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Do the Time Warp

Lost in Space is dumb -- but it's a good dumb

Danger, Will Robinson! Sensors detect boomer-TV redux once again. This time the victim is Lost in Space, Irwin Allen's enjoyably absurd sci-fi TV fantasy, which ran from 1965 to 1968 on CBS, before ABC's Batman trounced it in the ratings. Grownups are likely to cringe at the prospect of sitting through this space opera with their kids, but I enjoyed it.

Perhaps that's because I don't feel especially protective toward the source material. If you were a Star Trek fan in the old days, you were supposed to hate Lost in Space for being silly and juvenile, which it certainly was. But it was juvenile on purpose -- it was for kids, after all -- and it often had a fanciful visual charm that Star Trek couldn't claim.

Taking a cue from the best aspects of their source, the makers of the new film have given it a sleek, elegant look. And they've found a tone that makes the actors seem attractively dumb instead of just plain dumb.

Allen took his premise from Johann Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson. In "1997," a white-bread nuclear family of the same name sets off in a roomy space saucer called the Jupiter 2, with the object of finding a new world for the overpopulated earth to colonize.

The scrubbed, virtuous Robinsons -- Mom Maureen and Dad John, grown daughter Judy, young daughter Penny and young son Will -- were dull as space dirt, as was Don West, the handsome pilot provided as a love interest for Judy. But the crafty showman Allen added two wild-card characters to the mix. One was a saboteur turned reluctant stowaway, the craven, prissy Dr. Zachary Smith (gleefully played by Jonathan Harris), whose treacheries had left the Robinsons in the title state. The other was a chatty robot -- called simply "Robot" -- who looked something like an old-fashioned coffee percolator.

As the series progressed, it grew -- to its benefit -- more campy, and Dr. Smith and Robot eventually took center stage. The Robot was an admirable straight man to the elaborate insults of the vain, greedy, goldbricking comic-villain Smith; they made a lovably ludicrous vaudeville team.

But for contemporary audiences, even for kids, camp has been exhausted as a comic mode. A new approach was needed to make the new Lost in Space funny, and the filmmakers found it: They play the material more or less straight. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who penned the pitiful script for last summer's Batman and Robin, redeems himself with his winningly vapid work here. His plot sticks surprisingly close to the arc of the old show's first three episodes -- the gang leaves earth, gets lost, finds and boards a derelict spaceship, gets chased by alien creatures, escapes and crash-lands on an alien planet.

Over this simple adventure yarn, however, Goldsman imposes the story of a family in '90s-style dysfunction. You guessed it, the old man is too wrapped up in this saving-the-world business to pay attention to his kids or come to their science fairs. That's the joke -- putting society's current nuclear family obsession in a futuristic context makes it seem dated, prematurely retro.

Although Goldsman makes a point of slipping in some in-joke references to familiar lines from the old series (and several members of the original cast turn up in small roles), you can't be sure whether you're laughing at the film or with it until a little over halfway through, when Goldsman and director Stephen Hopkins (The Ghost and the Darkness) nudge us with one overt gag, a splendid send-up of another family values TV show. Not that it matters -- Lost in Space is too captivating to worry about whether its tongue is in its cheek on purpose or by accident.

The imagery -- Peter Levy did the cinematography; Norman Garwood designed the superb sets -- is often lovely. The shot of the Jupiter 2 launching in the distance, through an even-more-hazy Houston sky of the future, is exquisite. The space-arachnids that swarm on the derelict ship are icky without being too much for most kids to take. I could have done without the cutesy little chameleon-monkey who becomes the ship mascot; it's obviously just there to be merchandised. But it's not shoved down our throats too hard.

The actors are good sports. The standout, inevitably, is Gary Oldman, paying his lab bill for Nil by Mouth with the role of Dr. Smith. Oldman's version of the character is more Machiavellian, less foolhardy than Harris, but no less brittle and epigrammatic in his line readings. Matt LeBlanc of Friends plays the hunky Don West; suffice to say that all senses of the term "space cadet" apply to him.

Jim Henson's Creature Shop designed the new Robot (though his voice is still that of the stentorian Dick Tufeld), and Goldsman and Hopkins have concocted an ingenious new use for him. In the old show, he was the best friend to young Will, who was, after all, the surrogate for the larger part of the audience. In the new film, Robot is not only a pal -- through virtual control, he becomes Will's alternate body. What kid could resist that?

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