Review: The real danger in Netflix's 'Lost in Space' is boredom

Maxwell Jenkins as Will Robinson in <em>Lost in Space</em>. (Photo: Netflix)
Maxwell Jenkins as Will Robinson in Lost in Space. (Photo: Netflix)

When an old TV show gets remade, it’s been the tendency in recent years to go dark, grim, and gritty. From Batman (’60s camp classic became morose Dark Knight movies) to Battlestar Galactica (bad utopian ’70s sci-fi became good dystopian sci-fi), the idea is to complicate the original premise and go for a realism signified by a somber tone and a cynical, knowing air. Knowing this, the new version of Lost in Space seems to be trying to have it both ways, and loses in the process.

The new Netflix series is an update of the enjoyably junky CBS show that ran from 1965 to 1968. That one gave us a clever performance by Jonathan Harris as fussy Dr. Zachary Smith and the catchphrase “Danger, Will Robinson,” uttered by a robot in reference to child actor Billy Mumy’s Will. The concept of the show, as conceived by creator Irwin Allen (the producer who gave the world The Towering Inferno), can be reduced to its pitch-phrase: “Swiss Family Robinson in outer space.” The idea of a nuclear family exploring the galaxy was played as warm drama. In 2018, with the majority of Netflix subscribers never having heard of Swiss Family Robinson, the new Lost in Space signals its cold seriousness by having the Robinson family become fractured: The marriage between Maureen and John Robinson (Molly Parker and Toby Stephens) is on the verge of collapse, and their three children — Taylor Russell as Judy, Mina Sundwall as Penny, and Maxwell Jenkins as Will — tiptoe around Mom and Dad as though divorce is a bigger danger than losing one’s gravity boots. Dr. Smith is played by Parker Posey at her Parker Posiest.

The new Lost has been constructed by writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, a screenwriting team who’ve written gloomy fantasy films like Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter. Feature films may be their true calling, because handing Sazama and Sharpless 10 episodes of Netflix time has resulted in some very slow going. Watch the first episode and you’ll see the Robinson family crash-land on an unfamiliar planet and try to repair their craft. Watch the second episode and you’ll see them still repairing their craft. Episode 3? Dang, this craft sure seems busted! In retrospect, the family card game of Go Fish that commences the series proves to be a high point of suspense. All the plot and much of the action is located in the backstory. We get glimpses of the roots of the Robinsons’ marital discord, and Dr. Smith’s origin allows Posey to wear a variety of wigs and perfect ways to purr her dialogue in a manner that distracts you from the banal words. Think I’m kidding? You try delivering the line “Fear is a powerful emotion, Will” with any degree of originality.

I’m afraid that by the time the show introduced space eels, or something that looked like what I imagine an alien eel would look like, Lost in Space had lost me. I had been planning, before I watched this show, to make a few sarcastic remarks about the lousy 1998 William Hurt-Matt LeBlanc-Gary Oldman feature film of Lost in Space, but after checking out the first few episodes of the Netflix series, I found myself wishing LeBlanc would rocket-ship in for a cameo.

Lost in Space premieres April 13 on Netflix.

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