It says much about the state of our current movie climate that when Shakespeare or Dickens gets adapted for the big screen, that pesky text is the first thing tossed into the dumpster, but if you’re mounting a deluxe new version of, say, a famously schlocky ’60s TV show about a gee-whiz American family stranded in the cosmos, every last trading-card detail must be fetishistically preserved (or reverently updated). Then again, would you really go into a movie of Lost in Space expecting anything less?
I was 6 years old when producer Irwin Allen’s Swiss Family Robinson-goes-galactic series debuted in 1965, and I can honestly admit that I was enthralled. Aliens, flying saucers, monster rocks, demon plants, time traveling, space tripping — the show was a special-effects candy land of sinister upheaval, the perfect entertainment for grade-school baby boomers already addicted to the sheer more-ness of pop culture. Only years later did I realize that the amazing universe of Lost in Space was, in fact, Allen’s trash-compacter version of every B-movie outer-space cliche of the ’40s and ’50s. The sci-fi gimmicks (talking robots, giant Styrofoam boulders) had become so corny that no one would even pay to see them in a theater anymore. To me, though, it might as well have been Star Wars.
Now, here it is again, all gleamed up and retrofitted for the arch, comic-book, computer-geek, familial-anxiety ’90s. Professor Robinson (William Hurt) has become a somberly bearded scientist with a tendency to skimp on quality time. He’s got a feisty wife (Mimi Rogers) and brood — Will (Jack Johnson) the boy genius, Penny (Lacey Chabert) the rag-doll waif, and Judy (Heather Graham) the beautiful take-no-guff physician. And, of course, there’s Dr. Smith, the cowardly saboteur, embodied by Gary Oldman without quite the sissy-fit campiness of the TV show’s Jonathan Harris; Oldman’s Smith, with his steel-tipped menace, is more like Darth Vader played by Dirk Bogarde. Here’s Don the sex-rascal pilot (a surprisingly commanding Matt LeBlanc), who indulges in canned Neanderthal banter with Judy, and here’s the Robot, who doesn’t have a lot to do but, for the sake of nostalgia, still barks out his lines like a demented cruise-ship emcee.
Director Stephen Hopkins engulfs his characters in an alluring miasma of special effects: holograms, futuristic video screens, organic hardware that shape-shifts as easily as water. Thrown off course, the Robinsons confront an army of spiders, a menace that might have seemed queasier had it not already been bested by the spectacular creepy crawlers of Starship Troopers. Then again, considering that this is Lost in Space, computer-generated beasties are kind of beside the point. What of the essential cheese factor? Well, the Robinsons land on a distant planet, where the aging vines hang as cheaply as they did in the ’60s, and where the family meets its destiny via an Oedipal time warp of incredible blow-your-mind tackiness. Is any of this, you know, fun? Just barely. But I’m sure I would have loved it at 6. B-