantic-interest hunk for the eldest daughter, a duplicitous stowaway and one loyal robot — on a spaceship that is lost, ensuring a new interplanetary peril each week.
Goldsman and director Stephen Hopkins have wisely avoided going the route of most recent small-to-bigscreen transplants: They don’t overtly parody the material. But their alternative tacks bring other problems: The writer just can’t stop forcing his characters to parrot the lamest possible “wisecracks” (including that inevitable battle cry, “Rock ‘n’ roll!”), and an effort to inject contemporary “relevance” by making the Space Family Robinsons a stock dysfunctional unit in need of some quality time together plays even worse than it sounds.
None of that matters so much for the first 65 minutes or so, which seem like several compacted series episodes strung together. While there’s no depth or build to this jumble of incidents, it does make for colorful diversion.
It’s 2058, and Earth nations have settled their differences to concentrate on shared concerns: Fossil fuels having been used up, and the ozone layer depleted, life on this planet is running out of time. The United Global Space Force sends Professor John Robinson (William Hurt) and his immediate family — wife Maureen (Mimi Rogers), grown daughter Judy (Heather Graham), teenage sib Penny (Lacey Chabert), 10-year-old science prodigy Will (Jack Johnson) — to a faraway colony on the Jupiter II spacecraft as a partial publicity stunt, one that may help prepare mankind for its “offshore” future.
Pic starts rather hectically as top gun Major Don West (Matt LeBlanc) combats the evil terrorist forces of Global Sedition, whose precise agenda is never explained. Accustomed to such thrills, Don reluctantly accepts his last-minute “baby-sitting” assignment as the Jupiter II’s replacement pilot, but is more amenable after spying the chilly but comely Judy.
Meanwhile, bad guys (repped by a briefly seen Edward Fox) hire veteran spy Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman) to sabotage the Jupiter mission, but then strand an unconscious Smith on the vessel whose destruction he’s already programmed. He wakes — and rouses the Robinsons from their cryogenic slumber — just in time to prevent total loss. To avoid getting incinerated by a sun’s pull, John must send the Jupiter through “hyperspace.” Downside: They’re sure to emerge in galactic parts unknown, with no way to navigate home.
Crew is therefore surprised to arrive near a drifting Earth-made ship. On board, they discover living beings: First, the cuddly, big-eyed space-monkey thing dubbed “Blawp,” an animated pet that underlines pic’s primary aim toward grade-school demographics. Less happily, they are also greeted by a whole lotta hungry spiders with big teeth, from which all narrowly escape.Final action finds John battling-to-the-death with Dr. Smith, whose prior spider bite has mutated him into a sort of “Alien” Lite — the scariest effect here, though one still kept mild enough for children over 8 or so.
That rote climax, however, adds almost an hour in which pic’s hitherto mindless but enjoyable action suddenly goes slack, and dreadful “family values” preaching takes center stage. Oft-neglectful Dad gets to prove “how much he cares” to needy Will, amid insipid platitudes like “I guess sometimes friendship means listening to your heart, not your head.” (Following “Contact,” pic raises the frightening prospect that there might be a whole new emerging subgenre of Wounded Inner Child Sci-Fi.) At press screening reviewed, such dialogue had aud howling. While intended underage viewers might be less cynical, these days they generally also recognize hokum when they’re force-fed it.
Adding another uneven action pic to his resume, Hopkins (“Blown Away,” “The Ghost and the Darkness”) again delivers satisfying spectacle on a moment-to-moment basis, but no sense of overall structure or pacing.
It was smart, in theory, to cast some very good (if B.O.-iffy) actors not usually seen in this sort of fare. Ultimately, though, their casting can’t do much to salvage script’s dim human dimensions. While Hurt lends welcome gravity, Rogers is stuck doing the basic honey-be-careful act; Graham and LeBlanc suffer through pages of groaningly flat sex banter. In a familiar villainous role, Oldman chooses not to play Smith as flamingly as memorable small-screen predecessor Jonathan Harris, but doesn’t come up with any specific alternative.Chabert annoys in a punky-l’il-rebel role rather over-indebted to Winona Ryder’s in “Beetlejuice.” Where Billy Mumy’s spunky Will anchored the original series, Johnson lends an indefinite, sometimes plain-awkward screen presence. Several surviving veterans from the TV show put in regulation cameos (June Lockhart gets the only clever one), with Duck Tufeld returning to voice the somewhat redesigned Robot.
Of course, pic’s main attraction is its vast tech package, whose estimated 750 individual special effects run a full gamut from Jim Henson Creature Shop animatronics to CGI. There’s much here that isn’t seamless — but it’s still impressive, and given overall air of unabashed juvenile fantasy, obviousness of some bluescreen effects, et al., doesn’t matter one whit.
Production designer Norman Garwood’s first sci-fi job since “Brazil” provides a gleaming and stimulating, if not especially original, overall look. Vin Burnham’s space costumes are very much in the gender-exaggerated mode of fetishy “Batman” togs.
Other contributions down the line are expectedly slick and loud. Feature ends on a blatant to-be-continued note, followed by a somewhat incongruously hip electronica vidclip during initial credit crawl — though that ends well before the verrrry long tech scroll does.