One of the more appealing aspects of rebooting a familiar genre property comes with the promise of seeing it done with the benefit of modern special effects. That’s particularly true of Netflix’s extraordinarily good looking Lost in Space reboot. The series is, of course, based on the campy 1960s family sci-fi series created by Irwin Allen that became known primarily for the line “Danger Will Robinson” and the idea of a family of castaways thrown into deep space along with a manipulative doctor, a hot shot pilot, and an overprotective robot.
In this day and age of preexisting IP serving as the dominant creative force in the entertainment industry, it’s no surprise that the Lost In Space property would be considered ripe for a reboot — or in this case, a redo of a reboot. For those who remember, the series was given a dour big screen adaptation in 1998 complete with Matt LeBlanc, William Hurt, Heather Graham, and Gary Oldman, playing against unimpressive special effects and a misguided script from Akiva Goldsman that attempted to legitimize the story with an overt environmental message and a grittier reinterpretation of the characters and their intergalactic mission. The result was a potential franchise that failed to launch, effectively putting the IP in quarantine for two decades before it was considered once again safe enough for human consumption.
Drastically reimagined by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, whose previous writing credits include films like Dracula Untold, Gods of Egypt, and Power Rangers, Netflix’s new Lost In Space series doesn’t immediately inspire great confidence. But once the series is off and running (or crash-landing, as it were) with an exciting pair of effects-laden episodes directed by Neil Marshall, confidence in the property is mostly ready to be restored.
While the rest of season can be hit or miss, the series premiere and its immediate follow-up deliver a fun, flashy reimagining of the series that sees Toby Stephens’ John Robinson as a Marine and absentee father, while his semi-estranged wife Maureen, played by the always excellent Molly Parker is a genius-level engineer and primary caregiver to the three Robinson children, Penny (Mina Sundwall), Judy (Taylor Russell), and, of course, Will (Maxwell Jenkins). Also along for the ride are Parker Posey as Dr. Smith (with a twist), and Ignacio Serricchio as Don West, who has also undergone a change from reliable flyboy to upbeat mechanic with a penchant for Han Solo-like smuggling.
But the reimagining of Lost In Space doesn’t end with the characters; it’s very close to a top-down reconfiguration of the series itself, as the Robinsons aren’t the only ones at the mercy of the unforgiving void of space. Instead, the new series positions the family as one of many survivors of a waylaid colonization effort set for Alpha Centauri. The choice is a dramatic one that totally reshapes the series’ narrative in a mostly positive way, giving the child characters the opportunity to develop within a fractured family dynamic and a larger group setting that includes other children their age. The result is a story that trades the claustrophobic confines of a spaceship for a (temporary) terrestrial setting that gives the Robinsons space to breathe and the series the runway it needs to explore the overt theme of second chances before gearing up for a turn toward some more familiar circumstances.
Stephens brings a less intimidating presence to the screen than he did in Starz’s Black Sails, imbuing John with a never-say-die determinism that makes for a great soldier. The series takes the extra step in positioning John’s role as a soldier against his failures as a father, making for a flawed character who, unsurprisingly, is in desperate need of a second chance with his family. Meanwhile, Parker’s Maureen is fiercely independent and always the smartest person in the room. She bristles against blindly trusting people in positions of authority and is willing to break the rules in order to ensure a better future for her children. Those character traits often put her in a place of conflict with those around her. Together the two make for an engaging couple on the brink of divorce who are suddenly thrust into a situation where an unwillingness to put aside personal grievances will put all of their children's lives at risk.
Still, although Parker and Stephens enjoy an easy chemistry even when they’re bickering with one another, it's more encouraging to see that John and Maureen are given storylines that don’t revolve entirely around their kids. The same is true of the Robinson children, especially in later episodes when they’re each asked to carry the weight of an episode and the actors largely deliver. On the whole, Sundwall and Russell, both perform admirably despite being saddled with some wonky, overly quippy dialogue that sometimes sounds like what a childless adult thinks a typical teenager sounds like. But that’s hardly the series’ biggest issue, as Jenkins, has a particularly rough go of things, mostly because he’s tasked with so much of his time playing opposite the largely unresponsive robot that has been reimagined in a way that will reshape the series.
Like the original show and feature film, the robot is meant to be major part of the show’s appeal, but this new version quickly becomes the opposite. The robot isn’t just the least interesting aspect of the series; it’s often times a distraction that undermines Jenkins’ performance and practically demands the sort of emotional response you’d expect from films interested in putting animals or magical beasts in peril. Acting opposite a silent man in a large robot suit would be a challenge for any performer, but it’s not a very strong choice to saddle a young actor with that weight for so many episodes. It’s no surprise, then, that when the robot is absent for an hour or two during the midway point of the season, Lost In Space suddenly feels lighter and more fun to watch. Much of that is due to the story longer being overwhelmed or cast overshadowed by the presence of a walking deus ex machina. To the series' credit, there is more to the robot than meets the eye, but the season takes too long to get to the point where the thing is as compelling as it needs to be.
For the most part, Lost In Space impresses for its ability to deliver a fun family adventure without becoming obnoxiously cloying in the process. It also doesn’t hurt that the series is gorgeous to look at, and makes use of its enormous effects budget to deliver a blockbuster-sized television series that’s not only visually more impressive than almost all of Netflix’s attempts at creating big budget feature films, but it’s also a lot more fun to watch. The series has more than a few drawbacks and hits more than its fair share of flat notes -- many episodes are too long, and the series has a nasty habit of drawing out suspense to the point you'll be screaming at the television screen -- but in the early episodes there’s also enough intrigue generated by the Robinson’s circumstances, and those of Posey’s duplicitous Dr. Smith to keep most people bingeing through the first weekend of its release. When most series and reboots choose to go gritty and appeal to a more adult audience, Lost In Space heads in the opposite direction and delivers a fun, family friendly sci-fi adventure that might be one of the strongest first seasons of a big-budget series Netflix has yet to deliver.
Lost In Space season 1 will stream on Netflix on Friday, April 13, 2018.
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