'Lost in Space': TV Review

Danger, viewers without 10 hours to spare!
4/13/2018

Possibly Netflix's most accessible show to date, this mixture of 'This Is Us' and 'The Martian' isn't deep, but it's full of family-friendly thrills.

Over the past five years, Netflix has built its big tent of original programming around a vast network of midsize tents, sometimes combining smaller niche genres to attract bigger audiences (as with Stranger Things) and sometimes using darker subject matter to complicate would-be blockbusters (the Catholic angst of Daredevil or the rape PTSD undercurrent of Jessica Jones).

The result has been a perception that Netflix, as huge as it is, has gotten where it is by trying to not aim straight down the middle. Part of why there has been such hostility toward film offerings like Bright and the pact with Adam Sandler was the sense that Netflix was supposed to be somehow better than that type of mainstream pandering. Also, those things were generally awful.

It's strange to look at the latest in a string of sci-fi adaptations of a landmark children's novel as being something new, but Lost in Space absolutely represents fresh ground for Netflix, at least in terms of its potential reach. Previously a beloved 1960s TV show and a less-than-beloved 1998 feature, Lost in Space premieres Friday as possibly Netflix's broadest series to date. It's an old-fashioned, fast-moving, family-friendly adventure yarn unmuddied by an excess of subtext, political undercurrent or narrative mythologizing. Even feeling overcalculated at every turn, the show is fun, occasionally exciting and ever-so-accessible.

Developed by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (Dracula Untold) and run by Zack Estrin (Prison Break) — Irwin Allen retains a "created by" credit after all these years — Lost in Space is the story of the Robinson family. Mom Maureen (Molly Parker) is a brilliant aerospace engineer and father John (Toby Stephens) a courageous military type. A cataclysmic event on Earth has sent the Robinsons into space heading for a new home near Alpha Centauri and forced rapid maturation for kids Judy (Taylor Russell), an aspiring doctor; Penny (Mina Sundwall), wisecracking and resourceful; and son Will (Maxwell Jenkins), brilliant but perhaps tentative under pressure. When things go terribly wrong on their main craft, the Robinsons are forced to crash-land on an unknown and unnamed planet that looks distinctly like British Columbia, albeit populated by magnificent CG-enhanced flora and fauna.

Finding themselves similarly lost, as it were, in space are Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), a mechanic and rakish smuggler, and the mysterious Doctor Smith (Parker Posey), who is none of the things she says she is. There's also a towering humanoid robot — more Klaautu than Robby — who quickly becomes deeply invested in protecting Will Robinson from danger.

No knowledge of any previous Lost in Space incarnation is necessary to understand what Sazama and Sharpless are doing here. There are shared character names, a couple references and at least one huge premiere Easter egg that will amuse those who catch it and won't hinder the uninitiated. The narrative engine is still propelled by the nefarious Doctor Smith's myriad sabotage attempts, but one hardly need know Jonathan Harris or recent Oscar winner Gary Oldman's work to figure that out. The score, by Christopher Lennertz, nods in the direction of John Williams' original theme before carving out its own muscular and rousing terrain.

Netflix's Lost in Space is half family-reconciliation melodrama and half futuristic survivalist fantasy, so one could surely do worse than to call it This Is Us meets The Martian. John's overcommitment to work has left him estranged enough that rebuilding trust with his son, trying to make sense of his daughters and rekindling his passion for his wife are challenges on par with restoring channels of communication, seeking out fuel resources and figuring out how to depart their temporary terrestrial home. There's romance and bickering-yet-loving sibling relationships, and the whole thing has enough heart to fill in the gaps between action scenes.

Led by pilot director Neil Marshall, Lost in Space has a charming-but-robotic adherence to the type of old-movie-house serials that were more genuinely influential to the source material. Do you like literal cliffhangers? There's an almost exhausting amount of dangling from cliffs. Do you like your tension embellished by ominous countdowns? Things on Lost in Space are constantly taking 10 or 30 or 60 seconds to lift off, blow up or run out of oxygen. Though some of the show's 10 hour-ish episodes have padded running time, the filler is usually character-driven, with such economy that no prop or detail is introduced without an eventual payoff, usually predictably and yet well-executed. It's a balance that allows the show to go between rousing space car stunts, creepy CG creature attacks and pricey-looking space exploits and family conversations that were surely less costly.

It's a pleasure to watch Canadian indie film darling and frequent brainy TV favorite Parker (House of Cards) going back and forth between full-on Ellen Ripley and encouragingly maternal. With some of the rest of the cast, there's a growth process. Stephens' excessive initial gruffness and clumsy American accent take some getting used to, while both Serricchio and Sundwall have to plow through a lot of hit-and-miss one-liners before the characters settle down in appealing ways. Even acting often opposite a special-effects co-star, Jenkins gives a well-above-average juvenile performance and Russell shines when Judy gets to be capable and not just a damsel-in-distress. Expect Posey to be a bit of a challenge for some viewers, with her familiar flat and wry line-readings that I found perfectly pitched for a character who's never supposed to be trustworthy for a second, yet keeps being stupidly trusted.

Lost in Space rather aggressively avoids going down any dark-and-gritty or allegorical paths. There are no environmental undertones to what causes the evacuation of Earth, no gun control message even in a world of laser-printed weapons and, despite Don's blue-collar inferiority complex, basically no critique of economic disparities in an allegedly merit-based future utopia. An embrace of inclusivity and generally unremarked-upon feminism are still OK in an all-ages romp in which there isn't a hint of bad language or sexuality, the scares are low-intensity and when the occasional tertiary character dies, it can be forgotten immediately. A show about resourcefulness and problem solving is rarely more intellectually taxing than a shallow Wikipedia dive.

Intellectualizing and politicizing and complicating can all be audience limiters, and Lost in Space wants to be Netflix's biggest tent show yet — so far with entertaining, popcorn-series results.

Cast: Toby Stephens, Molly Parker, Taylor Russell, Mina Sundwall, Maxwell Jenkins, Ignacio Serricchio, Parker Posey
Developed by: Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (from the 1960s series by Irwin Allen)
Showrunner: Zack Estrin
Premieres
: Friday (Netflix)