The ’90s needed a Star Wars bad. Fun, action-packed, (mostly) family friendly space opera had proven insanely popular in the ’80s and especially following the release of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS in 1994. Shortly after that, the special edition theatrical releases in 1997 showed Hollywood the potential for this kind of movie. I needed it, like a bank loan needs two forms of identification. But nothing quite hit. Despite an action-packed Star Trek entry, and a couple of good solo efforts like The Fifth Element, they were missing that edgy-yet-all-ages balance. So in 1998, when space sci-fi was at its most desperate, we got Lost in Space, and I was effing jazzed.
Watching the bright and thoughtful Netflix reboot of Lost in Space, I chuckled, thinking back 20 years to when a murky, confusing space adventure was my most anticipated movie of the spring. I mean, just take a look!
Spaceships and robots and laser guns and spider monsters–I mean, it was more than 13-year-old me could handle. I remember buying a ticket for the movie on opening day and riding my bike to the mall to go see it. And the movie didn’t disappoint; I already loved Gary Oldman as the bad guy in The Fifth Element, so having him as the de-facto baddie here was perfect. And, hey, I loved Friends, so how cool that Joey Tribbiani was the hero!
I was hooked. And this wasn’t just a passing thing for me either: I bought the soundtrack. I bought the soundtrack of pretty much every movie I thought was awesome, no matter what music actually was on it. Did I know who Apollo 440 were? No. Did I care about The Crystal Method or Fatboy Slim? Absolutely not. All I knew is track one had a peppy upbeat theme song with a bunch of dope-ass soundbites from Matt LeBlanc. It ends with him saying “Last one to kill a bad guy buys the beer.” I didn’t realize how stupid that was at the time.
But the crowing moment in my I-immediately-love-this-movie fervor was when I bought a Matt LeBlanc action figure. I was an action figure junkie, but I wasn’t one to collect everything. I picked my figure. Not the robot, nor Dr. Smith. It was Major Don West. Yes, I’m the one. And I owned it because of one moment in the trailer.
That was the coolest shit I’d ever seen. A helmet-mask that unfolded over your head?!?! There was legitimately nothing cooler than that! I had to have the action figure. Now, it has to be said: the action figure wasn’t quite as sleek as the movie.
This was the prize possession in my copious action figure collection for months. It didn’t matter in the least that he only ever uses that helmet thing for one scene in the movie, and then never even mentions it again. Never an “Oh, darn, if only I had my reptile metal mask thing.” I had the memory of that scene from that theatrical experience to last me for a while.
For Christmas that year, I got the movie on VHS, and I couldn’t wait to watch it. But you know what? I didn’t like it. Probably because it’s a bad movie. After the sheen of a brand new space movie had gone away, and I’d played with the action figure, all I had left was the movie itself, which was really not good.
For starters, it’s a dark and unappealing movie visually. Everybody wears dark purple or black and hangs out in a ship made of dark purple or black metal and all the aliens–except the one goofy monkey alien also designed to sell toys–were different hues of boring grey. The robot’s royal blue and red eye dot are the brightest and most vibrant things in the whole movie. Every scene looks like it was lit with an Itty Bitty Book Lite. It looked pretty bad on our family’s tube television through a VCR.
The dialogue in the movie is also painful. Every line spoken by William Hurt and Mimi Rogers as the Robinson parents was some permutation of “we’re science parents,” while every conversation between LeBlanc and Heather Graham was obvious sexual innuendo (guys, they’re gonna bang one day, okay!?), and each syllable uttered by Lacey Chabert and Jack Johnson (no, not that one) is shrill and cloying ’90s kid sarcasm. Chabert’s angsty Penny Robinson is perhaps the most irritating screen character of the decade–precociousness gone too far. All of Oldman’s lines are campy bad guy cliches, but he can at least deliver them properly.
But I shouldn’t slag off the actors too much, when there’s Akiva Goldman’s script to take to task. After all, he’s the one who wrote all those dumb and campy lines. This is the guy who wrote both Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, and then Deep Blue Sea the following year. He alone is responsible for the final act, which sees Professor John Robinson enter a “time bubble” and encounter a future version of his son Will (played by Jared Harris), who was raised by a spider alien mutation of Smith (he calls himself Spider-Smith and everything). The entire climax has to do with John listening to his son as a child so that the rest of the family don’t die. It’s absurd, and corny, and weirdly is the only emotional part of the entire movie. Two thumbs down from Siskel and Ebert.
But that was the state of big budget science fiction in 1998, when a trailer could just have some cool CGI spectacle, a robot, some scary aliens, and a hero looking badass. But there were awesome action figures to buy, and I was totally sold. To my eternal shame, my Matt Leblanc action figure, much like his stupid character in this movie, is lost to time.
Images: New Line Cinema