Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW

Lost in Space

by Akiva Goldsman

reviewed by Don Harlow

For all those who love good intellectually thought-provoking films ... STOP RIGHT HERE!!!

As far as I know, there was nothing very spectacular about Alexander Selkirk. He's usually described as an Englishman, but from the name he was more likely Scottish. The only thing he ever did to draw the world's attention was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Namely, he was on a ship that sank out from under him off the coast of Chile, three or more centuries ago, and left him cast away on one of the Juan Fernandez Islands, a couple of hundred miles west of what is now Santiago.

I don't know how he lived there -- as far as I know, the J.F. Islands consist mainly of rock, grass and guano. Maybe he really did save a few goats from the wreck, to provide a food chain between him and the grass. But survive he did, until, some months or years later, another ship came along and picked him off the island, to carry him back to England where his story was a 90-day wonder.

The story came to the attention of one of the early heads of the English Secret Service, a predecessor of James Bond's "M" named Daniel DeFoe. DeFoe wrote a book about Selkirk's exploits. In line with the ancient tradition of changing names to protect the innocent (and to protect the author from libel suits), in the book Alexander Selkirk became one "Robinson Crusoe". DeFoe lengthened the time of his stay on the island (for a better story) and, more than halfway through the book, gave him a sidekick, a wordless native refugee named "Friday". Since that time, in English literary tradition "Friday" has always been more than just a day of the week, and "Robinson" is a generic term for "castaway".

Cut to a hundred or so years later. The son of a Swiss writer named Johann David Wyss is enthralled with the old story of Robinson Crusoe. Wyss himself is less enthralled; a firm believer in nature's bounty, he finds Crusoe, who in the story lived largely by salvaging wreckage from his ship, too intimately bound up with civilization's bounty. Wyss determines to rewrite the story to fit his own philosophy. He moves the shipwreck across the Pacific, to one of the Aroe Islands off the coast of New Guinea, and turns Crusoe into an entire family, Swiss of course, bearing the traditional name of "Robinson". To keep them alive, he endows the island with what is probably the most cosmopolitan flora and fauna that the world has ever seen. Now the family -- wise old father, whose head contains what is probably the most encyclopedic collection of knowledge about the natural world that has ever been known; diligent and unflagging mother; pubescent Fritz, mature and thoughtful beyond his years; Ernest, knowledgeable but not always very smart; impetuous Jack; and ebullient young Franz -- after making just enough early use of salvaged materials from the wreckage of their ship, find it easy to live, and even flourish, off the land; the only thing missing (primarily for Fritz) is a young (European) woman, and that problem is resolved easily enough before the end of the story. It's a fun story; I myself must have read The Swiss Family Robinson at least half a dozen times while I was growing up.

Cut to yet another hundred or so years later. Gold Key Comics, a spin-off from Dell back in the early 1960s, is looking for a story line. John F. Kennedy has just committed us to going to the moon, and space is on everybody's mind. Somebody remembers Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson (didn't Disney, after all, just make a movie version of the story?), notices that "Swiss" can easily be changed to "Space", and, voila, a new comic series, the Space Family Robinson, is born -- an entire family, lost in space, wandering from world to world in a ship that looks remarkably like an oversized Star Trek shuttlecraft (those would come later, however) and having adventure after adventure.

Cut to Irwin Allen, looking for another sci-fi story line after Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants. Space Family Robinson looks good. Allen builds a TV series around the concept, adding in a couple of additional characters -- a good-hearted robot, an evil (to begin with, though later he becomes merely obnoxious) villain named something other than Robinson (Dr. Zachary Smith). The Robinsons, for some reason I never understood, take off into space aboard the flying-saucer-shaped spacecraft Jupiter 2. The ship becomes "Lost in Space" because of sabotage by Dr. Smith and crashes on a distant world. For some three seasons, the Robinsons enjoy adventure after adventure and encounter after encounter (with space gunslingers, space circuses, space anybody-you-care-to-name) on this and several other worlds; in one episode, they even find themselves in a Scottish castle that might, some hundreds of years earlier, have belonged to Alexander Selkirk's family. Then the series ended. But freckle-faced young Billy Mumy, who played Will Robinson ("Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!"), never forgot, and continued to push for a movie version of the story, until he got involved in another project (as the Minbari Lennier on Babylon 5). And eventually his dream was realized, and today the movie is here, working -- with some small success -- at sinking the Titanic.

I didn't know it was the movie when I saw the opening; I thought it was an ad for a video arcade game. A space station under attack, two courageous young pilots sent out in remarkably maneuverable space fighters to defeat the enemy, zip, bam, jink, kapow, zap, yow, oh wow I'm in trouble, I'll save you, this is an order, sorry didn't hear that, you know the drill. Only when the words Lost In Space zip across the screen in a fraction of a second -- watch closely, or you might miss them! -- do you realize that this is, in fact, the movie. I almost missed it myself -- my wife had just stuffed cotton in her ears, and was offering me some, because the noise level made a Rave party sound like transcendental meditation. I turned the cotton down, but I expect Alexander Selkirk, accustomed to the silence of the Juan Fernandez Islands, would have accepted it with enthusiasm.

