Lost in Space was rather bold at the time of its release, despite falling into obscurity over the years. In an era devoid of humanized sci-fi (it even beat Star Trek to the punch by a year), at least by today’s standards, it honed in on family strife and small trials and tribulations rather than galactic-level macro events — for better or worse. 50 years after the original finale Netflix is resurrecting that some concept for a modern audience, but doesn’t accomplish nearly as much as Irwin Allen did back in the ’60s.
At first glance Lost in Space seems like a good homage, maintaining some of the cheese of the original, a shortlist that includes practical sparks and explosions. That sense of nostalgia quickly wanes as the new rendition admirably attempts to forge its own identity. Right from the get-go there’s an earnest but mostly futile attempt to create an emotional bond between the viewers and the stranded Robinson family. Framed through the lens of a family reunion during the holidays (patriarch John makes a surprise visit following a long military tour), we get little slices of what’s to come. Before we know it said family embarks upon a special space mission together to a new world, piecing both the past and present timelines together. In what is supposed to be a strong hook to keep us going, the first episode doesn’t do a great job at making us care about the Robinson family both as a unit or as individual entities.
For one, Lost in Space’s characters are very one note. They have problems and minor flaws but they’re the stalwart and irreplaceable heroes of the tale, make no mistake. Each character gets a little vignette that highlights an aspect of their personality and some work better than others. Maureen Robinson isn’t afraid to bend the rules to help out her family (altering an application so her son Will can enter the space program), Will is struggling with his studies, John is painted as an absentee father, and so on. We get one-dimensional windows into the cast and based on the first five episodes provided, their arcs aren’t developing all that much. A few of the kids have doubts, and almost immediately rise to the occasion. John and Maureen have marital problems, and linking up for a science program with their family is their last shot at a romantic redemption — that sort of thing.
At its heart Lost in Space is a family drama (featuring a well-intentioned genius family, where the children are just as capable as everyone else) with the backdrop of space, but it’s far too content in telling us they’re a family rather than showing us. In theory that’s fine, but Lost in Space spreads itself too thin with overblown and boring storylines. Taylor Russell, the oldest daughter of the Robinsons, exhumes a healthy aura of confidence and bravado in her role (and has an actual arc dealing with PTSD), but everyone else kind of just fades in and out of the foreground. For some reason the showrunners decided to inject the smuggler Don West into the mix — easily the biggest caricature of the show. After the tenth “I’m only in this for myself, missy” (paraphrasing) bit of dialogue I could feel my eyes rolling into the back of my head and visualized his entire redemption narrative in seconds.
This over-extension of bravado for certain characters (and lack thereof for some) extends to other aspects of the show. The “big reveal” of the arctic/forest biome tries to amaze us, but falls flat after a fleeting musical cue and more meandering. Soon enough the stranded family meets up with another crew and the age old tension of the unscrupulous Dr. Smith (played by the wonderful Parker Posey) and the Robinsons begins anew. It’s slow-going, with nearly half of each episode serving as filler. Lost in Space doesn’t throw a lot of interesting or particularly unique scientific discoveries our way, and is instead content on focusing too heavily on passive aggressive and minor power struggles. More often than not the crew is split up as to showcase the individual talents of each family member, which strongly works against it. Dumb decisions are made that cost the characters precious time, and the buck really falls on us to watch it all unfold slowly on-screen like drying paint.
The robot, the only real wild card, is one of the best parts of the show. The old tin can design is thrown out for a more Matrix-mixed-with-Power-Rangers humanoid creation (it works), with an intriguing smelter core face and plenty of interlocking parts that will probably work some cool magic later on in the series. Even in the first episode where it saves the day it’s not overstated or too convenient of a deus ex machina, and its origin and complicated sense of morality are the only aspects of the series I want to see through.
I’m not sure if the creative duo behind Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter, action-centric stories about badass super humans, were the right choice for this project. Most of the cast is up to the task and I can see the potential in the new Lost in Space, but it’s not quite there yet — and it might not ever get there.
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