The Quarantine Stream: The 'Lost in Space' Movie is a Mystifying Misfire of Blockbuster Ambition

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: Lost in Space (1998)

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu

The Pitch: In this big screen update of the classic 1960s sci-fi television series, the Robinson family sets off on a mission to find a habitable planet in order to save humanity as the Earth succumbs to pollution and global warming. But their trip is set off course by a terrorist organization using the opportunist Dr. Smith to carry out their nefarious plans to sabotage the mission. Stranded in uncharted space, the family encounters various threats, including aliens and temporal displacement, but their greatest threat might come from within their own crew.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: If you’re looking for an example of a movie that is misfiring on all cylinders, look no further than Lost in Space. Though we mostly like to point out movies in The Quarantine Stream that are worth watching for making some kind of commendable contribution to pop culture, in this case, this is a movie worth watching just to see how so many things can go so wrong, even when there are interesting elements that could have made for a good big screen reboot of classic sci-fi.

Lost in Space feels desperate to connect with the young audiences of the late 1990s. From the attempt to cheekily update the cheesy effects of the original series with state-of-the-art computer generated effects to the frenetic techno-infused soundtrack, this movie is trying so hard to be cool. If you need anymore evidence of that, look no further than Matt LeBlanc trying to launch his action career as Major Don West. Unfortunately, none of this hides the fact that the movie is an absolute mess that can’t decide if it wants to be Star Wars, Blade Runner, or Alien, and it fails miserably when it tries to be all three.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Lost in Space is how much they tried to rely on computer generated effects. At the time, this was the most expensive movie New Line Cinema had made, and this movie was believed to have the most special effects shots of any movie to date. But their desperation to be so advanced did not work in its favor, and the digital effects that came shortly thereafter in movies like The Matrix and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace would put it to shame, especially when it comes to the color-changing space monkey Blarp, who doesn’t even look fully rendered in some scenes. And don’t even get my started on the gigantic, spider version of Dr. Smith, a horrifying hybrid made all the more terrifying by some of the worst visual effects any blockbuster has ever seen.

Then again, it’s fascinating to see how cold and lifeless the cast is when they’re together. William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham, Lacey Chabert, and Jack Johnson play the Robinson family, and they have absolutely zero chemistry. They feel like strangers. At the very least, Matt LeBlanc and Gary Oldman seem to think they’re making a movie meant to be a cheesy as the original series. Well, Oldman is probably doing this intentionally, and LeBlanc is just doing his best. Not even Jared Harris makes it out of this movie unscathed. Watch and listen carefully, and you’ll see that all of his lines have been dubbed by another actor. It’s weird. And Harris didn’t even know about this until he watched the movie at the premiere.

Of course, Lost in Space isn’t completely without merit. The bubble fighters from the opening sequence are cool vehicles that take the style and action of Top Gun into space. The updated robot design is an awesome real-working sci-fi prop, even if he’s completely overhauled to make a forced reference to the original robot after he’s damaged and repaired by Will Robinson. It helps that Dick Tufeld provides his rich, deep voice for the robot too. The production design for the Jupiter 2, from the suits to the weapons, is quite stylish. And finally, the time travel plot point is one that would work much better in sci-fi movies that came later.

With so much criticism to be lobbied at Lost in Space, this is one of those movies that’s worth watching to remind yourself how hard it can be to make a passable and inspiring sci-fi movie, especially when you’re updating a revered pop culture property. Thankfully, the Netflix series that started in 2018 picked up the baton and took it to a new and exciting place, so at least we can thank director Stephen Hopkins for showing the show’s creators what not to do.

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