FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
Someday some writer ought to do an in-depth study of the impact Tim Burton's 1989 BATMAN had on Hollywood of the nineties. Such a study would involve not just the sequels within the Bat-franchise, which came to a temporary end with 1997's BATMAN AND ROBIN. but also Hollywood films that sought, in one way or another, to imitate Burton's success in updating a comics/ television franchise-- including LOST IN SPACE.
Though the 1990s played host to many big-screen adaptations of small-screen TV-shows, LOST doesn't resemble most of these, be it the few good efforts (mostly, just the two ADDAMS FAMILY films) or the many forgettable flops. LOST feels more like an attempt by writer Akiva Goldsman to find a new home for the approach he'd used in both BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN AND ROBIN-- an approach that seems like a misapprehension about what made the Burton Batmans popular.
The essential merit of the two Burton Batman films is that although he and his collaborators have a lot of fun at the expense of the absurdities in the Bat-franchise, they show some degree of respect for how entertaining those absurdities were. In contrast, Goldsman and his Bat-director Joel Schumacher display only a snobbish contempt for the weirdness within the Bat-world, and so they tend to reduce said weirdness to pat psychological formulas. And I belabor all this Bat-film history because I see Goldsman taking the same approach with the LOST IN SPACE franchise, for all that it presents a world not at all like that of the DC Comics hero.
For a sixties kid like myself, the original LOST IN SPACE was something of a "love it / hate it" item. Because the Irwin Allen production was on the whole aimed at children, the scripts fluctuated between evoking "childish wonder" and simply being childish-- that is, repeating ideas in a rote fashion, probably with the notion that kids didn't mind seeing the same ideas repeated ad nauseum. Unlike most of Allen's TV-productions, the original LOST IN SPACE utilized a great deal of wacky humor, and this has probably played a role in keeping the series popular with fans, just as the more ironic "camp" comedy of the BATMAN teleseries keeps it fresh for later generations.
Goldsman, in concert with journeyman director Stephen (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5)
Hopkins, shows himself unable to either emulate the original LIS wackiness or to come up with his own signature brand of wit, as Burton had done in response to the 1960s Bat-series. Goldsman tediously recycles many of the familiar lines from the LOST teleseries-- the robot with his "Danger, Will Robinson;" Doctor Smith's catch-phrases "The pain-- the pain" and "Never fear; Smith is here." But whereas these fit into Irwin Allen's wacky, kid-friendly cosmos, they have no place in Goldsman's grim and joyless designs.
The opening gives the mission of the Jupiter 2 a heftier thematic burden than the spaceship had in the original series: anticipating the theme of the recent INTERSTELLAR, the Robinsons are seeking new venues so that humankind can escape an Earth diminished by centuries of misuse. But whereas INTERSTELLAR resolves the conflict it raises, it's a given that by the end of the 1998 film, the Robinsons have to remain "lost in space"-- and, had there been any further entries in the franchise, those films too would probably never have resolved the crisis on Earth-Goldsman.
The idea of John and Maureen Robinson taking their kids along with them makes even less sense here than it did in the teleseries, for Goldsman portrays them as a dysfunctional family rather than as a clan of dedicated squares. Arguably, even though Goldsman makes de rigeur attempts to give the three female members more credibility as space-voyagers, Maureen, Penny and Judy are all of negligible importance to the plot, centered, as the series generally was, on the conflicts of dedicated scientist John Robinson, his inquisitive son Will, aggressive pilot Don West, and snarky accidental stowaway Doctor Zachary Smith.
Will probably gets the best treatment insofar as he isn't subjected to any facile psychological analysis, beyond resenting his dad's failure to attend his ball games and such. I'm at a loss to figure out what Goldsman was trying to accomplish with Robinson and West. This Don West isn't just a normal fellow with some temper-issues; he's an aggressive alpha-male lacking any semblance of charm or class, and played in an over-the-top manner by FRIENDS alumnus Matt LeBlanc. As if to compensate for the aggressiveness of the West character, Robinson is weirdly underwritten, as if he lacks any passion at all, even of the scientific kind. Once or twice Robinson and West butt heads over command issues, but such scenes are rendered implausible by Robinson's neutral characterization-- which the talented William Hurt underplays, perhaps hoping to convince audiences that "still waters run deep."
Not surprisingly, the character of Doctor Smith posed the greatest challenge, given that Jonathan Harris' rendition of the Irwin Allen version has become a pop-culture icon in its own right. Goldsman answers this challenge by ignoring the goofy, self-indulgent Smith that became the defining version, and focusing on the early, somewhat nasty version of Smith from the first few LOST episodes. Gary Oldman tries to work his insouciant magic on this inconsistent, blundering, generally unpleasant character, but it's all for naught.
And if all the predictable and unsavory characters aren't bad enough, Goldsman's idea of challenging science fiction is a confusing time-travel plotline meant to underscore all the dysfunctional crap, in addition to some alien spiders that belong in a more gore-happy space-epic.
The only plus I can give this tedious film is that the robot looks pretty good, and gets some of the best lines. Though there's a fair amount of violence in this film, the 1998 LOST IN SPACE is not a combative work by my lights, not least because of the low-energy climax.