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Spaced Family Robinson
Sci-Fi Entertainment, June 1998
Cory Doctorow

This was the first time I wrote two articles on the same subject. It's tradiitonal in journalistic circles to do this, recycle a feature by putting a different spin on it and selling it to several markets, but that always felt like cheating to me. Nevertheless, I had a ton of material to work with, and I think it turned out pretty good.


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"The script was sent to me and I said, 'Huh?' Lost in Space? I had no idea what it was, and my Mom was like, 'Oh, that used to be my favorite show!' So I tried watching it, on the Sci-Fi Channel. It was like five in the morning!" So says Lacey Chabert, the fifteen-year-old prodigy who appears as Penny Robinson in the upcoming New Line release, Lost in Space.

Many of us view Lost in Space through the faded Technicolor lenses of nostalgia. It's a piece of us, a piece of our childhoods. It's steeped in the mythic essences of Ovaltine, ray-guns, tin robot toys, double-features and other much-missed fragments of pop-culture detritus. We remember the campy, four-season romp that we accompanied the Space Family Robinson on, as they confronted endless variations on guys in rubber suits.

When New Line set out to make a feature film adaptation of the original series, they envisioned a campy, kitschy thing, following in the path of such successes as The Brady Bunch Movie and The Flintstones. They budgeted over $70 million for the production, making Lost In Space their most expensive film to date. Then they had a long chin-wag with Writer-Producer Akiva Goldsman and Director Stephen Hopkins, who were having none of it. They lobbied for a much starker, weirder film, one that explored the harsh realities of the Dysfunctional Family Robinson. The Studio relented, and on 3 April, 1998, the world will encounter a very different Lost In Space.

Young Will Robinson (Jack Johnson, Love Affair's Matthew) and his sister Penny (Lacey Chabert, Party of Five's Claudia) have grown up virtual orphans, bright kids whose parents' obsession with their work has left them emotionally scarred. Will seeks a father-figure; Penny bitterly lashes out at her crewmates. Their older sister, Judy (Heather Graham, Scream 2's Casey), has a nasty little Electra complex that has her dogging her father's heels. John Robinson (William Hurt, Jane Eyre's Rochester), the obsessed leader of the expidition to locate a suitable planet to replace ailing old Earth, is oblivious to all of this, while his wife Maureen (Mimi Rogers, Austin Powers' Mrs. Kensington), a gifted biochemist and xenobiologist juggles her career with the Herculean labor of trying to glue her fragmented family together.

Added to the mix are Major Don West (Matt LeBlanc, Friends' Joey Tribbiani), the square-jawed, steely eyed pilot who attracts the girlish affections of Penny Robinson while he engages her father in chest-beating dominance-struggles; and, finally, the sinister Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman, The Fifth Element's Zorc) a saboteur-stowaway who diverts the affection of Will while plotting to kill the whole family.

"You know," Chabert says, "people always compare the movie to the show, and the show is campy. It's one of the things I like about the show: it creates its own era, or something. Occasionally, the movie has lines from the show, like 'Never fear, Smith is here!' or 'Danger, Will Robinson!' And so it relates back to the show, but this is more serious, I think."

Says Mimi Rogers, who appears as Maureen Robinson: "When I got the script, I went, 'Oh God, what can this possibly be?' But then I read the script and I was taken aback, because I realized that it's really good. It's very well-written and it's not cheese -- it's real people, complex characters, definite human emotional issues we can hang our hats on.

"It's not at all a campy movie. It's a very serious approach to that premise -- there's a lot of wit and humor in it, but this isn't satirical, it's not retro, it's not campy. There's no archness in the tone -- there are a few winks and a few references to the original show, but this is a real spiffy, straightforward action-adventure. There's a lot of humor in the script, but it's not plastic humor."

In sum, this ain't your mother's Lost in Space.

Chabert ponders Penny's role in the family: "Penny is the rebel. She's a complete rebel, she wants nothing to do with the mission. What I liked about it was, it came from a different place from just wanting to be separated from her parents. She's actually trying to call out to them. They're practically ghosts, they're so involved with the mission.

"Inside, though, she's just a young girl: vulnerable, scared at times. She puts up a brave facade, because she doesn't anyone to see what she's feeling -- she protects her character.

"At the same time, the family is falling apart. It takes them millions of miles of travel across the galaxy just to have dinner together!"

From Mimi Rogers' point-of-view, it's all about steadiness: "Maureen is the emotional point of stability for the family. She's a woman who's juggling being a wife, being a mother and being a full-time mega-scientist. I think she's very aware of what's going on within the family and the fact that John is so involved with this mission that he's losing touch with his children. Her goal is to keep everything together, keep John in touch with his children.

