Lost in Space review: EW's critics ponder Netflix's pointless reboot
On April 13, Netflix releases Lost in Space, the streaming service’s reinterpretation of the legendary TV science-fiction show about a planet-tossed family, an overprotective robot, and a curiously unhelpful doctor. Both of EW’s TV critics watched the new series, so you don’t have to. Consider this their therapy session.
DARREN FRANICH: Danger! Danger, Kristen Baldwin! History is a time loop full of Gary Oldman’s evil space spiders, which was the actual plot of 1998’s Lost in Space remake. And it’s been two decades since every human with eyes hated that movie, so now is the moment for another reboot of Irwin Allen’s intergalactic family drama. Netflix has made a significant-looking investment in the new version of the Robinsons’ tale. The premiere begins with a cool zero-gravity space scene, and there’s a spaceship crash, an icy mountain peak, a forest fire. The family’s trusted robot no longer looks like a trash can made out of an accordion — and maybe he can’t even be trusted.
The end of the first episode has a couple initially intriguing/ultimately disappointing revelations we can spoil a bit later, Kristen, but the grimmest idea underpinning this reboot has less to do with murder and more to do with matrimony. In the original Lost in Space, Maureen and John Robinson were a happy couple, very midcentury-modern in their attractive blandness, like if Rex Morgan M.D. married Donna Reed. What this reboot presupposes is: What if their marriage was awful? I went on a bit of a journey in the early episodes, starting from passive near-enjoyment and ending in aggressive distaste. How do you feel about the new Robinsons? And did anything about the far-flung scope of the show — futuristic, apocalyptic, outer-space Edenic — interest you?
KRISTEN BALDWIN: “Significant-looking investment” is right — I think the thing that interested me the most about the first five episodes was trying to figure out how much money Netflix spent on this reboot. (I’m guessing approximately 70 times more per episode than the original 1960s series?) So for a big budget sci-fi epic, it certainly gets the “big budget” part right — but something about Lost in Space kept me at arm’s length from the beginning. Maybe it’s how icy Mama Robinson is with her kids — her idea of a bonding activity is testing her offspring’s knowledge of geology five minutes after they crash-land on a mysterious planet. And Mr. Robinson is no trip to Pismo Beach either, with his gravelly tough-guy voice and jaw permanently set to grim.
The kids are self-sufficient in the way kids of withholding parents tend to be, but if the show was going for “dysfunctional family drama in space,” it forgot to give the characters enough emotional depth for us to care about their dysfunction and drama and constant brushes with death. (This show loves a natural-disaster set piece.) But even with all that money poured into the production, it somehow feels two-dimensional, like if you poked anyone or anything on the screen, it would just tip over, flat, and hit the ground with a “whoomp.”
The pacing is a pretty interesting paradox, too — is it me, or does nothing happen even though the Robinsons almost die at least four times per episode? And are there any characters who intrigue you?
DARREN: A lot of modern dramas have this Very Long Movie problem, where you feel like a whole season only has enough actual story for a two-hour running time. The result is lots of stasis and narrative water-treading, and I can’t think of a better metaphor for this problem then Judy Robinson. She literally gets frozen in ice for the entire first episode — and then she’s figuratively frozen for the next few episodes, “recovering” from the psychological trauma. (This trauma presents itself via quick-cut flashbacks, an old-fashioned previously-on-TV trope which feels like an especially cheap way to pad episode time on a Netflix bingeable.)
Too much of this first season moves like that. Someone gets trapped in ice, or inside a strange ship, and then eventually gets rescued. In the fourth episode, the kids go on a long, long, long walk somewhere, and they get there, and then walk back. There are constant flashbacks scattered throughout the season, which never illuminate anything beyond what we’d learn about these characters in a two-sentence summary. In sci-fi serial terms, this show is like Lost if the first hour of Lost stretched out forever.
