14 January 2013

Lost In Space Movie Review

   I recently discovered that a website I had created years ago was archived on the net. The graphics are gone, but the text remains.
   The day after I saw the film version of LOST IN SPACE I put up a review. Back in those dark days of the Web fact checking was not as easy, so if I have any errors, so be it. For instance, it is now known that Carl Barks did not create Space Family Robinson characters. That was a widespread belief then, and I have left this as I wrote it.

  Here is the text from 1998.


Movie Review LOST IN SPACE -I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto. Nebraska perhaps.

LOST IN SPACE , the concept, holds a special place in my heart. To explain this, I must relate some of the history of the story. There are now four, possibly five, versions of this modern retelling of the classic SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON by Wyss. The first was a comic book called SPACE FAMILY ROBINSON published by Western Publications under its Gold Key imprint beginning in 1962. In this initial version, rumored to be conceived by Disney writer Carl Barks (the creator of Donald Duck a quarter of a century previously), the Robinsons consist of Mom & Dad and their teenage son and daughter. They live on a very large space ship that has somehow become lost. The stories were fairly sophisticated for the media, dealing with science and nature. On the other hand, they were simply blocked , that is, unsophisticated graphically . The artwork was precise, but not spectacular.

This was just what the mind of a seven year old who was finding that reading consisted of more than Spot, Dick and Jane craved. The stories of SPACE FAMILY ROBINSON were not garish, in fact looking at them today they seem rather serene. Often the Robinsons were merely witnesses to some larger galactic event. Every issue they met new aliens whom they befriended. There was very little violence in the tales. They were simple tales of a family surviving in a totally alien universe.

This was my first taste of science fiction, a life long affliction that still makes me feel at home when I can connect as reader to writer. Soon I graduated to the Tom Swift novels and the concept of plot and characterization, but I never left the Robinson Family behind, for in late 1965 they appeared on television.

This was a shock to my eight year old mind, for these Robinsons were an entirely different family. I believe this was where I first realized that whole worlds could be created by writers, and that variations in the worlds were attributable to the writer, not the reality they sought to depict.

The family of CBS-TV’ s LOST IN SPACE were named Robinson for the original idea had been an adaption of, obviously, SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON. Producer Irwin Allen had already thrown a carload of money at the idea when he got a cease and desist letter from Western Publishing. Instead of fighting the legal concept of copyrighting a variation of something in the public domain, he simply made enough changes to render the story lines different, and changed the name.

(At the same time film producer Ib Melchoir got the same letter. He knew he could safely ignore it. His problem was money. His Space Family Robinson never got beyond screenplay. It is the basis of some controversy, as it is almost identical to Allen's. Who cribbed whom?) The television Robinson party was John and Maureen, both scientists, their adult daughter Judy, who was giving up a career as a singer for this family outing in space, and their pre teen children Penny and William. Also along was Doctor Donald West, the world s leading authority on planetary science. Their saucer shaped craft, the Gemini 12, was to take them to Alpha Centauri where they would be the first of 10 million families a year to emigrate to this new world. The century long voyage would be spent in suspended animation. Enroute, they were knocked off course by a comet and crash land on an uncharted planet. It was a very straightforward updating of Swiss Family Robinson.

CBS liked the pilot footage and showered Allen with cash, contingent of a few minor changes. First off, lose the wilderness family survival crap. This was slotted for kiddie hour and they knew that kids only understand loud noises and lots of explosions. More of those were clearly needed. Oh, and add a villain, a dastardly fellow who can imperil the family much more cheaply than alien worlds. And since this is Science Fiction, or SciFi as we Hollywood type moguls call it, you obviously forgot the most important ingredient, a robot. Also, we are concerned with family values. The mother must be Mom, not a scientist who might have worked outside the home.