"Akiva [Goldsman, Writer-Producer] did something really clever. The original premise of Lost in Space is really quite fascinating, if you think about it: a family going into space on a mission to save the planet -- there's a kind of Swiss Family Robinson aspect to it. He took that premise and gave is a very high-tech, straight-on approach. The original series had its own charm, and the campiness and silliness of all that worked, but it's a premise that's certainly worth the kind of treatment that we're giving it."

In fact, the TV series grew out of a Gold Key comic called Space Family Robinson. When producer Irwin Allen adapted it for TV, he had to retitle it Lost In Space to avoid confusion with the recent Disney live-action film, The Swiss Family Robinson. The series ran from 1965 to 1968, when Allen moved on to other projects, with the Robinsons still far from home.

And while Lost In Space, the movie, leaves the family stranded, the Studio hopes to inch them homeward in a new cartoon series, a rumored live-action TV show, and a string of hoped-for sequels.

"We don't really have a choice about appearing in sequels," Rogers admits. "They own us. It's something we all agreed to, and we are all signed on for sequels, should they decide to do them."

When asked about the "Gilligan's Island Syndrome," where every episode ends with the castaways back where they started, Rogers responds, "We'll do it the way the Star Trek film series been successful: each film will be an adventure. We don't want them to get home too soon, not while we have other stories to tell. We'll always have an interesting story, an interesting adventure. We'll be watching the evolution of the family -- the children will be getting older. It's not like Gilligan's Island -- we won't be doing 40 or 50 films!

"It'll be interesting to find out if the story's as interesting once the kids are adults. Clearly, though, with Jack Johnson and Lacey, we've got a few years to go before they're adults. We can watch Penny's ongoing adolescence, and watch Will enter adolescence. It should be very interesting."

Chabert is enthusiastic: "I'd absolutely be interested in returning as Penny! I had such a great time doing it, and if the rest of the cast is there, I'd have a wonderful time.

"I think the way the movie ended, it gives a lot of space to do something. You don't exactly know what happens in the end. A lot of stuff could be done, so it wouldn't be exactly the same film. You gotta think, though, how many things can you do in space? But Akiva has a big imagination!"

Akiva, is, in fact, the only real doubter: "I wish the Studio wouldn't talk about sequels, quite frankly. Let's get one under our belts, see if people like it, and go forward from there. If people want more, we'll make more, but I think it's presumptuous to say, 'Yeah, man, we'll do nine of 'em!'"

The original merchandise for the Lost in Space series has been highly collectible for years, as middle-aged boomers strive to recapture a piece of their childhoods by way of their wallets.

New Line, under whose rubric the Mortal Kombat films are released, is no stranger to tie-ins, has licensed extensive collectible lines to complement the movie. From collectible cards to action figures to toys sets to pinball games to the aforementioned cartoon series, the Studio plans to make back a large part of its sizable investment though tchtochkes of all description.

"I just had the biggest disappointment," Chabert recounts. "I went into a Toys R Us and looked at the packages, and I don't think I'm an action-figure! Isn't that incredibly disappointing? I have no idea why there wouldn't be a Penny action-figure! She doesn't have a gun; they didn't give me a gun. Maybe that's it, like, discrimination. I'm gonna have to talk to them about that."

"Maureen did have a gun," says Rogers. "But I don't know if she got an action-figure. I think being an action-figure would be pretty amusing, actually. I have a three-year-old daughter and I know that she would get a big kick out of it.

"I've seen artwork for the backboard of a pinball machine -- I must say I'm pretty excited about that! I plan on getting one, though whether or not they'll give me one remains to be seen.

"I'd love to see a Lost In Space lunchbox, because I think it would be hilarious for my three-year-old daughter to take one off to pre-school with her. They sent me over some promotional posters and she promptly took one of them which she has been dragging around the house with her. She thinks it's cool, you know? 'There's Mom, there's Matt, there's Lacey!'"

I spoke to Goldsman as he was unboxing a "Battle-Ravaged Robot" toy. "It looks look!" he says. "It says, 'Try Me! Movie Sounds!'" Upon hearing the bleeping sounds it made, he confides, "OK, those sounds are not in the movie."

While Goldsman is an old hand when it comes to special-effects films, having worked on several Batman movies, it was a novel experience for Chabert and Rogers.

"I think one of the hardest things to prepare for, coming off of Party of Five were the effects. I never had to deal with them before, you know?" confesses Chabert. "Penny has this Blarp, this, like, lizard-monkey thing that she deals with, and half the time it wasn't there while we were filming! So it'd be chasing after me, or attacking me, and nothing was there! How do you see an actor who's not present?