The year is 2058, and the world is in serious trouble; the ozone layer is down sixty percent, gas prices are up sixty percent, and because of this within two decades mankind will become extinct. However, we've discovered another world called Alpha Prime, pristine and welcoming, somewhere across the vastness of space; if human beings can get there, the race will be saved. But to get there, we need a transspace wormhole connecting two hypergates. One of these is being constructed in orbit around the earth; the other has to be constructed at Alpha Prime, and for this the Robinson family is being shot into space and sent off (in deep freeze) to this distant world. (The movie never addresses a number of important questions, for instance what do you do in fifty years when you've made Alpha Prime uninhabitable? Look for Beta Secondary? or what are the logistics of getting nine billion people off the surface of the earth and up to an orbiting hypergate? But, what the hey, who cares? That's not the real story line anyway. We only care about the Robinsons; let the rest of 'em eat cake!)

There is a bunch of villains who are referred to as "The Sedition"; their motives are never clearly defined; all we know about them is that they are mean and nasty. They've killed the pilot of the Jupiter 2, forcing the gov't to appoint a new pilot -- rough, tough, bulky Major Don West (Matt LeBlanc), hero of the first scene, whose hobby is having his girl friends' names tatooed on his back, and then removed, as they come and go; you know he's tough because he doesn't use anaesthetic when he has the tattoos removed. Now the Sedition has hired mercenary, brilliant, and mainly sociopathically evil Dr. Zachary Smith (Gary Oldman) -- the base physician, but he apparently kept his fingers crossed when he took his Hippocratic Oath -- to reprogram the ship's robot to destroy the mission.

The robot's original prime directive, "Protect the Robinson Family", has now become "Destroy the Robinson Family", but this seems somehow redundant, since the family is in process of disintegration anyway, largely because John Robinson (William Hurt), dear old Dad, is so preoccupied with saving the human race's collective ass that he never gets home in time for dinner, and has even missed his son's school science fair. What a mis-ordering of priorities! Maureen, his wife (Mimi Rogers), is ticked off (no 19th century Swiss hausfrau, she; she can even use, without batting a hair, big words like "testosterone"); Will (Jack Johnson) is ticked off because dad won't pay any attention to his theories of time-travel and time-bubbles; and little Penny (Lacey Chabert), who keeps a PDA diary, is ticked off because all the boys think, with some justification, that her family consists of geeks. The only one who isn't ticked off is daughter Judy (Heather Graham), like Smith a medical doctor, though her heart is in the right place (just left of the center of her chest -- and what a chest!) even if her priorities, like those of her father, are screwed up (when Major West politely asks her to lie back on a console and spread her legs, she pours cold water on the idea, and him, after which, in a medical consultation worthy of a recent surgeon-general, she advises him to "hang onto your joystick").

Well, family eventually gets off into space -- the Jupiter 2 is launched from a skyscraper in what appears to be downtown Burbank; whatever happened to Cape Canaveral??? -- but, of course, things immediately go wrong, and the whole family, including Smith, who for the sake of plotline is inadvertently trapped in the ship, get shot off to who-knows-where by the ship's hyperdrive, which was apparently never intended to be used (use it without a hypergate -- none yet exists -- and you will emerge who knows where in the galaxy). And then they have Adventures -- with a derelict ship from years in the future, with giant vacuum-breathing silicon spiders, with time bubbles a la Will Robinson's theories on a distant planet that is in the throes of disintegration, with the incorrigibly evil Dr. Smith. Eventually they escape to what the producers probably hope will be new adventures in a couple of years.

The special effects are tremendous and will blow you away -- at the very least, they will blow your eardrums away. The problems of the family, which is almost as dysfunctional as Al Bundy's, are not played as badly as some early internet reviews would have you think (I often wonder if s-f fans believe, from their own experience, that such families are nothing exceptional). The alien monkey Blarg (or maybe Blap, or Blarp, or Bleep), whose presence on the human ship from the future is never explained, is cutey-poo and generally useless, but also not as obnoxious as the internet reviews claim -- or maybe I'm overtolerant. The film is full of never-explained stupidities (the projected fate of the human race, the skyscraper launch, the disintegrating planet, the purposeless hyperdrive), but then that may just be something that was taken over from the TV series. The robot ("That does not compute!") is sadly underused. Gary Oldman, one of our best up-and-coming villains (The Fifth Element, Air Force One), does manage to get out most of Dr. Smith's classic lines ("Oh, the pain! The pain!"), but they seem somewhat out of place; Harris's Smith was, after the first few episodes, vaguely likeable, if not tolerable, but Oldman's is simply too unredeemable. Still, if you like pure evil for the sake of evil, Oldman is infinitely superior to Harris.

It was a fun movie. I'm only sorry Alexander Selkirk couldn't have seen it. It would have been fun to find out if he recognized himself anywhere in it...

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