'Lost In Space' at 25: How this big-budget sci-fi reboot in 1998 steered wildly off course

Lost in Space movie poster from 1998
The Space Family Robinson got "Lost in Space" again in 1998's film reboot of a TV science fiction classic. (Image credit: New Line Cinema)

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! Geeks of a certain age and lovers of classic sci-fi might recognize that insistent robotic warning as originating from one of the most seminal science fiction adventure TV shows of the 1960s named "Lost in Space." 

Created by disaster master Irwin Allen, "Lost In Space" grew from a concept that's essentially the "Swiss Family Robinson In Outer Space." Following a sabotage that sent the crew's ship spinning out of control in the cosmos, the story becomes a wholesome tale of the Robinson family and their companion service robot aboard the Jupiter 2 colony spaceship in the year 1997 trying to find an Earth-like planet in the Alpha Centauri system.  

Prior to liftoff, a scheming psychologist named Dr. Zachary Smith reprogrammed the mission's B-9 robot to destroy the ship and crew. When he's accidentally trapped inside upon launch, his added weight and the robot's rampage cause the craft to veer into an asteroid field which prematurely switches on the hyperdrive. 

Related: Could humanity fly to Alpha Centauri like in 'Lost in Space'?

The cast of Irwin Allen's original Lost in Space. (Image credit: CBS/Paramount)

This cascade of malfunctions begins their interstellar survival journey when the crew crash lands on the planet Priplanus before settling into regular encounters on strange worlds and meeting cheesy aliens (I see you, Carrot Man!) in a standard "planet of the week" formula towards later seasons. With theme music composed by the great John Williams, Allen's campy "Lost in Space" series ran for 83 episodes over the course of three seasons on the CBS Network from 1965-1968.

Three decades after going off the air, the first big screen film adaptation of "Lost in Space" came 25 years ago when New Line Cinema released its clumsy $80 million spectacle on April 3, 1998. Directed by British filmmaker Steven Hopkins ("The Ghost and the Darkness," "Predator 2") and starring William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Matt LeBlanc, Gary Oldman, Heather Graham, Lacey Chabert, Jack Johnson and Jared Harris, "Lost in Space" totally misses the mark around every turn.

Casting for this family-friendly film is an odd mix of ‘90s-era actors and a pair of unknown kids that feels strangely out of place aboard the wandering Jupiter 2 spaceship. It was not exactly successful at the American box office, pulling in only $69 million by the end of its state-wide theatrical run.

There are several fun callbacks to the original series, like actor Dick Tufeld returning to voice the revamped version of the B-9 robot, and a terribly-rendered CGI monkey-lizard alien as a nod to the rabbit-eared chimp named Debbie in the '60s show. Many of the original "Lost in Space" cast members do make surprise cameos as well, including June Lockhart, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen, and Mark Goddard.

Lacey Chabert as Penny Robinson in Lost in Space. (Image credit: New Line Cinema)

But by far the most grating character is Lacey Chabert's bratty teenager Penny Robinson, who delivers lines in a hellaciously-annoying cartoon-pitched voice akin to steel talons scraped across a pebbled chalkboard. Her hyperactive antics and endless "Penny Vision" blog recordings make for a repellant performance that would have been better played with a scaled-back measure of naiveté or wit.

The plot follows roughly the same trajectory as the '60s series with the Robinson family off on a colony-seeking trek and this time encountering a derelict craft, nimbly paying tribute to its earlier (and better) sibling, but the translation falters when the original show’s refreshing campiness falls flat in this mediocre '90s makeover. 

Disjointed storyline intrusions include a neglectful father-nerdy son relationship, watered down "Save the Planet" themes, domestic histrionics, space spiders, and tired time travel nonsense. All these added accoutrements to what was a simple family odyssey drag this promising reboot into a predictable, boring narrative black hole reliant upon an overabundance of questionable CGI and tonal inconsistency.

Matt LeBlanc holds The Blarp in 1998's Lost in Space. (Image credit: New Line Cinema)

While the first half of the film shows promise on their journey to Alpha Prime, it eventually degrades into bombastic blandness and corny cliche one-liners deliberately rushed into a patched-together screenplay by Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind," "Batman and Robin"). Sadly, even William Hurt and Mimi Rogers seem lost in a cloud of cringe-inducing dialogue.

Gary Oldman, fresh off his gig as the villainous Zorg in director Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element," does slip into the duplicitous shoes of Dr. Smith to chew the scenery a bit, replacing the legendary thespian Jonathan Harris, and it seems like he's having a swell time in this glossy glorified B-movie … until he’s turned into a crazy hybrid spider monster in the chaotic finale. Jared Harris does his very best as the older Will.

The cast of director Stephen Hopkins' Lost in Space. (Image credit: New Line Cinema)

For mindless video game-like thrills, leave your scientific brain at the door and embrace its hollowness as a perfect example of how Hollywood destroys and corrupts vintage material to create weakly rehashed films for modern audiences. 

Kudos do go out to production designer Norman Garwood and visual effects supervisor Angus Bickerton for their superb work trying to elevate the production.

"Lost in Space" is a cautionary tale wrapped up in a silly sci-fi flick borrowing from a cherished TV series that’s best watched as a harmless diversion. Any hopes of it ever blossoming into a hit franchise quickly evaporated after its underwhelming box office tally and unkind critical reviews. Old favorites should often remain sacred territory not to be meddled with. Therein lies the real danger, Will Robinson!

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.

  • Mergatroid
    Personally, I liked this movie and I don't think it's any more "off course" than the recent remake on Netflix was.
    At least it didn't gender swap any of the characters.
  • SF Fan
    Agreed. This film was more faithful to the original series than the Netflix reboot and wasn't nearly as ridiculously obnoxious with its social messaging as most modern films are. It was also written better than the original series. Considering that the 1960s television series was mindless adventure, as was typical for an Irwin Allen production, complaining about the film following in these footsteps is silly. You don't go to a film like this expecting a masterpiece like 2001. My only complaint is that the alien Blarp looked overly cartoony. Dressing up a real animal would have worked much better. But this film was a lot of fun.