September 12, 2010

Blu-ray Review: Lost in Space (1998)

The early part of 1998 was dominated by a single film. No, the it was not Lost in Space. The movie that captured everyones hearts and minds was James Cameron's juggernaut Titanic. The romanticized/fictionalized tale of that fateful night in 1912 did some incredible business and for awhile it was easy to imagine that it would just keep rolling forever at the box office. Of course we know better and it did eventually come to pass that the film began to sink down the chart. One would think that the first movie to succeed in taking down Titanic would have to be something special, right? Think again. The movie was Lost in Space and it is about as lively as an iceberg. However, this is not about it's place in history as the "iceberg" to take out Titanic, it is about its arrival on Blu-ray, something that will not likely have as memorable a place in history.

Directed by Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2, The Reaping) and written by Akiva Goldsman (Batman & Robin, A Beautiful Mind), Lost in Space was intended to be a big time release to reinvent the franchise and create a new series of films. As time has told us, none of this actually happened. The original series concept was to put the Swiss Family Robinson into space where they would have to survive by their wits as they create a new home for themselves. The concept is a sound one and the old show is still enjoyable, if dated and occasionally cheesy. The thought of adapting it to the big screen is also a good one, so one has to wonder about what exactly happened here?

Frankly, I am not sure but I would hazard a guess that there were too many cooks in the kitchen and not a strong enough personality to pull it out of its downward spiral. When you get a lot of people offering up ideas for how a movie should be developed you are asking for disaster. Of course, I cannot say for sure this was the case, it could just be the creative team were not up to the task. There is some insight given to this in the commentary track with Hopkins and Goldsman where they say that the original screenplay and idea was a lot more mature and how it drifted into a more family-friendly, kid-targeted film. This change apparently came well into the process where they were not able to rework it to their liking and were forced to work with what they had.

Let's take a look at the movie, shall we? When I first saw it on the big screen I immediately recognized it as not a very good movie, but I still enjoyed it as a flashy, shallow adventure movie. Now that I am watching it again for the first time in a long time I have found that the years have not been terribly kind and the new high definition transfer doesn't do it any favors.

As for the story, it finds the Robinson family embarking on a journey across the universe to a new planet that could be the key to the survival of the human race. Of course, their trip is booby trapped by the nefarious Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman) and they are thrown off course only to crash land on a strange planet. Will they survive? Is there any question about it?

The Robinson family must deal with all manner of problems from Dr. Smith, to metal eating space spiders, to time bubbles, not to mention each other. Watching the film now, I feel no connection to the characters or their adventure. I never felt they were in any danger and frankly, I found it to be a little boring. There is nothing to become invested in, the story is spelled out for you, the character relationships exist on the surface, and the plot moves on rails. This is to say everything that is done or said exists solely to get you from point A to point B.

I know this does not really tell you much, but what do you need to know? The Robinson family sets out across the galaxy, get lost and find a way to survive. End of story. A lot could be done with the idea, it just isn't here.

There are two things to note in this movie, minor notes, but they did jump out to me. Penny Robinson (Lacey Chabert) occasionally records little diary bits with a portable video recorder. Could this be video-blogging before there was video-blogging? This is a little hindsight bit, but it seems that they captured an accurate piece of future tech, or at least a concept. The other is when the ship enters hyperspace there is a shot that looks an awful lot like the revolutionary "bullet-time" effect that was featured a year later in The Matrix. The effect is explained in one of the commentary tracks and it is not quite the same thing, but it is the same idea.

Besides those two small notes is there anything good about Lost in Space? Not really. I guess you could say it was interesting to watch William Hurt and Mimi Rogers, as John and Maureen Robinson, try to bring intelligence, emotion, and meaning to the screenplay. They are good actors and they tried, there just wasn't much to work with. By the same token, there is Gary Oldman who does his best to bring something of interest to the Dr. Smith role. He has some interesting moments and seeks to make the character a little more fully fledged than you would expect. It still is not great, but the effort might be worth watching.

On the other side of the coin, Matt LeBlanc is clearly out of his league. Granted, he was pulling double duty as Friends was still in production, but he just does not seem comfortable as Major Don West. The rest of the cast is all right with Heather Graham, Lacey Chabert, and Jack Johnson as the Robinson children.

It is pretty clear to see why this failed to relaunch the franchise. It is flash without substance, and even the flash was left a little wanting. The end result is frustrating because the potential is there and I think there would be a huge audience if it were done right.

Audio/Video. The 1080p high definition transfer looks pretty good. The colors are sharp, detail is solid throughout, and it looks very clean. However, I am not sure if it is the upgraded resolution or me seeing it with new eyes, but the special effects look really bad, jarringly bad. Two examples that jump out are the effects of their cryo-sleep tubes with what look like metal bands extending around them. The other is when they find the little alien critter, he looks like he hadn't been completely rendered. I understand that effects technology has come a long way since 1998, but this was made post-Jurassic Park. In any case, the movie  does look good so long as you forgive the affects.

The sound is presented in  DTS HD Master Audio, a 5.1 mix that has a nice full range. Explosions rattle around you and dialogue is always crisp and clear down the middle. I would not say it is anything to write home about, but it is a solid track that serves the movie well. It works best during the action sequences, such as the opening space battle and the space-spider attach sequence.

Extras. There area few included here.
  • Commentary. There are two tracks. The first features Stephen Hopkins and Akiva Goldsman and is a pretty interesting one, they offer plenty f details about the development of the film and the production in general. The second track appears to have been cobbled together from various interviews, it is a more technically oriented one that features special effects supervisors Angus Bickerton and Lauren Ritchie, director of photography Peter Levy, editor Ray Lovejoy and the film's producer, Carla Fry.
  • Building the Special Effects. This is an interesting look into how they worked up the effects shots using models and a healthy dose of CG. Just be prepared to listen to some complaining about how the technology isn't there yet.
  • Music Video. "Lost in Space" is performed by Apollo 440 and is accompanied by a boring video.
  • Deleted Scenes. Nothing special here, some tweaks to what is in the film and a sequence using an animatronic alien that was cut entirely. They are presented in their raw form and are not all that pretty to look at.
  • The Future of Space Travel. This doesn't really have a lot to do with the film, but it does provide a look into where the future might take us with regards to getting out into space.
  • Q&A With the Origina Cast. A collection of clips speaking with June Lockhart (Maureen), Marta Kristen (Judy), and Angela Cartwright (Penny).

Bottomline. Not a very good movie. Funny thing is I could see myself revisiting it on occasion, just not often. The Blu-ray is a good visual representation of the film, flaws and all.

Not Recommended.

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Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Lost in Space (1998) on Blogcritics.


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