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Lost in Space

movie review out of 4 Movie Review: Lost in Space

Starring: William Hurt, Gary Oldman
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 130 Minutes
Release Date: April 1998
Genres: Action, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Heather Graham, Mimi Rogers, Matt LeBlanc, Lacey Chabert, Jack Johnson

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

In his on-the-money essay in the April 6th New Yorker magazine, film critic David Denby writes, "New movies are amazingly impersonal--a rush of frenetic images that have little in common with, say, the heart-stopping dangers and last-minutes rescues in Griffith, the tumultuous waves of frenzy in Gance, the stately displays of massed power in Lean...A couple holding hands runs away from an explosion, or runs down a corridor as flames (or floods) chase after them. How many times have we seen those?"

Mr. Denby--whose essay is entitled, "Mourning the Movies: Why don't people love the right movies anymore?"--might be expected to look with a jaundiced eye at Stephen Hopkins's sci-fi drama, "Lost in Space." Or would he? True enough, we've seen this sort of film-making before, packed to the hilt with all the special effects money can buy, the heroes outracing disaster from fire, floods, monsters, and evil human beings. It's all here. There's are two differences, however. One is that the technology in this New Line production is as dazzling as you'll find anywhere, Star Trek and Star Wars not excluded. The other is that despite the slimness of the story, you may just get caught up in the human drama of a family who have become truly lost--not simply marooned on a remote island or a snowy mountain peak with a chance of being rescued by the Coast Guard or an observant chopper, but astray in some alien galaxy beyond the help of any forces back on earth.

Akiva Goldsman, who scripted the tale based on the 1960s TV series starring Jonathan Harris, sets the narrative sixty years into the future. The planet's technology is predictably able to transport people to regions far more remote than our own moon but, wonders of wonders, it's a world in which all countries have worked out their differences and live together in peace. The enemy now is not our fellow human beings but ourselves. We have savaged nature to such a degree that the planet has only about a decade to live before the air will be unfit to breathe. People will not be deserting the farms and rural areas for metropolitan areas as waves of immigrants have done for decades. Now there's a job that not even the Seven Santini Brothers could handle. Everyone will have to bolt from the earth to a planet which can sustain life. That new world is ten years away given the state of power in 2058, but through the miracle of wormhole technology, the trip can be made virtually instantaneously. The wormhole must have a gate both going and coming, without which you're lost. You can guess that the gate vanishes leaving the astronauts stranded in the great expanse.

To give the story the human dimension needed to allow the audience to relate, writer Goldsman sends up a single family unit, the Robinsons, carrying with them all the baggage of the brood including a sassy teen, Penny (Lacey Chabert--who sounds like Donald Duck on a clear day); the wise-beyond-his years Will (Jack Johnson); an egghead professor, Johnson (William Hurt); his wife Maureen (Mimi Rogers); their cute physicist daughter Judy (Heather Graham); with Gary Oldman performing in the role of the (need we say) evil Dr. Zachary Smith. The handsome and egotistical Major Don West (Matt LeBlanc) is in the driver's seat, a guy who after serving fifty military missions resents being called up to take a family on what he calls a mere outing. That this family is the earth's last hope for survival seems lost on him: he's more interested in making passes at Judy, whose name he hopes to tattoo on his back to replace those of his former girlfriends whose identities have all been surgically removed from his body.

Though we grow to care for this family unit, whose members we can identify with given their all-too-human traits, we may wind up thoroughly confused by most aspects of the story. Dr. Smith wants to sabotage the mission though it's not clear why, even though Gary Oldman, who inhabits this diabolic doctor well, announces his intentions and feelings in Shakespearean English. (Maybe that's why.) A huge robot makes an appearance now and then, more clearly announcing its intention: "Destroy the Robinson family." Why? Who knows--they seem nice enough. Spiders show their hostility, a friendly little E.T. leaps from the brush to become the family pet, and Will Robinson makes an appearance toward the end of the film, suddenly twenty years older thanks to a little time travel by the Robinsons, to whine about how his dad never showed him enough love.

Director Hopkins finds enough time in this 128-minute film to evoke sentiment ("I love you very much"--John Robinson to his son Will); the slang of the year 2058 ("Hey professor, why don't you give the egghead a rest"--Major West to John Robinson--and also such futuristic argot as "Gimme a break" and "Tell me about it"); and politically correct calls for conservation. All of this, however, takes a back seat--way back--to the fx which, wonder or wonders, can be realized right now in 1998. A look at the massive numbers on the production crew will give you an idea of the importance of dazzling eye and ear: digital character animator, computer and video effects supervisor, computer graphics coordinator, computer and video effects assistant, gaffer, computer graphics designer, ad infinitum. Bill Hurt may have turned in a more three-dimensional role in his other special-effects movie, Ken Russell's 1980 blockbuster, "Altered States," but the technology which staggered the eye eighteen years ago seems laughably naive today. Expect to be lost in the dynamics of time travel, a space ship transporting itself through wormholes, fires, and the like, and even a James Bond-like galactic battle scene to set the tone. The mewl "Are we there yet?" becomes especially poignant when everyone justifiably wants nothing more than to go home.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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