The Lost Room is stark noir, pulpy fiction, spiritual thriller, hero’s-quest fantasy, and brainy videogame all at once. It’s one of the most creative ideas to hit TV in a while. It falls to pieces at the end — but it’s so much fun along the way you almost won’t care. The three-part Sci Fi Channel miniseries — airing in two-hour blocks on Dec. 11, 12, and 13 — begins where so many other great stories have, in a dingy motel room.
Det. Joe Miller (Six Feet Under‘s Peter Krause) inherits a mysterious key that opens any door anywhere else in the world — including that shadowy Bates-ian motel room. When his daughter (Elle Fanning) disappears inside, he begins a search that leads him into a surreal subculture. Something cosmic and horrible, it seems, happened in that room on May 4, 1961, and ordinary objects within it have become magical. Some of the objects are silly, like a pencil that makes pennies. Others can be malevolent: a comb that freezes time, a playing card that strikes people down with nightmare visions. Legions of collectors have become obsessed with owning these charmed objects; others want to destroy them. Some believe they are a link to God.
Visually mesmerizing, Lost Room is a pleasure simply to look at: a little girl in a burgundy dress under a triangle of light; decrepit farmhouses on a dusty highway. In addition to having a noir vibe, however, Lost Room is fantastical. A large part of the fun is watching Miller learn to maneuver through his new, weird world, gathering clues that will bring back his daughter — it’s like Riven meets Lord of the Rings.
Along the way he meets friends (like Julianna Margulies, as a bland love interest) and oddball foes. Breaking Away‘s Dennis Christopher has a jittery good time as a Gollum-esque obsessive, and Kevin Pollak is slickly menacing as a wealthy collector. Character actor Peter Jacobson nearly steals the entire series as a barky little underdog who sends unkind people to ”hell” with a slap of his magic bus ticket (they really land outside Gallup, N. M.). ”No man shall judge, tease, or criticize another man — you can’t be mean,” he lectures a towering group of cowboys.
If only Lost Room did more with the good-versus-evil theme, or any theme at all. As much fun as the adventure is, the central mystery — what happened in that motel on that May date that created such cosmic blowback — is never truly explained. The ending is infuriatingly ambiguous, and not in a cool, sci-fi-enigmatic way, but in a mmm-yeah-that’s-all-we-got way. Had the writers stayed true to their mythology, this miniseries would have been absolutely stunning. As it is, it’s still pretty great.