So the plot was altered to this. In late 1997 the Robinson Family, headed by Professor John Robinson, and his wife, who was very briefly acknowledged as a medical doctor, boarded the saucer shaped Jupiter 2, a spacecraft that was much larger inside than out. (Kids will never notice.) Their suddenly teenaged daughter Judy was an airhead extrodinaire, offset by the two younger geniuses Will and Penny. Don West was now a macho playboy/pilot. A whiz bang robot with lots of lights and twirly doodads was stored in the basement of this flying suburban home. As the family began their five year sleep for the voyage, something else crawled around in the basement. Dr. Zachary Smith, the MD who had been in charge of the medical phases of their
training, was really a saboteur who re-programmed the robot to destroy the ship after liftoff.

Smith was trapped aboard however, and survived the liftoff. His added weight caused the spacecraft to veer off course. He awoke the Robinson party to help, just as the robot decided it was time to wreak havoc. After a few more trials and tribulations, they crash landed on a barren planet and set out on the business of surviving.

CBS knew what kids liked. This survival business is too grim. The slide into Gilligan s Space Island was rapid. Soon, the Robinson s crash site resembled a summer campground, with a large saucer shaped Winnebago parked in the back. Every week, aliens in rubber suits would drop by to say howdy and try to kill the family. Will reprogrammed the robot, making every ten year old boy s dream, a big strong cybernetic pal who could shoot lightning bolts at all the space bullies.

Smith became a comic relief stereotype, and the family seemed to forgive him his original murderous intent. The father was strong and just, the mother was always cooking or cleaning, Judy was constantly preening and Penny was a pest. The show adjusted to the ten year old male universe without missing a step. This gave us yet another variation on the marooned family in space theme, although life was pretty laconic. No one seemed in a really big hurry to be rescued, other than Dr Smith. Talking carrot-men and love-sick robots became routine.They even rented out the Jupiter 2 to alien tourists. After three years, LOST IN SPACE died a quiet death. I had outgrown it by then and barely noticed. It vanished without much evidence of having even been there. It would be a very long time before anyone mentioned it again.

Despite its flaws, the series presented us with characters that each had a definite persona. These traits persisted fairly consistently throughout the series. It s important that I note them, for they differ from those of the 1998 version. John Robinson was the ultimate father, always fair and dependable. Rarely did he err, and when he did, humility was in his play book. His wife Maureen was ableness and strength, the mother lion protecting her cubs. Although one had to squint to see it, Judy was forgiveness and charity personified. She was always the first to forgive Dr Smith when he d try to murder them, a frequent occurrence. Penny was the naturalist, a friend to animals of any planet. And Will, the every-boy, was curious, smart, in today s parlance, full of attitude. He didn t back down when challenged, but never forgot his manners, addressing even menacing alien creatures as sir. Dr Smith never quite lost his evil persona, hidden beneath the simpering fool. He could never be counted on to do the right thing, and he never did. The most complex character on the show was, of course, the robot. Unlike Star Trek s android Data, who wanted to be human, robot B-9 seemed quite content to be a machine, and often considered himself to be lucky he wasn t human. Of all the characters, he was the only one with a sense of humor. He also seemed to be privy to some Secret Robotic Knowledge that puny humans could not grasp. He put himself in the role of caretaker of the Robinsons, perhaps thinking of them almost as pets.

In 1990, Billy Mumy, the child star who had played Will Robinson , was peddling a comic book storyline. His career, so promising when he was small and cute, working with Rod Serling and Jimmy Stewart and the like, had also been lost in space and puberty.

His vision of LOST IN SPACE, eventually produced by a small West Virginia publishing house, was Will Robinson meets the Pimple Monster The 16 issues were well produced, and the storylines much more serious. In this version, a continuation of the television story, the Family has been lost in space for 7 years. Their spaceship is beginning to break down, as well as their inter-personal relationships. It was criticized for some of its more adult content, but all in all in was a good effort.

Production began on LOST IN SPACE ,the movie, in 1996, by New Line, a company that purchased the rights and had no previous ties with the property. They announced that they were tossing out all that had gone before and writing a new storyline. Fans, now in their 40's, wondered, why pay for something and then not use it? I fully expected the new version to be a disaster, as all of the 60's TV remake movies have been.

