"Lost in Space," the pumped-up and thus utterly denatured big-screen version of the beloved 1960s TV series, is so ridiculous that it could have been a delicious, campy romp. But it fails even at that.
Hyped for its big-budget special effects, it promised at least a visual extravaganza. Instead, its uninspired look suggests an alternative title: "Escape from the Planet of the 'Yes' Album Covers."
"Lost in Space" might have captured the humor or characterization that made the television program required viewing when the baby boomers -- to whom it so shamelessly panders -- still wore pajamas with feet. But that would have taken intelligence and originality, which even its $70 million budget can't buy.
Instead, this "Lost in Space" suffers from the same maladies that have beset so many of its middle-aged constituents: Too much disposable income and not enough sense, energy or taste. Like them, it's a dull, fat, overdressed version of its former self.
Sure, there's the sick pleasure of watching so-serious William Hurt play space explorer John Robinson, who with his dysfunctional family (hey, it's the '90s!) is blasting off to colonize the planet Alpha Prime in order to save Earthlings from environmental collapse. You get to watch him ply his chops on lines like, "If we use the hyper-drive without the gate, we could be thrown anywhere in the galaxy!"
Actually, Hurt does his best with this nonsense, managing to maintain a remarkable degree of focus even as the pages of "An Actor Prepares" seem to rain in little bits all around him. Gary Oldman, on the other hand, doesn't begin to plumb the possibilities of the delicious Dr. Smith -- one of the small screen's great villains. His villain cycle now thoroughly played out, Oldman is content to toss off a few of the doctor's signature alliterative insults, seethe a little bit, examine his fingernails and cash his check.
Mimi Rogers and Heather Graham are dignified and unmemorable as mom Maureen and daughter Judy; Matt xTC LeBlanc sedates as the flying ace who is hired to captain the Robinsons' ship; young Jack Johnson distinguishes himself as the plucky Will; and Lacy Chabert brings all the appeal of a pint-size crack-whore on helium to the insufferable Penny Robinson. (Forget the evil Dr. Smith, giant sucking time warps and swarms of space spiders: This raccoon-eyed enfant terrible is the scariest thing about the movie.)
In fact, the most inspired performance in "Lost in Space" belongs to the Robot who, like everything else about this production, has been pumped up almost beyond recognition but manages to bring a welcome nuance and subtlety to his line-readings (voice by Dick Tufeld).
Connoisseurs will recognize the 'bot's laconic one-liners for the "RoboCop" rip-offs that they are. But catching all the cinematic booty that "Lost in Space" lifts may at least provide some distraction from the torpor on screen. (Kids, we found "Alien," "Star Trek," "Star Wars," "The Terminator" and "Back to the Future." How many can you find?)
Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's dialogue is evenly divided between such tired cliches as "Lock and load!" and "I'm goin' in" and "Nice work, flyboy" and self-important tripe like "Never love anything, kiddo, because you'll just end up losing it" and "I don't know if it does any good saving the world's families if we can't save our own."
The film's much-vaunted special effects turn out to be little more than computer-generated pie-plates on strings. The Robinsons' hometown looks like a Hyatt Hotel atrium by way of Fritz Lang; a creature that Penny adopts mid-trip -- a cross between "E.T." and a shaved circus monkey -- looks like a refugee from Toon Town.
Of course, bad dialogue and cheesy effects are the stock in trade of the great camp classics, and if it didn't take itself so blasted seriously, "Lost in Space" might have been an OK B-movie. The overreachers who made this super-scale mess failed to realize one essential truth about great science-fiction cinema: Sometimes the low road is the best road, even in outer space.
'Lost in Space'
Starring Gary Oldman, William Hurt, Matt LeBlanc, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Rated PG-13 (intense sci-fi action)
Released by New Line Cinema
Sun Score: *
Pub Date: 4/03/98