Half a century since the final episode of its original series aired on CBS, the Lost in Space franchise is once again on TV, this time in a new 10-episode series reboot that premiered on Netflix on Friday.
The original series, which ran for just three seasons before being abruptly canceled in 1968, is a cult favorite among science-fiction obsessives thanks to many years in syndication. The devotion to the franchise has driven several attempted reboots, though none of them have been particularly successful. Most recently, in 2013, the WB TV Network (now the CW) produced a pilot for a series titled The Robinsons: Lost in Space, which was directed by Hong Kong cinema legend John Woo. The pilot never made it to the screen, though the set of the Jupiter 2, the spaceship the Robinsons live in, was used as the set of the Pegasus for Battlestar Galactica.
Before that, New Line Cinema tried to reboot Lost in Space for contemporary audiences on the big screen, with a feature film reboot that released 20 years ago this week.
1998’s Lost in Space was the company's most expensive film to that point, reportedly costing over $80 million to produce and market. The film’s large budget was largely due to the film's more than 900 shots of CGI, which was at the time rumored to be the most in history for a single film. The film was part of a major Hollywood trend during the '90s, during which studios were rebooting many older TV hits for the big screen. From 1991 to 2000, audiences were forced to watch film reboots of The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Fugitive, The Brady Bunch, Mission: Impossible, Leave It to Beaver, The Mod Squad and more.
Talking to Entertainment Weekly in 1998, star Gary Oldman, who played the villainous Dr. Smith in the film, saw the reboot as part of a cultural revolution. "As every generation takes the helm," he said, "it likes to revere its icons."
That’s a very eloquent way of putting it, though it ignores that, as with today's many '90s sitcom revivals, studios were looking to bring in older audiences who wanted to see new versions of their old faves, while introducing new audiences to classic properties.
Akiva Goldsman, screenwriter and producer of Lost in Space, got the call to write the script when the films rights landed on the desk of Richard Saperman, then Executive Vice President of Production at New Line. Recalling their phone conversation to EW, Goldsman said that Saperman was only interested in purchasing the film rights if he'd write it. Goldsman then went through the original series and, noticing how the show veered into camp after its first season, was determined to write a more serious, gritty version. Or, as he put it, "a '90s spin," on the iconic series.
Oldman was the first person on board, beating out the likes of Tim Robbins and Kenneth Branagh for the role of Dr. Smith. Even though by 1998 Oldman had already tried to kill Harrison Ford, Keanu Reeves, and Bruce Willis on screen, he wanted the role of the cowardly yet cunning Smith, who, like in the original series, tries to sabotage the Robinsons at every turn. "I wanted to do a movie my son could see," he explained.
William Hurt and Mimi Rogers played John and Maureen Robinson, the parents of the Robinson children. Ruby was played by Lacey Chabert, Will was played by Jack Johnson (not the singer). Heather Graham, one year after playing Roller Girl in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and one year before reaching new heights as Felicity Shagwell in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, played Judy.
Friends star Matt LeBlanc took on the rare action role, as Major West, the pilot of the Jupiter 2 and love interest of Judy Robinson. LeBlanc (who got the role after Sean Patrick Flanery dropped out) was a fan of the original series, telling EW that as a kid, he and his friends used to fight over who got to play Major West when they boarded their imaginary Jupiter 2. While working on the film, LeBlanc would be on set inside Shepperton Studios in England from Saturday-Thursday, then fly to New York City and then Los Angeles to film Friends on Friday, and after filming an episode he would then get back on a plane for England to make it back on set by Saturday morning.
All but two of the original cast members of the series came on board to appear in cameos, Jonathan Harris, who played the original Dr. Smith, and Bill Mumy, the original Will Robinson (he wanted to play the older versions of Will, which was played by a pre-Mad Men Jared Harris). The only actor from the original series to actually be apart of the main cast was Dick Tufied, who reprised his role as the voice of The Robot.
