In the same year that Armageddon, Dark City, Deep Impact, Godzilla and The X-Files films were clamouring for big screen sci-fi ticket sales, UK filmmakers released the product of collaboration in London and Shepperton Studios of a cinematic take on an iconic American television series of the sixties.
Set in 2058, a voiceover by William Hurt, who plays patriarch Professor John Robinson, brings us into a future where Earth has nearly exhausted its resources and land and needs to build connecting hypergates between our plant and the distant Alpha Prime, where future generations can survive and thrive.
Time is of the essence, as the gentle narration leads into an energetic and colourful dogfight with terrorists, a hostile faction that will also be seeking to inhabit Alpha Prime, the only reachable planet able to sustain life.
Here we meet Major Don West, played by Friends star, Matt LeBlanc, as he pilots a bubble fighter, taking out Global Sedition attack pilots and rescuing his friend and fellow pilot, risking damage to the space station in the process.
His foolhardy heroics and daring make him the perfect candidate to pilot the Robinson family’s mission to Alpha Prime, where their on-board robot will begin construction on the twin hypergate, an assignment he likens to babysitting.
The perfectly planned trip is thrown into chaos when Sedition-hired traitor, Dr. Zachary Smith, boards the spacecraft to sabotage it and is knocked unconscious, waking to find he’s now a permanent passenger along with the Robinsons, Major West and the robot, who wakes to follow Smith’s programmed orders and destroys and damages the systems that would guarantee safe transport to Alpha Prime.
As background and a set-up to the basic story of the television series, well known to many, there’s a lot to like here, including the space battle opening, cameos by some of the series’ cast, and the establishment of the individual family and crew of Jupiter 2 and its accidental stowaway. A lot of information is imparted in a short time, and it’s all in the surroundings of quite brilliant set designs, in the Robinson family home on a crowded, cramped planet, and then in the fluid flowing metal shapes of the Jupiter interior.
In fact, besides a great cast including Gary Oldman as Smith, the king of not quite insane evil, the real star of the film is its design elements of ships, locations, costumes and monsters, with inspiration taken from various Marvel sci-fi comics of the 60s era in which the series was set.
Turquoise and its complimentary copper hues are prevalent in organic shapes within all the machinery and systems, in a film in which various participants mention in additional tracks that there wasn’t a single straight line in the entire film.
This 1998 movie is also the first film I remember watching that featured lens flair so heavily, especially within interior shots, and a precursor of that style element for another film, which did the same with less restraint, in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek.
But, if the design is successful in transporting us to a past version of the future, what of the story a few decades away from its origins?
Lost In Space, the series, originally ran for three seasons from 1965 to 1968 and, while there were repeated elements and tropes to each show, there were an awful lot of unique stories to choose from for a one-shot big screen adaptation. Somewhat disappointingly for this fan of the TV show, the absent, distant, workaholic father and the son who’s left feeling neglected, no matter how hard he tries to impress his dad, is the all too worn route the story travels.
Although the fulfilment, by time travel element and a sacrifice by an alternate version of the family dynamic, does redeem the too common emotional element of the plot, (which director Stephen Hopkins admits both he and writer-producer Akiva Goldsman found personally significant and affecting), it was lost on this film fan, as I can’t totally relate, but have seen it expressed before far too often.
It was a much more subtle factor in the TV series and one which many, especially as children, may not even have consciously realised was a reason for enjoying the show as much as we did. And that is that John Robinson, stranded on a planet or travelling in a spacecraft, is a dad who’s always there, by fate and circumstance, and who can’t ever get much more distant than a jetpack or Chariot trip away.
A more major dissatisfaction was in the change from Debbie, the Bloop, to the CG creature the Blarp. It was far too cartoonish and even the filmmakers are quick to share their disappointment. I’d much prefer a chimpanzee with a furry hat of stiff rabbit ears and fuzzy nappy to what we were given in the film, but do think the animatronic large version produced by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop may have made a difference, had that short side arc not been abandoned.
Lost In Space, the film, was clearly made by fans of the show, who paid homage in as many ways possible in its hour-and-a-half runtime, and managed to also squeeze in tributes to Star Trek and even The Waltons, another popular TV show, although a decade later than the adventures of the Robinson family.
There’s more right than wrong with the film, but like many adaptations of childhood favourites, the intervening years require so many changes to modernise the characters that it’s no longer recognisable as your favourite telly show, except for fleeting moments, like the excellent reveal of the ship’s exterior design, the updated, danceable John Williams theme tune (adorably, known as Johnny Williams, back in the series’ day), and when a very familiar robotic voice warns, “Danger, Will Robinson. Danger.”
The Blu-ray disc shows the film’s true strengths in the best ways possible, with its candy colours and sumptuous designs. Of course, the higher the definition, the more glaring any errors, and Lost In Space can’t escape that fate, as few films can. There are brief examples of matte and composition problems, focus pull fluffs, and the odd green screen bleed, but they’re conveniently and understandably to be found in very high action scenes where they’re not so noticeable and gone before they’d become distracting.
What’s better than the higher definition is the wealth of extras that can be included on dense discs and, although not high def themselves, they still add considerably to supplement the film.
Brief interviews with the female members of the original series, a music video of the theme tune as performed by Apollo 440 (easily considered one of the best original tunes in TV history), very rough CG scenes in Building The Effects, and interviews with unknowns on possible future space exploration are mildly amusing, but hardly illuminating.
The Deleted Scenes play a much larger part than on many occasions, as they explain bits that may have felt thin in the story when they were cut and, most importantly, would have seen the female Robinsons venture away from the ship and break free of their 1960s domesticity, although they do wield tools to repair the Jupiter 2’s exterior rather than laying the dinner table, loading the washing machine and tending to the vegetable garden.
That’s a regret expressed by director, Stephen Hopkins, in the commentary track he shares with Akiva Goldsman. It’s the type done individually and cut together, so neither acknowledges the other and they’re free to contradict each other at the same time.
This, and the other optional commentary track, detailing effects and practical problems and successes by others who took part on the film (Director of photography Peter Levy, Visual Effects supervisor Angus Bickerton, Visual Effects producer Lauren Ritchie, editor Ray Lovejoy, and producer Carla Fry), are some of the most revealing and frank, quick to point out errors, and packed full of genuinely qualified details of film stock descriptions, F-stop choice, lighting wattage and type under various examples, and what it was like to produce an effects-heavy film without the benefit of a large studio like ILM, instead divvying out work across over a dozen separate, smaller firms, many of whom had done nothing anywhere near the scale Lost In Space required of them.
Like the British weather, another factor in filming here, results were unpredictable, with some sequences not arriving before the film’s deadline and forcing scene cuts, cheats, and workarounds.
There’s some sound and amusing philosophising by the director that speaks volumes about what type of personality you need to have to get by in a business so reliant on so many people to do their best, and by the writer, who admits what works on the page doesn’t always translate to film.
When you hear commentaries like this, it seems miraculous that the film was made at all, and that we can own it on a disc these years later. But, in this case, there’s a real sense of pride in what was achievable under some extreme circumstances and limitations and the extras and commentaries help us envision the film it might have been, complete with what Hopkins himself called its “sequel-baiting” ending and a glimpse into what that second film may have been like.
Lastly, it has to be said that the details in the commentary tracks, especially about the effects processes and miniatures use, is like an historic sample of special and visual effects at that point in time: what was possible, what was pioneered, and what failed because the process wasn’t up to the job a dozen years ago. Those interested in the subject may want this disc solely for its place in the evolution of effects, to sit between what came before and what was yet to come.
Lost In Space is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.