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LOST IN SPACE

THE RETURN OF THE SPACE FAMILY ROBINSON
The original TV series was a vintage piece of sixties camp. But, reports ALAN JONES, the megabudget big-screen version of Lost in Space has a lot more action, effects and excitement - plus, of course, a fair share of humour.

It was the first television space fantasy of the sixties, the second prime-time success story (after Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) for cult producer Irwin Allen, cinema's future 'Master of Disaster' who went on to make such landmark movies as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. But fans of the campy charms of Lost in Space are in for a shock with the $100-million-plus movie version: the out-of-this-world kitsch humour that defined the original TV show has been cut back to virtually nil.

"I fell on the floor laughing when I watched videotapes of the old series" Stephen Hopkins, director

Director Stephen Hopkins (The Ghost and the Darkness) is behind the camera on New Line Cinema's biggest-ever production and he was, he says, initially attracted to the off-the-wall aspects of the original. "I loved the show because it wasn't restricted to galaxies exploding: it was also about who was the best go-go dancer in the universe! I fell on the floor laughing when I watched videotapes of the old series, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. It plays better in the memory now. People don't want to sit around watching two hours of camp. Clearly we had to change focus and direction with the movie. It had to have plot-tension, danger and importance because, otherwise, who would care about the stranded Space Family Robinson?"

Long in gestation as a small-screen concept waiting for big-screen redefinition - much like The Addams Family and Mission: Impossible - the movie version of Lost in Space started out at Twentieth Century Fox. But, when interest there waned in developing the property further, producer Mark Koch secured the rights from Sheila Allen, Irwin's widow, and began looking for finance. One of the parties interested was Richard Saperstein, executive vice-president of production at New Line.

Explains Saperstein: "Akiva Goldsman (scriptwriter of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin) and I went to college together and we absolutely adored Lost in Space. So I called Akiva and said that, if he would write the script for the film, I would buy the property."

"People don't want to sit around watching two hours of camp." Stephen Hopkins

Goldsman, (whose other credits include The Client and A Time to Kill) adds: "It's true that Lost in Space was my favourite TV show. I watched it every day, surrendered to its charms constantly and couldn't wait to take a crack at a script. But my recollection of the show was different to the actual show itself. What I held in my heart was an action/adventure about people surviving in adverse circumstances. What I saw after watching it again was a bit of that, sure. But mostly I saw a great deal of high camp and sixties silver face-paint. It scared me.

"So I set out to write a script that was true to the TV series in its original form, but also true to what I loved about the show, either evident or implicit. The later episodes were silly and funny," he continues. "Our film isn't. There's a lot of humour in it: we've tried to be true to the spirit of the show in those places where it seems appropriate, and there are well-placed reminders of it. But the scale, scope and focus has changed drastically. In the original show, the Jupiter II spaceship seemed to be the size of a two-bedroom condo. Now it's as big as the Coliseum!"

Lost in Space began its hefty 21-week production schedule on March 4, 1997, and was shot entirely at London's Shepperton Studios on eight sound stages, where the anticipated franchise project utilised enormous sets depicting alien landscapes and the impressive Jupiter II interiors. It stars Gary Oldman as the villainous Dr. Zachary Smith, with William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Heather (Boogie Nights) Graham, Lacey Chabert (Party of Five) and Jack Johnson playing the Space Family Robinson, with Friends star Matt Le Blanc taking on the role as their devil-may-care pilot, Major Don West.

Populated with other-worldly creatures and hi-tech robots created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, Lost in Space features over 700 computer-generated visual effects (an industry record) as it tells the story of the first family unit selected to test out the experimental warp-drive ‘Hypergate’ route into the far reaches of the galaxy. The goal is to research the colonisation possibilities of the stars, but the explorers are marooned along with stowaway Smith when the latter’s sinister sabotage lands them in a perilous corner of space. There, the cosmic castaways must deal with an insidious latent threat from alien moon spiders they encountered earlier aboard the bandit Proteus spaceship, as well as confront erratic time portals which bring the resilient family face to face with their past and future selves.

Oldman was one of the first actors to read Goldsman's script and thought it would be enormous fun to play. "It's as simple as that," remarks the star. "Akiva's screenplay said a lot of nice things about values, family, father/son relationships, caring and love. It wasn't just a wham-bang shoot-'em up.

"Two hours of Carry On Spaceman would have been totally boring. I'm completely behind the way Akiva and Stephen have reinvented the concept" Gary Oldman

"Lost in Space has heart and a great story along with marvellous special effects," he continues. "In all honesty, I'm tired of playing villains, but Stephen's take on the subject intrigued me enough to consider the Smith role. Stephen started his career in comics and had been conceptually in on Lost in Space right from the start, so I felt in safe hands. Plus they decided to pay me a lot of money..!

"Akiva's writing has done all the hard work for me," Oldman adds. "He's kept the tenor of the original show but balanced it with what audiences expect from a multi-million-dollar movie today. Actually, I kept falling into a set pattern at first. I'd always want to have more fun with Smith than I was being allowed. Believe me, it's hard not to resist overdoing the camp with a character so ripe for it."

"We wanted to give Lost in Space a unique look - one you've never seen before." Norman Garwood, production designer

But Oldman understood why he had to resist the temptation. "Sure, there's a segment of the audience who want that and the papier-mâché boulders and the wobbly Doctor Who sets," he says. "But I hope they come and see the movie with as little prejudice as possible. It has become a challenge to prove everyone wrong and show them our choices are exactly the right ones. Two hours of Carry On Spaceman would have been totally boring. I'm completely behind the way Akiva and Stephen have reinvented the concept."

Putting that concept physically on screen is three-time Oscar-nominated production designer Norman Garwood who explains: "Stephen is an absolute comics buff and his two comic-artist heroes are Jack Kirby and Steranko. We looked at their sixties work and derived our own design style out of theirs. We wanted to give Lost in Space a unique look - one you've never seen before."

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