One year after Batman & Robin graced movie theaters and offered us George Clooney’s Bat-Nipples, the film’s screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, delivered another major-studio release, rejiggering a beloved sci-fi classic for modern audiences.
At the time, an earnest, mainstream reboot of an admittedly corny TV series set in outer space was practically unheard of. Later, in 2003, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica proved such a concept could be not only feasible but potentially fantastic. And then, in 2009, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek raised the bar, showing just how high-octane such reboots could be.
From HBO’s Westworld to Peacock’s Brave New World, remolding an old-school science-fiction franchise into a slicker cinematic venture has become an art form unto itself. But the patient zero for sci-fi reboots was 1998’s Lost in Space.
Years ahead of the stellar Netflix version of Lost in Space, this take on the Robinsons and their robot companion was a critical failure and earned only a modest sum at the box office, especially given its studio’s franchise ambitions. And yet, this troubled Lost in Space is worth another look. Here’s why this underrated ‘90s reboot mattered — and why it failed.
In 1998, Lost in Space was the movie that dethroned Titanic’s 15-week box-office run as the no. 1 film in America.
Although it starred William Hurt and Mimi Rogers as John and Maureen Robinson, the real reason people went to see Lost in Space had to do with co-stars Matt LeBlanc and Heather Graham.
Following the success of Boogie Nights a year earlier, one could argue that Graham was, at least for a time, the most interesting, popular actress on the planet. Had Lost in Space been recognized as a great film, it’s possible that Graham’s career could have gone in the direction of someone like Sigourney Weaver.
But the more interesting story here belongs to LeBlanc. Today, we take for granted that sitcom stars can become sci-fi action heroes. Chris Pratt pulled this stunt twice, first with Guardians of the Galaxy, and then with Jurassic World. His upcoming sci-fi vehicle The Tomorrow War will add yet another feather to his action-hero cap. These days, nobody automatically thinks of Parks and Recreation when they think of Pratt. His status as a sci-fi badass has long since eclipsed his goofy sitcom reputation. Arguably, John Krasinski has managed a similar feat post-The Office playing Jack Ryan for Amazon and starring in A Quiet Place (which he also directed), and The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani is aiming for a similar genre crossover in Eternals.
So, why didn’t Joey from Friends enjoy the same kind of ascent? At the time, it should be said, such a transformation would have been surprising. But the bigger problem is that Lost in Space’s script puts his character, Major Don West, in the creepy position of flirting with Judy Robinson (Graham) who was written as much younger. It’s problematic as hell, especially because the Judy of the original ‘60s series was much younger. (This is also the case in the Netflix series, where Judy is a teenager.) This isn’t LeBlanc’s fault, but the bizarre romantic dynamic, culminating in Judy kissing Don, is one of the film’s biggest pitfalls. Perhaps LeBlanc failed to become a sci-fi badass because his Don was a bargain-bin Han Solo and more overtly sleazy.
Despite their weirdly charged dynamic, that Graham and LeBlanc are not terrible in the film. Even better is Gary Oldman as the scheming Dr. Smith. Anyone who’s seen the new Netflix series can tell you that Parker Posey now owns this character, but Oldman’s dark and evil Smith is fantastic — and believable. By 1998, Oldman had figured out how to play sci-fi baddies to a tee; arguably, his Dr. Smith is better than his Zorg in the previous year’s The Fifth Element.
If Oldman’s brief stint as the official sci-fi villain of the ‘90s has since been forgotten, so has the run that William Hurt enjoyed as a sci-fi Space Dad, which only began with Lost in Space. After playing the Robinson patriarch, Hurt played Duke Leto in the 2000 Dune, made for the Sci-Fi Channel (since rebranded as Syfy), and again played such a character in 2001’s AI: Artificial Intelligence. As with Oldman’s nefarious Smith, Hurt’s sci-fi dad typecasting actually worked.
So, what’s wrong with Lost in Space? Why doesn’t it work? There are two answers. The first is that the world wasn’t quite ready for this sort of reboot. The second is that the movie didn’t figure out the key reboot formula in striking a balance between nostalgia and innovation.
Like 2009’s Star Trek, Lost in Space revolves around an older version of one character time traveling to meet themselves at a different age. In Trek, it was Spock. In Lost in Space, Will Robinson (Jack Johnson) meets his older self (Jared Harris). Now, Harris is a great actor, but why not cast Bill Mumy — Will in the original Lost in Space — in this role?
At the time, Mumy was fairly popular on Babylon 5 and even guest-starred on Deep Space Nine. Having Mumy play the older Will would have given Lost in Space the right amount of geek cred, which could have pleased old-school fans. Leonard Nimoy’s presence as Old Spock in the 2009 Trek demonstrated, much later, how this kind of meta-casting can work.
But the curse of Lost in Space is that it didn’t change enough from the classic series to qualify as a reboot. Yes, it looked a little different and less corny, but what makes sci-fi reboots work is specific and risky alterations. The Battlestar reboot gender-flipped Starbuck and introduced the humanoid Cylons. Star Trek blew up the planet Vulcan. Netflix’s Lost in Space succeeded by expanding its fleet of Jupiter spacecraft and making the Robot’s backstory into a more menacing and compelling plot thread. In other words, they got edgy.
The 1998 version of Lost in Space didn’t do that. Had the reviews been slightly less savage, we might be living in a different world, one in which the not-great-but-not-terrible box office for Lost in Space resulted in possibly better sequels. Who knows.
In hindsight, Lost in Space’s failure was a false prophecy. In 1998, it seemed like old-school sci-fi nostalgia would never work. But time travel to sci-fi’s past eventually did turn out to be the ticket for our new age of big-budget sci-fi. Lost in Space didn’t get it right, but it feels so close to succeeding in its mission that it’s worth a second look.
You can catch Lost in Space on HBO Max until June 30.