The two characters who intrigue me are the characters most altered in the rebooting. The robot is introduced as a strange alien intelligence, with a vaguely xenomorphic shapeshifting ability. The robot comes with a bit of mystery. But here’s the wildest touch: Parker Posey’s Dr. Smith isn’t a doctor, and her name isn’t even Smith. She’s an utterly ludicrous character who is fun about a quarter of the time, which makes her the most fascinating human around. Despite these twists, the characters actually aren’t that different from their original incarnations. The robot loves Will, and it quickly becomes clear that it’s probably not such a bad robot after all. In one of the lamest ideas on this very dumb show, the robot’s face is a shiny kind blue screen, except when he gets angry and the screen turns red. Evil, angry red! This is powers-of-10 stupider, as a visual concept, than the original Lost in Space robot, which looked goofy as hell but at least had some personality.
Are you ‘shipping Dr. Smith and the Robot as much as I am, Kristen? And were there any moments in particular that made you grumble? No spoilers, but in episode 9, one character says, “We are literally full of s—,” and I’ve rarely nodded harder.
KRISTEN: Yes, by the time [spoiler] got trapped again by [spoiler] in episode 3, I involuntarily yelled “Oh for f***’s sake!” at my screen.
Where we differ, though, is on those previously-on-earth flashbacks; I found myself far more interested in what was happening on the Robinsons’ home planet before they got lost in space. After a meteor hits earth and renders the air quality increasingly toxic, humanity is left with two options: Cough its way to extinction or qualify for an expedition to a “paradise planet” in the Alpha Centauri solar system. Naturally, only upstanding citizens are allowed to apply — and even they can be held back if certain family members (cough Will Robinson cough) suffer from catastrophic test anxiety.
The intra-familial, inter-social stratification competition that these flashbacks only hint at seems far more ripe for compelling drama than the situations we’re given on Lost in Space (one of which literally involves a mystery about who used the printer on the Robinsons’ ship). This brings us to Parker Posey’s Dr. Smith, who — EPISODE THREE SPOILER ALERT — we learn wasn’t exactly a “productive member of society” back on earth and cheated her way onto the Alpha Centauri expedition. Give me a Smith family prequel, please!
But now that Dr. Smith is stuck on the Mystery Planet with the Robinsons, I definitely want her to team up in any way possible with The Robot. They appear to be the only two characters on Lost in Space with a real interior life that goes beyond “must. manage. crisis” — Dr. Smith’s evil seems to draw from a deep wellspring of misanthropy, while the poor Robot just wants to adapt, reform, and belong. Good luck, you melancholy hunk of metal.
Like you, Darren, I skipped ahead to episode 10 to see if anything interesting was going on, and — spoiler alert! — the Robinsons were in danger, the Robot’s motivations were unclear, and Mrs. Robinson was saying things like, “We’ll deal with one problem at a time.” If that ain’t the motto of the new Lost in Space, I don’t know what is.
DARREN: Just as a fun experiment, I broke up the monotony of the new season by checking out a random episode of the original Lost in Space on Hulu. The episode started with a narrator speaking to the audience: “Last week, as you’ll recall, we left Will and the Robot watching Dr. Smith’s secret experiments in winemaking.”
Secret experiments in winemaking! There’s more character, humor, and genuine sci-fi weirdness in that four-word nonsense phrase than in the whole grim Netflix season. And I understand the point is to tell a more sober-minded version of the story — but if all you’re going to do with a new Lost in Space is create another long-running serialized saga with bland characters, full of boring questions and lame answers you won’t get to until season 3, why make a new Lost in Space at all?
It’s an extra bummer, given the quality of the cast. Taylor Russell and Mina Sundwall do their best as sisters Judy and Penny. I don’t even want to spoil who plays Dr. Smith’s sister, except to say that her single scene with Parker Posey sparks more than anything else this season. Meanwhile, there’s a scene late in the season where Parker Posey and Molly Parker stare at a wall. It is so boring. But after watching so many hours of this boring show, looking at a wall sounded like an improvement.