Technology

Lost in Space Netflix review: Danger, Will Robinson (and fans of rational plots)

(Source: arstechnica.com)

My patience with Netflix’s new Lost in Space reboot ran out at roughly halfway through its first season. The new series’ action, dialogue, and plot had ranged from serviceable to truly solid up to that point, and I found myself largely surprised by this family-friendly take on sci-fi survival television.

But the custodians of this new Lost in Space, whose first ten episodes are now live on Netflix, aim too high. Gone is the obvious wink-to-camera cheese that made the original ’60s show such an embedded piece of the American TV zeitgeist. In its place, we have a serious family drama wrapped up in a hyperspace landing in a distant galaxy. The reboot’s best moments—and it definitely has some good ones—are about its heartfelt characters. The same can be said for the worst ones.

As a result, a single wave of logic- and rationale-breaking moments take down far too much of Lost in Space’s foundation. If that sounds like a dealbreaker to you, then the rest of the show’s solid sci-fi world-building, Lost-like character building, and particularly good teen acting may also fail to keep you engaged beyond that same half-season point.

Smith and worsen

In a not-too-distant future, where bookstores barely exist and pollutants force people to wear gas masks in the streets, an opportunity has arisen for a select group of lucky humans: to get the heck off of Earth and head to a new life on Alpha Centauri. The Robinson family—mom, dad, and three kids—has somehow gotten clearance to board an interstellar voyage, and Lost in Space begins with the family abandoning this voyage earlier than scheduled.

The Robinsons aren’t just any family, we soon learn. John (Toby Stephenson), the dad, is the only dumb one, really, and his military track record has kept him away from his brilliant, science-minded family for far too long. The show’s parents bring their own aggressive-yet-broken approaches to their characters, and they’re fine enough, but the family’s three teens—Will (Maxwell Jenkins), Judy (Taylor Russell), and Penny (Mina Sundwall)—do a far more impressive job of juggling high-brow subjects like humanities and biology while mixing in the frailty, insecurity, and goofiness of average kids.

One pilot-episode sequence in particular cements just how well this show portrays brilliant, terrified kids in high-stakes situations. Oldest sister Judy becomes frozen in a glacial pool, thanks to some crazy circumstances, and while she waits to be freed, her researcher mom Maureen (Molly Parker) has gotten horribly injured. Judy is the acting doctor of the crew, and she’s forced to relay surgical instructions over voice comms to younger sister Penny. This sequence of conversation, instruction, verbal barbs, and crisis plays out masterfully, complete with clever pre-surgery lines like, “This is not mom. This is steak.”

The first few episodes deliver a pretty constant ebb and flow of impossible odds, but more than those, the show generally starts out by focusing on a very Lost-like quality: the humanity that emerges when very different people, who have good reasons for disliking each other, find common ground. Mom and Dad have some obvious beef, while each parent-child relationship and sibling rivalry adds its own bit of spice without leaning too heavily on obvious TV tropes. Add a few mysteries and world-building moments by way of action-punctuating flashbacks to life on Earth, and you have a show that is all the better for shamelessly copying JJ Abrams at his best.

Sadly, that Lost-like quality fades all too quickly as the show spirals to add more cast members and to leave plot threads dangling in the zero-gravity breeze. Parker Posey shows up at the end of the first episode as Dr. Smith—transformed from the original series to become a con artist (with zero schlocky catch phrases). Smith is, by and large, the series’ eye-rolling MacGuffin. When something goes wrong in this series, and it’s not the fault of a breaking spaceship part or a wild change on a new planet’s climate, she is usually the diabolical, unlikable monster driving the tension. The more the series goes along, the harder it becomes to buy into how this character, who clearly suffers from something resembling borderline personality disorder, has scraped by and been given the benefit of the doubt in all of the specific, high-society ways that we’re shown.

That’s certainly not Posey’s fault, who delivers a horror-movie performance that would be chilling if anchored by a better script or clearer logic. But every time the show has an opportunity to give Smith a shade of gray—the same ones that make the Robinson family so relatable and likable—it instead smothers her in a coat of unrealistic paint. And, wouldn’t you know it, a string of moments that should have woken an entire space-colony up to her evil ways goes completely ignored by the series’ entire cast of characters. I’m tempted to spoil the awful moment, just to save you the agony I felt when I bolted out of my chair and paced around my home, fuming about the ridiculous plot holes that had been set into motion.

Family fun?

Which is a shame, because up until that point, Lost In Space got some stuff right that is rare in the realm of TV sci-fi. Its application of low-budget CGI is quite remarkable in selling everything from massive glacial-crashing wide shots and rollicking spaceship action scenes to intimate, color-exploding moments of otherworldly plants and critters. And its robot, unlike the boxy clunker from the ’60s original, has become a shape-shifting, silent-yet-communicative robo-man who looks like a top-notch character from a Halo game. And when the robot and Will eventually bond in a symbiotic, protective manner, their most excited moments are just dorky enough to be relatable for little kids watching without feeling insufferable.

And that’s pretty much the best watching experience I can recommend here. If you want to sit family members down with a minimal-violence, no-cussing sci-fi series that immediately feels inviting, as opposed to other modern sci-fi series that take too long to push forward with relationships and plot momentum, then Lost in Space will pick you and yours up.

Be warned that it will likely fail you as a steward of rational plot and that its occasional snarky barbs come nowhere near the goofy fun that characterized the ’60s original. But as a family-centric, kids-and-parents sci-fi adventure, this Netflix reboot doesn’t really have any modern TV peers. It’s not quite as awesome a shared-family sci-fi series as either Dr. Who or Star Trek: The Next Generation, but there really is something about seeing solid teen actors pull off kids-in-peril sci-fi—and Lost in Space should be commended for at least getting that right.

More Info: arstechnica.com

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