Spoiler-free review: Colin Costello on “Lost In Space”

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Audiences will want to get lost with these Robinsons

Confession. I was never into Star Trek reruns as a kid. Yeah, I watched them and thought Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) had the best legs ever, but there was still something missing for me.

That missing element I found with reruns of Lost in Space, which I would run home from school to watch on UHF-Channel 29 in Philadelphia. I couldn’t get enough of the adventures of the Robinson family, especially father John, and of course Will, The Robot and Dr. Smith.

I connected with Lost in Space so much, that I once took one of my mother’s cereal bowls, glued it to a dessert plate and drew the Jupiter 2’s (the name of the Robinson’s ship) windows and door on it. I was proud of my home-made saucer. My Mom? Oh, wanted to kill me.

The patio, to my twin house in Philly, served as the flight deck every Saturday afternoon when Brian (my best friend) came over with his flight controls and several of us would play Lost in Space, flying on my parents’ chairs and cushions while we crashed on an alien planet.

Yes, I could not get enough of the series that originally ran from (1965-1968) on CBS. It pains me that so many critics just remember the campy episodes. Lost in Space was way more than that. The first season, in black and white, was fairly serious adventure fare and sometimes (with its monsters) scary AF to a young boy.

When the 1998 film (starring, William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Matt LeBlanc and Gary Oldman) was released, I had high hopes for it. However, it failed miserably, with terrible fx and over the top acting from Gary Oldman. And space spiders. Friggin’ space spiders. Most importantly, the film ignored what had made the Robinsons special – they were a somewhat cohesive family unit. Instead, this version of the Robinsons portrayed them as a bickering lot who I hoped would fall into a black hole.

So, in 2015 when Netflix announced it would reboot the series, I once again held out hope that the specialness of the original series could and would be translated for the more sophisticated audiences of today. As a writer, I also did everything I could to get staffed on the first season as well.:-)

I’m happy to say, Netflix has knocked it out of the park. Into another galaxy.

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(Credit: Netflix)

Written by Matt Sazama and Burt Sharpless, Lost in Space is a reboot filled with adventure, wonder and danger; inspired by everything from the original series to films like The Martian and J.J. Abrams Star Trek and even the TV series Lost. Set in the not-too-distant future of 2046, the Robinson family (much more grounded and believable than the 60s version) is now made of – father and former military man John (Toby Stephens), mother and “bad ass” aerospace engineer Maureen (Molly Parker), biracial eldest daughter and doctor Judy (Taylor Russell), super-sarcastic middle-child Penny (Mina Sundwall), and insecure son Will (Chicago’s Maxwell Jenkins).

The first two episodes, directed by Game of Thrones’ Neil Marshall, throws its audience into one jarring situation after another beginning with a crash landing and moving onto Maureen’s leg getting severely injured, Judy getting trapped in ice and Will getting separated from the family.

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(Credit: Netflix)

So many things click about the reboot, but what really stands out is the development of each character, especially the kids. That’s a testament to the actors involved.

We learn that the Robinsons are about as stable a family as the planet they landed on. In other words, not. Maureen and John are estranged, nearing divorce. Maureen struggles with trying to take command of the mission and keeping her family safe. John is trying to reconnect with Maureen and his children. Judy suffers from PTSD from her near death experience. Penny attempts to find her place as the middle-child, while also considering becoming romantically involved with a crashed survivor on the planet.

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(Credit: Netflix)

Will’s season long arc is really a coming-of-age story as he struggles with feelings of not fitting in. He is not sure why he made it on the mission and he also thinks he isn’t good enough in his father’s eyes. The relationship forged between Will and the Robot is a key part of the story, driven mostly by Jenkins’ stand-out performance. But, also not “lost” is the growing relationship between Will and his dad. There are a couple of heart-felt father and son scenes that reminded me of Guy Williams (the original John) and Will. It’s one of the best performances that you will see from a child actor this year, even besting Netflix’s Stranger Things’ kids.

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(Credit: Netflix)

Sundwall and Russell each realize their characters to the fullest, creating individual complex characters with room to grow. The parents, Stephens and Parker, also bring John and Maureen to life as they struggle to put their fractured relationship back together and rediscover what made them fall in love in the first place on this strange new world.

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(Credit: Netflix)

And then there’s Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), a smuggler who immediately comes off as Han Solo. They even give West a moment to sarcastically call Judy “Princess”, a la Han to Princess Leia. These nuances and flaws make the Robinsons a family we want to to invest in, root for and makes it terribly easy to get sucked into their adventure.

And there are monsters.

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(Credit: Netflix)

Finally, there’s the redesigned Robot. Here, the Robot is actually an alien creature who befriends Will. Reminding me slightly of the friendship between Eli and the Giant Robot in The Iron Giant or John Conner and The Terminator, Will’s friendship with the creature is touching and emotional, with an underlying fear of what The Robot is actually capable of and will it act on it. It’s like having a weapon in a child’s hands. I did get misty-eyed in the 10th episode. Won’t say why.

But what about “Oh the pain” Dr. Smith?

There was a bit of an uproar from LIS purists when Netflix announced they had gender switched resident villain and camp king, Dr. Smith. Originally played by actor Jonathan Harris, Smith would now be played by Parker Posey. Where Harris played Smith ranging from sinister (in the first five episodes) to over-the-top comic foil, let’s just say Posey’s interpretation of Smith is insane.

No, as played by the actress, Dr. Smith really IS insane.

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(Credit: Netflix)

Posey does a superb job of making Smith a complex, multi-layered and even sympathetic individual. Be sure, Smith IS a villain. She is shady, emotionally unstable, a master manipulator, turning family and colonists against each other, a liar and empathetic at times. However, just when you think Smith is about to commit another heinous act, she surprises you. It’s this kind of performance that keeps me coming back because I don’t know what Smith will do next. Posey makes Smith a superb candidate for a complicated character study. The actress underplays it a bit and I’m okay with that.

As for the look of the series, this is not your Dad’s (Wait, I’m a dad) Lost in Space, where the planet was clearly a small set. At reportedly $10 million an episode, Lost in Space is big and expansive. It feels like we are on a new world with space suits designed by the same creators as Ridley Scott’s The Martian. The series can stand alongside the big sci-fi films of today. In fact, LIS could be on the big screen.

All in all, this Lost in Space is a show that was clearly made with love for Irwin Allen’s original. It eschews Battlestar Galactica’s dark and gritty feel (though there are a couple of scary jumps), for edge-of-your-seat thrills and optimism. It is actually a series the entire family can watch, which is rare these days. In other words, it’s a blast.

Oh, one last thing – yes, they update the John Williams (when he was known as Johnny Williams) theme. And look for Billy Mumy’s (the original Will Robinson) brilliant cameo. Guess that was two last things.

Lost in Space launches on Netflix April 13. Now I need a bowl and a saucer…

 
Contact Colin Costello at colin@reelchicago.com or follow him on Twitter @colincostello10.

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