And here we have it! The first truly, truly terrible movie from Gary Oldman’s oeuvre that I’ve hit this year. When I say this movie is heinous, I’m not joking. Just when you think the cinematic dust has settled (and there’s a lot of literal dust in this movie. Space dust?), just when you start hoping that this hunk of sci-fi flotsam might at least coast to a passable ending, it surprises you by getting even worse.
- Lost in Space’s ranking on the Oldometer: 1/10
- Gary Oldman character quality: Doctor Smith is no compelling or complex villain, but he does have some great lines that harken back to the classic top hat-wearing, cape-flipping scoundrels of yesteryear. What Gary does with this material, though, is stellar and highly entertaining.
- Does Gary die in this one? Strangely, no.
Okay, so let’s preface this by acknowledging that Lost in Space was probably a product of its time. Think back, if you will, to good old 1998. Sure, you may think we’ve reached critical mass lately with our neverending barrage of super heroes and sequels, but you’re forgetting, oh how you’re forgetting, the late 90’s and its concept of blockbuster.
Ah, the late 90’s. The economy was good! There was so much money! CGI was just starting to take over the world and no one could shut up about Titanic, the giant iceberg of a movie that cost a bazilliondy dollars to make and then made back a bazilliondy times ten, clocked in at 30 hours, and took home a bunch of Oscars. Never you mind that the script was garbage and the acting was… well, let’s just say that Kate and Leo have certainly eclipsed their work in that one many times over.
The year 1998 alone gave us Blade, Small Soldiers, Mighty Joe Young, that Godzilla movie with Michael Broderick in it, Rush Hour, and, the mother of them all, Armageddon. And most of those movies DID WELL. That’s just what you’d find in the cinema around that time: big, loud, and dumb (and LONG. so, so long). Thus, it was probably assumed that Lost In Space, a kind-of reboot of the classic TV show about a family named Robinson who find themselves, you know, lost in space (thanks to that meddling Dr. Smith), would do really well, what with its mix of noisy incoherence and family-friendliness and all.
I could go on and on for ages about how bad this movie is. Watching it is like crashing through floor after floor ala a Looney Tunes character, where each level is flimsier than its predecessor. For you, I will try to be brief with my complaints.
- Production Value: For a movie with unlimited possibilities– IT’S CALLED LOST IN SPACE, YOU FOOLS– the style of the movie is unreasonably dingy and dull. Did this not cost millions to make? At least Tim Burton soaks his indulgent, overpriced make-up fests in a crazy palette. Come to think of it, Tim Burton could have made this movie 10 times more fun.
- The Script. THE PLOT. THE STORY. THE DIALOGUE. SOMEONE WROTE THIS SCRIPT AND SOMEONE GREENLIT IT AND SOMEONE SAID IT WAS OKAY TO SHOW TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC.
The grand finale of this movie involves the lifeless, listless, formerly “too busy for his kids” William Hurt learning the value of family time and defeating the future version of Dr. Smith who has turned into a giant Spider-being. He then saves the future version of his son (played by JARED HARRIS, FYI), who never really seems surprised to see his blast-from-the-past dad, and never stops extrapolating about the time machine that he apparently invented.
Then there’s a wormhole, and a giant bubble, a pet monkey-alien, an army of asexually produced baby spiders turning on their host, and gosh-darn it, if I can’t explain it to you after just watching it then I have NO IDEA how those screenwriters made it through their pitch meeting.
- The CGI in general.
Wait, stop everything, I really need you to look at the Robinson family pet:
- The casting: What on earth.
No one– NO ONE– loved Friends as much as I did/do, but this movie’s attempt to make Joey Tribbiani an action star, especially after us fans had seen how well sci-fi worked out for Joey with Mac & Cheese, was such a fundamentally bad idea. ALL I CAN SEE IS JOEY PLAYING A SPACE PILOT. In the words of Chandler Bing: “TOO MANY JOKES. Must… mock… Joey!”
Heather Graham is very cute, but she has never been able to act. The other Robinson girl, whom you may know as Gretchen Weiners in Mean Girls, is okay, but her role of Gen X-y whiny daughter, meant to represent all of us boy-crazy teenage girls with frosty hair who thought we were pretty hardcore, is nails on the chalkboard of my soul.
The Robinson boy is tolerable. Could have been worse, for a sandy-haired, robot-loving kid in outer space. Mimi Rogers is actually trying to give a decent performance here, but Mrs. Robinson is a thankless role, and she’s just not very memorable.
William Hurt is the chief offender, reminding me a good deal of Tommy Lee Jones and his hardcore phone-in from another movie I saw this year. Hurt can be great (see: his five-whatever minutes in A History of Violence), but here he is giving planks of wood and Keanu Reeveses everywhere a bad name. He is SO wrong for this movie, he has NO charisma, and he is barely lifting a finger to try.
You know who IS trying here, though? Gary Oldman. Gary Oldman is trying.
As you may be able to tell by now, I may be a tad partial. Maybe I just like watching Gary do anything (making breakfast? GIVE THE MAN HIS OSCAR. Quoting Shakespeare whilst emerging from a paper bag? WHERE IS HIS EMMY). Still, after watching this sideshow of lame and seeing him revel in how much fun he was apparently having playing a terribly one-note space villain who would totally twirl a mustache if he had one (it’s more of a thin goatee), I can safely say he is 100% the best part of this whole thing.
