Friday, April 27, 2018

Microreview [TV series]: Lost in Space (2018)

Even the gorgeous visuals can't save this turd.

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Lost in Space (TV series). Netflix, April 2018.

I remember watching Apollo 13 as a child. I wasn’t impressed with the aesthetics, but recall thinking that while the cascade of near-fatal problems seemed a bit forced (at the time I had no idea it was based more or less closely on actual events!), the cast managed to pull it off and save the movie from the dustbin of (audiovisual) history. Sadly, Lost in Space suffers from the exact opposite issue. Watching it in Netflix’s vaunted 4K resolution—with HDR enabled, no less—the visuals are absolutely stunning. But what stunned me even more is how incredibly insipid the narrative was. In honor of this atrocious series, welcome to the first episode of “Can you come up with a better story than a seventh-grader?” (It goes without saying that the writers for this show would spectacularly fail that test!)
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Except the problem in Lost in Space is "bad writing" and there's no escaping it!

First of all, the series suffers greatly due to its pointless “problem of the week” feel in each episode. I will spoil nothing when I say that each episode confronts the Robinsons with a crisis even more gratuitous or improbable than the last one. I think the main failing of the writing is simply that they were (too) obviously starting from the desired end-point (usually some sort of emotional realization, etc.) and then just throwing darts at the wall until they hit upon some convenient problem that forces precisely that end result. I have dubbed this the “crisis ex machina” effect: the perfect problem at just the right time which forces the character(s) to feel their feelings, and attempts (unsuccessfully for this viewer, needless to say !) to push the audience into melodramatic identification with the doggone unfairness of it all—poor Robinsons!

Just one example, sort of spoiler-free or at least spoiler-lite, will suffice to make this point. Once the robot (who despite the show’s gorgeous visuals looks quite ridiculous, as it is all too obviously a guy in a suit for 90% of the shots—shame on you, producers, for cutting corners on such a key visual design!) bonds with Will, the villain must engineer a scenario in which the boy not only initially tries to hide the robot but, after it alternates—in response to his express commands!—between saving and injuring the other humans, forces it to take a long walk off a short pier (all of this, of course, is done in full view of the only nominally hidden villain). Yeah, the robot, an incredibly advanced alien life form, is forced off a cliff by a 12-year old's whim, cause that makes sense. This is so the villain can attempt a reset and thereby get a chance to be the robot’s protectee. Since the writers obviously wanted to milk the melodrama of the shocking tables-have-turned moment when the villain comes out on top, they simply whipped up a bunch of crises, each more absurd than the last, which produce exactly that result. And I thought John Connor was annoying!
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By series' end, you'll want to slap Will Robinson a lot more than John Connor/Eddie Furlong, I can assure you!
The writers also made a halfhearted attempt to circumvent some of the obvious objections their hopelessly contrived story-line might provoke in the minds of viewers. Why don’t their various spacecraft just take off and go back to the mother ship? Apparently the writers had been watching Princess Bride and decided to manufacture a convenient methane-eating critter, seemingly stranding everyone on the planet for good. 
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I.e., "convenient plot device to push us into the next lame crisis"
An alternate source of fuel is found? Don’t worry, the writers find a way to ruin that too, basically by manufacturing a stupid sense of looming crisis via the source’s precarious location plus seismic activity, and then forcing a character to make a one-versus-many decision in the midst of—because why not?—a brand-new threat, steam geysers! Yet another alternative fuel source is located in a later episode? Well, that won’t fill up 45 minutes, so better get some lame-looking bat thingies in there!

The cast is a bit uneven, too. While John and Maureen are well cast and as believable as anything/one else in this amateurish nonsense of a story, others left much to be desired. The villain, partly as a result of casting, was far from intimidating, but more than made up for that shortcoming by being absolutely no fun at all to watch. At times, this villain seemed to start poisonous rumors/hit people in the head just “to watch the world burn”, to quote Alfred, but lacked even the slightest glimmer of the Joker’s manic psychopathy.

But the worst casting choice/performance was definitely Will. In fact, at first, I thought the worst problem with the show was simply the mediocre actor they’d found to play him, because the kid’s performance managed to turn ostensibly the most innocent, likeable character into an infuriating nincompoop with an irritating habit of turning up his chin to look scared, turning up his chin to look brave, turning up his chin and scrunching up his eyes a little to look sad, and so on ad infinitum.
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Look, the kid can also turn his chin up to look surprised/scared!

When the villain gets captured, not only does Will the rapscallion see fit to listen to the villain’s absolutely ridiculous let-me-out ploy, he obligingly frees said villain despite the ploy not even making sense. It can be paraphrased thus: “I know someone who could do that dangerous thing instead of your father, and you really don’t want him to leave you again, do you? Let me out right now (even though your father has literally already left!) and I totally won’t tie you up or anything!” Never have I so thoroughly rooted against the ‘good guy’ in a story before, and I initially blamed it all on the actor. But halfway through, I was forced to reevaluate. It’s the writers who should shoulder the responsibility for this hot mess. Sure, the actor may be unimpressive, but oh, the contrived nonsense they keep writing for him to stumble into—it’s enough to make one scream!

Near the end of the series, Will is in grievous danger with seemingly no hope left, and I suppose the audience was meant to stare helplessly at the screen, desperately wishing for the impossible to happen and for him to be rescued. I hope you, dear reader, won’t think less of me if I admit that I was entirely on the other side, praying fervently that the writers would finally have the courage to kill him off! I trust you won’t consider the series spoiled if I reveal that, to my everlasting sorrow, the annoying Robinson family will be stinking up our TVs with a second season if the cliffhanger ending is any indication. Would that they all hurled themselves off a cliff instead! 
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I was certainly ready to jump by the end...

TL, DR: this series suuuuuuucks. Give it a miss, and go back to the source: Swiss Family Robinson! (The title of the show should never have been Lost in Space, anyway—it should have been Space Family Robinson!)

The Math:

Objective assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +2 for truly breathtaking visual aesthetics in crisp 4K+HDR

Penalties: too many to count, but I’ll try: -1 for Will being such an idiot, -1 for the crisis ex machina nonsense, -1 for absolutely terrible end-focused narrative writing, -1 for reducing Smith (the villain) to a mere poison-tongued rumor starter, etc., etc.

Nerd coefficient: 3/10 “Danger, potential viewer!”

[This score, while abysmal, isn’t quite as low as it might sound, since our scoring method is less bombastic than that of most reviewers; see here for details.]

This message was sent out into the furthest reaches of space by Zhaoyun, reviewer at Nerds of a Feather since 2013 and normally an easy grader for these sorts of projects but a stalwart enemy of sloppy writing any twelve-year-old could easily surpass! Seriously, are any of the writers actually 12?