The film was devoid of any major controversy... with the exception of a battle between New Line and Little Caesar’s Pizza. The pizza chain abruptly canceled its tie-in deal with the studio six months before the film's release. New Line wound up suing Little Caesar’s for $100 million in damages. According to Encylopedia.com, the deal fell through because Mike Illitch Jr. — son of Michael and Marian Illitch, founders of Little Caesar’s — who sold the rights to make the filmi n the first place to New Line, initiated a $20.5 million tie-in deal. The senior Illitch and others associated with the company said that the younger Illitch did not have the authority to make such a deal. Thankfully for New Line, they were able to make a deal with another fast food chain to promote the film, Long John Sliver’s. There were truly no bad options.
New Line hoped that with the combination of adapting a classic property with a built-in fan base, star power, and tons of special effects, Lost in Space would wind up becoming a highly successful franchise with multiple sequels. That was until the film was released.
Even though it opened at the top of the box office on its opening weekend (ending James Cameron’s Titanic's 15-week run at No. 1), Lost in Space was far from a success. The film only grossed $69 million domestically, one million less than Blade, which had a budget of $45 million, a little more than half that of Lost in Space.
Critics trashed the film, with one going so far as to say that "the film suffers from characterizations so colorless and derivative that audiences may find themselves yearning for the goofiness of the series if for no other reason than to ward off the onset of boredom.”
Watching the film 20 years after its release (and for the first time), I texted a friend to ask him if he had ever seen the movie, after he told me he did, he texted, "it’s rare to see a movie that fails on just about every level.”
The 900 shots of CGI used in this movie is a good example of more not meaning better. Even by 1998 standards, the CGI looks cheap and distracting, and with The Matrix released the following year, it’s tough not to think that Lost in Space already looked dated by the time that film came out. It’s ironic that Goldsman set out to make a version of Lost in Space that would take a turn away from the cheapness and campiness of the original series, but looking at the film with 2018 eyes, the film looks very cheap and at times verges toward camp because of its ridiculous plot.
The film is also not helped with the characters — who are suppose to be a family — having no chemistry with one another, especially LeBlanc and Graham, who are suppose to develop an attraction to one another as the film progresses and especially in the cultural moment we’re in today, West’s insistence at hooking up with Judy at every turn is not charming but rather gross.
The film was nominated for a Razzie, losing out to a three-way tie between the 1998 American version of Godzilla (the one that was so bad Toho — the production and distribution company that owns the rights to Godzilla — went out of its way to have the "real" Godzilla kill it), Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and another film based off an old TV show, The Avengers, a movie that confused many children thinking it was a movie based on the Marvel Comics super team. Boy were they wrong.
The films lack of success ended the Matt LeBlanc action-hero run; he stuck with Friends for a few more seasons, made a few more appearances in films (including another film based off an old TV hit, Charlie’s Angels), and is currently the star of the CBS sitcom Man With a Plan. Heather Graham went to bigger success thanks to Austin Powers and then focused on indie film until 2009 when she played Jade in The Hangover. This year she released her first directorial feature Half Magic. Jack Johnson’s career did not go on for much longer after Lost in Space; Chabert went on to get a supporting role in Mean Girls and has made quite a career in voice work, lending her voice in series such as Spectacular Spider-Man (Gwen Stacy) and Young Justice (Zatanna). Today William Hurt is probably most known for being General Ross in the Marvel Cinematic Universe... and the most successful person of the cast, Gary Oldman, went to become both part of the Harry Potter (Sirius Black) and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight (Commissioner Gordon) franchises.
This new Lost in Space, which is more along the lines of Interstellar and Prometheus than '90s rubber suit Batman, doesn’t have to do much go beyond the '98 movie. From the trailers and early reactions online, it seems that this new creative team has accomplished what the filmmakers failed to do back in 1998 and that’s find a place in contemporary pop culture for a beloved, and seemingly lost franchise.