Granted, that wouldn’t be saying much given the ruins that surround him, but seriously, especially in scenes that find him alongside Hurt or Joey, we see him not only actually expending energy on his role as the scheming Dr. Smith but also glee. Gary Oldman is happy to be here. Gary Oldman is happy to turn up his nose and say sneering lines like “I DESPISE children” and a glowering “Evil knows evil.”
I don’t normally want to include video clips on this blog, but for this, I must make an exception, just so you too can experience how great this performance actually is:
I could watch that all day.
A knowing, lively performance of this caliber in a movie of this… quality, shall we say, instantly brought to mind the work of two of my favorite character actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood: George Sanders and Vincent Price.
Both Sanders and Price are chiefly remembered for playing their respective brands of villains in long lines of legendarily bad movies, despite their memorable appearances in high-quality pictures (Sanders won an Academy Award for his work in All About Eve and Price was in Laura, among other things). I could go on ad infinitum about these two, but I’ll cut to the chase and say that the majority of the films that Sanders and Price appeared in were not technically good, but, generally, their charisma was often the main attraction of whatever silliness they were a part of. Sanders and Price each had a special presence; the kind of joyful bad guys you loved to hate because they were so much fun.
At least, Sanders was fun to a point. As his career continued on the “downslide” in the last decade of his life, it became clear that the curmudgeon he played onscreen was real, and his appearances became sort of sad to see (of note: his role in a Sonny & Cher project where his “Old Hollywood” Guy vibe clashes miserably with… everything else).
Sanders wound up killing himself. He stated in his suicide note that he chose to leave this world because he was “bored”, but if you research his life only slightly it becomes clear that there were other reasons– he had lost the home that he loved, his string of romances had fizzled out, he had grown old, and acting, the only thing he felt he was any good at, had turned into what he had feared: a joke.
Sanders never felt that acting was any kind of respectful profession, so he was always a bit ashamed of it and therefore only too aware when his roles dried up. He had placed too much emphasis on his work, and once this work was what he viewed to be useless, it only nudged him towards depression and eventually suicide.
But then you have Vincent Price. Did anyone have more fun being bad than Vincent Price?! Probably not. It would seem that he started off with a leading man trajectory and then somehow stumbled into playing that classic mustachioed villain, first in big Hollywood pictures and then for Roger Corman, the king of low-budget movies in the 60’s.
Cackling evilly and saying sinister things with a dash of wit was signature Price, and he liked it that way. I’m sure he enjoyed being able to turn a profit, but he also legitimately relished the material, as you can plainly see in his goofy, exaggerated Edgar Allan Poe characters in the B-movies that he is now predominantly known for (most of these were produced in a week’s time, so I don’t know what Lost In Space‘s excuse is). He even played Egghead in the Batman TV show (the height of small screen cheese), and, reportedly, he delighted in every second of it, even though he knew full well that it wasn’t high art he was making.
It was this kind of fun that built Price’s legacy, something he was rewarded for when the 80’s rolled around and Michael Jackson wanted his help with “Thriller”, Tim Burton (aha, there he is again) pursued Price as narrator and muse for his short film Vincent (and later the inventor in Burton’s best movie, Edward Scissorhands), and the most underrated Disney movie of all time (according to me), The Great Mouse Detective, used Price’s vocal performance as Ratigan, another baddie, to fine effect.
The difference between Vincent Price and George Sanders is that Price’s ability to take his work lightly allowed him to enjoy what he did, even when when his projects were terrible, and that sense of fun even served to elevate the otherwise lackluster material he appeared in.
I read something ages ago that his daughter wrote about him on this subject; a commentary about how Price was able to skip through the film work he did because, to him, it was just a small part of his life. He had interests other than acting; he was a noted art fanatic with a massive collection of pieces, he was a gourmet cook and even released a cookbook, and, despite some rocky marriages, he had a happy home life with his family. To him, playing Egghead was just playing Egghead– a good time with some nice money to boot.
I think about those two actors from time to time when I think about the weight we attach to the concept of career, and the inability that so many of us have when it comes to making peace with that concept. Don’t get me wrong– for me, an engaging, challenging career that makes room for growth and continuous quality work sounds wonderful, and we should all strive for our very best as the work that we produce does speak to what our capabilities are (within reason). At the same time, when I hear others speak about how confused or drained or destroyed they are by mistakes made or time spent at their workplace in the name of success and quality, I can’t help but think how consuming that mindset is.
There should be more to life than work, or else when your work is gone what will you have left? If you attach that much significance to you own career, can you ever really enjoy it? I would rather be in Vincent’s camp than George’s.
Though it’s initially bewildering to look at Gary Oldman in Lost In Space and ponder how the mighty have fallen (or occasionally stumbled, I suppose), it’s hard not to give in to how much fun he is to watch (go watch that clip again. YES. Yes. He’s a doctor). Maybe he was in it for the paycheck, but there’s no phoning it in here, nor do you see a dead-eyed, disappointed actor peering back at you from the screen (well, except when they make him a computerized Spider-Being, but I think that’s just the 90’s CGI I’m looking at). He had to know this movie was going to be bad, but man, was he game.
That’s a great lesson from Camp Vincent: love what you do and do it well, even when it’s not Great Art. Just make sure that it’s not all you love.