Finally, the film review! LOST IN SPACE is one of those few films that benefit from Panavision. It fills the screen. I m hard pressed to remember a film with such rapid pacing. It s a visual roller coaster. In the first day of their space journey, the Robinsons are blasted into orbit, attacked by a killer robot, sucked into the heart of the sun, zapped across the universe, thrown into the future, attacked by metal and flesh eating giant spiders, crashed on a hostile planet, thrown another few decades into the future, confronted by evil future versions of Will and Dr Smith, and manage to save Earth. Whew.. Time for bed kids, brush your teeth, big day tomorrow.

The special effect work is first rate. Alas, that s about all that can be said.

Purists in the Lost In Space fan camp have been debating the new movie for two years now, and they will see this a bad dream. To continue this analogy, the film is , to someone very familiar with the story and characters, like a distorted dream. Things are almost, but not quite , right. The robot certainly looks and acts differently, but he has the same voice (actor Dick Tufeld in both cases, the only holdover.) The rest of the actors are mostly just place holders, with several seeming as though they just want to get their paycheck and go home.

Gary Oldham is the biggest name in the film, and he does a fairly decent interpretation of the evil, greedy Dr. Smith. It worked better with the original family, though, because this gang isn't that gullible. They instantly see Smith for what he is and he spends most of the film locked in a closet. It was Smith's charm and guile that made him such a horrible, and interesting, character.

John Hurt, who once had a career in motion pictures, plays John Robinson. Not very well.

Mimi Rogers is the ultimate place holder, not even being as useful as her 60's counterpart, Maureen, the mother of the Robinson clan. She doesn't even get to make coffee.

A teen heart throb does a semi decent job as Captain Don West, the pilot. However, the script has made him even more of a jerk and pig than he was in the original.

This version's Judy is a total opposite of the first. She is an adult scientist who wears baggy clothes and has an ice chip on her shoulder. Her character is also a placeholder, having no play in the movement of the plot.

Will Robinson , arguably the most important role, is portrayed by a youngster who can speak his lines on cue, but doesn't strike me as a great talent. The script gives him the truest reprisal of any of the characters, although he has lost Will's manners.

To make up for bashing a ten year old, I'll heap my only praise on fourteen year old Lacey Chabert for her role as Penny Robinson. The new interpretation sees her as a punk, a trouble child, and she does that superbly. They have to drag her kicking and screaming into the great beyond, and she pretty much longs for the mall, and boys, for the rest of the trip. Are we there yet

The original Penny had an alien pet, a chimp with fake ears. This Penny's pet is a cartoon creature of a similar structure. The producers admit that they didn't budget enough for it, and it looks very artificial when compared with the excellent digital effects that enhance the rest of the film.

This Robinson family was not one you'd want living next door. In fact, one wonders if perhaps they were chosen to be the first family in space by popular vote. The story of the Space Family Robinson is a dear to me, and judging from the amount of Internet traffic on the subject, quite a few others, as THE WIZARD OF OZ or ALICE IN WONDERLAND are to many. Popular myths, modern fairy tales, come into their own not on the first telling, but by the continuous retelling and changes. Batman has had at least a dozen incarnations in sixty years, each very different. James Bond is as enjoyable to me as a comedy or a thriller. A good story will endure each generation's attempts to make it their own. With this film, LOST IN SPACE joins the ranks of dozens of other popular stories that stand the test of time.


  1. >large saucer shaped Winnebago

    Love that! And you're right: that's exactly what it looked like.

    I liked the technical aspects of the LIS movie, and I think it still holds up now, some 15 years later. But the lack of motivation, characterization -- that was so sad to see. This was a chance to do something terrific and it was a missed opportunity. I only hope that there's another relaunch in the works, somewhere.

  2. Oh -- one more thing: the LIS movie score by Bruce Broughton is terrific. And so, of course, was the original, by "Johnny" Williams! Hey ... whatever happened to that Johnny Williams anyhoo?