"I had to find something that can make it real, you know? It wasn't there, so I had to find something to pretend that it was, so when they added it in the computer, it didn't look like I was talking to the air. So I sat and thought about it for a while, and I asked myself, 'What can I think of?' I remembered when I was five years old, I had this imaginary friend: Herman. I don't know where he came from, but I thought Herman lived inside of me. And so I said, 'That's it! The monkey has got to be Herman!' It's a crazy story, but you have to go in there and completely tune everything out and just live your imagination.

"One time, we were working on the outside of the Jupiter 2, the spaceship, and we were in harnesses, so we were like, 30' in the air, in harnesses, like we were flying. I had to come down really, really fast, head-first. That was something different! You don't get to do that on Party of Five every day! It was very, very fun, like being in the circus!"

For Rogers, the experience was just as exciting. "It was fascinating. It was my first time on a big special-effects film. The most interesting this is how much you're required to use your imagination, because so much of the time what you're reacting to doesn't exist, it's not there. You really have to be creative in imagining it for yourself, making it real for yourself."

One of the most celebrated effects is the killer robot that Jim Henson's Creature Shop in the UK built. Weighing in at 1.5 tons, it was capable of a healthy clip of 15 mph, and its handlers found that they had to slow down its movements to give them a margin of safety on its kill-switches.

"It was pretty exciting being on set with the robot," says Rogers. "When he felt like working. He was a little temperamental! He'd work for a take and then we'd wait five hours while something got fixed. It's a very complex piece of robotic machinery and it's a given that there'd be technical glitches. It's something we all learned to deal with."

There was a lot of dealing to be done: Lost In Space has some 650 effects shots -- more than twice as many as Jurassic Park.

W.C. Fields once opined that one should never work with children or animals. Fortunately, the makers of Lost In Space chose to ignore Fields's advice. In fact, Chabert found herself with an embarrassment of willing mentors, to her delight.

"Stephen [Hopkins, Director] was so, so creative! Oh, I loved working with Stephen! Every day, it was, like, 'What can we do to make your character more interesting? What can we do to add another layer to the character?' It was a totally fun, creative process! I'd never played a character anything like Penny, so it was digging in a place where I'd never got to dig before. Like, why is she a rebel? Why is she rebelling against her parents so much? And coming up with, 'Well, she's actually hurting inside because they really aren't paying attention to her.' And that fact that she has a crush on Don West [Matt LeBlanc], so when she's around Don West, she tries to be funny and sexy and flirtatious. Whoever she's around, she tried to adapt to what they think they'd want her to be. When she's around Judy [Heather Graham], she has to act very responsible, because she wants to adopt the lizard-monkey. She has to be more doctor-like, like her older sister. She's kind of like a chameleon."

"I had a great time working with Jack and Lacey," Rogers recalls. "Working with Lacey is kind of like not working with a kid because she's so smart and she's so together. We had a lot of scenes together and we really bonded. I was sort of her 'devil-mom,' teasing her and getting her into trouble. Jack is also incredibly bright and very down-to-earth and very professional. Working with them was very easy.

"Lacey's incredibly ticklish! A lot of times we had scenes where we stood close to one another. It got to a point where whether she was on-camera or off-camera, I could just threaten her with a finger and she'd start to lose it, and I'd say 'Lacey, come on, this is supposed to be serious!' She'd glare at me, and I'd laugh."

For Goldsman and Rogers, working on sci-fi entertainment is covering familiar ground. Both are lifelong science-fiction readers, citing Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and Van Vogt as early influences. Rogers is a self-confessed "die-hard Trekkie."

For Chabert, it's an introduction to the genre. "I wasn't a science-fiction fan before this film, but after reading the script and getting involved with it, it's definitely intriguing. You know, I never thought about doing a science-fiction film. But I've always wondered. . . You know, I wonder about stuff a lot, just looking at the stars and the sky. It's weird. I was driving home from work the other day, and I could see the moon, and it was a crescent, and it made me think, you know, if you can see that, and it's that big and that far away, you know, then what about all the little tiny things, and the things that we can't see? I think there's a lot to be discovered out there."

When posed with another science-fiction idea, the notion of a Party of Five movie in 20 years, Chabert is momentarily floored. "A Party of Five movie? Oh, my God!

"Will I do a cameo? Oh, gosh, no way!" she laughs. "No! Party of Five in 20 years? Wow! No!"

She considers for a moment, then adds, "Well, I would. I would. It would be fun to see everyone that long down the road. Still, I don't know. . ."

The original cast of Lost In Space apparently came around to the same conclusion. All but two of the living members appear in the film -- the two exceptions, Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith) and Bill Mumy (Will Robinson) cite personal reasons for not appearing, and are, according to Goldsman, "very supportive of the film."

Lost in Space opens April 3, 1998 in the USA and is tentatively scheduled for July 31, 1998 in the UK. Web sites to promote the film are at http://www.dangerwillrobinson.com and http://www.lostinspace.com.

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