MOVIE REVIEWS (2014): S. Hopkin’s (1998) Lost in Space

26 April 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

Mother of God.[1]

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to watch more movies more promiscuously. Toward this end, each weekend, my partner and I each get to pick a movie, and neither of us have any veto power (so far!) over the choices. I’ve decided to reply, like I reply to books, to the movies chosen.

A Reply To: S. Hopkin’s (1998)[2] Lost in Space

Shame on you (again) Akiva Goldsman!

I can really find little reason to say much more than that about the movie itself. The shit storm of stupidities in this mess baffles the mind that anyone allowed it to exist, and I think first of all how tragic this seems for all of the at least passable screenplay writers out there that because of Goldsman’s connections he gets allowed to waste everyone’s time with his more-than-insulting nonsense (and not just in this film, mind you).

The pleasure of seeing the often exquisite William Hurt alchemicalize the shit of this nonsense into transitory gold does not make the movie worth watching. Neither does the open contempt Gary Oldman radiates continuously in every scene he appears opposite of Matt LeBlanc.[3]

In my reply to A. Cuarón’s (2013)[4] Gravity (see here), I waxed indignant about Bullock’s line “I hate space,” because (1) the movie utterly fails to deploy anything vaguely resembling the actualities of space itself in that movie, and (2) to the extent that our survival as a species most likely requires us to get off of our egg-rock, then “hating space” offers a narrative that discourages thinking or effort in that direction.

One may call this a failure to utilize the science fiction genre in an intelligent and hopeful way.

But this movie ups the ante on the inanity of “space” as a science fiction metaphor exponentially. The mixture of kitsch, heap sentimentality, and unmotivated anything makes the viewing experience continually irking. The movie can’t even get credits (as a genre) right: resorting as it does to repeating most of movie’s stupidest one-liners (e.g., “Looks like this cold war just got hotter”; “a million dollar’s worth of high-tech weapons, and what I wouldn’t give for a can of Raid”; “That’s one cold fish I’d like to thaw” to give only three examples)[5] over slickly moving images and constipated hard-rock. Clearly, someone thought this “cool” and if I could forget all of the underpaid, far-superior writers in the world who have to go hungry because Goldsman gets to squeeze out this shit, then instead of dudgeon at the this ghastly spectacle I would feel pity at the unconscious humiliation for all involved it displays.

(Attempted) blockbusters typically substitute spectacle for substance. In a complicated case, like Cameron’s (2010)[6] Avatar, it seems worthwhile to wonder about the “dialogue” of spectacle and story, but here (as also in Gravity), the will-to-spectacle takes over to a neurotic degree. We can take heart that the screenwriter here when called upon to write Howard’s (2001)[7] A Beautiful Mind got kept in check by the book he adapted (if not the production team) and so that this inhibited any itchy impulse on his part to liven things up by blowing up the mathematician’s house in an alien invasion or simply having an earthquake swallow West Windsor Township whole.

The failure does not belong only to the screenwriter of course; for all auteurs insist otherwise, film requires an implicitly collaborative effort. Of course, this makes it seem all the more baffling that collectively no one could put a stop to this, but when one posits an insular enough world, things can get crazy. One suspects daily life at Neverland exhibited this, but anywhere where privilege goes especially unchecked can this come about. George Lucas’ addle-brained tinkering with his “trilogy” makes for a sad case in point.

A lazy search of the Internet doesn’t turn up for me the British politician who gets generally credited nowadays of coining the phrase “cock-up not conspiracy,” which one finds all over the Internet now (thus making the search for the original difficult). The underlying point: for all the cases where it seems a conspiracy occurred (e.g., 9/11), we will find a far more likely explanation in simply human error. Thus, 9/11 occurred through negligence not any deliberate “called shot”.

You may read a useful counterargument against the “cock-up not conspiracy” notion here. Politically, one holds those guilty of cock-up guilty but not of malice aforethought, whereas conspirators stand as both guilty and malicious. Thus, any discovered conspiracy may call itself a cock-up.[8] We must be cautious about false equivalencies here, because the plausible deniability that powers try to invoke poses more of a problem than any rampant or paranoid misinformation sloshing around in the sewers of the Internet or the public imagination.

This gets entirely cosy with Power, as any white person knows who finds themselves on the hard end of the privilege stick. Immediately, and often veering very quickly toward self-pity, the imputation of being a beneficiary of white supremacist culture makes people want to cry innocence, i.e., “cock-up” at the very worst, and certainly no (conspiratorial) malice.

Clearly, an underlying problem here involves the false dichotomy of cock-up or conspiracy, and my point here doesn’t aim to attempt to offer an alternative. Simply to point out the false dichotomy already helps things by de-framing the needless (or false) framing in the first place. And does that framing exist as a matter of malicious forethought—the conspiratorial blandishment of Power’s discourse—or “simply” an unfortunate consequence (a cock-up) of that discourse.


Nonetheless, recognising the false dichotomy, we can still try to understand how an imploded poop-storm like Lost in Space comes to fruition. Cock-up or conspiracy, so to speak? Because this involves a cultural offering and not a piece of terrorism (like 9/11)—though it might prove useful to interpret 9/11 as a cultural offering and Lost in Space as a piece of terrorism—there seems less at stake. For everyone involved, to admit conspiracy has more human dignity—we set out to make a shameless piece of glitzy dreck, knowing that the public would snap it up—and just that happened, at least in the first week. Of course, at this point, it has a Metacritic rating of 42%, we don’t care. One could couch this language slightly less brashly: we set out to make a glitzy action movie, and succeeded, &c. The cheese occurs as part of the fun! &c.

This, because what stays in play (and at stake) in a cock-up involves toppling the negligent. In a cock-up, the system works fine, but select individuals dropped the ball. We will remove them, and all will return to rosiness. A conspiracy, at least in its Power guise, represents an unacknowledged truth of the system, that the system “desires” and “enables” it. 9/11 didn’t happen because an errant few “hijacked democracy” one fateful day. Rather, the pretty lie of US democracy showed its true face (or one of its true faces) for a moment. When the same thing happens outside of the corridors of Power, the Power gleefully calls it terrorism (or crime) and treats the offenders as criminals, &c. Rarely does one have to fire up a conspiracy theory for that—rather, the fact that US journalism refuses to call hard-right domestic terrorism “terrorism” invokes something more like a “need” for a conspiracy theory.

Or does that represent just a cock-up?

A conspiracy has the dignity of human wilfulness. A group sets out to accomplish something, and however it turns out, that will-to-act has more dignity than the “fool” or “negligent fool” in a cock-up whose incompetence (or at best, bad luck) resulted in a mess. Unworthy of events, we might feel pity for the luckless sod when not dudgeon over such pathetic incompetence, but either way: the twit has to go. With conspirators, even if of the malicious sort, our cries for blood at least accord and dignify the wrongdoers with a modicum of respect. We recognise a kind of audacity in it that remains trick not to get impressed by, or mesmerised by, or captivated by, or whatnot. It rates our attention or, worse, ends up rating the attention of everyone else, and now we have to deal with it as well.

So a cock-up in the production of a cultural object may more often seem like a dishearteningly pathetic affair—as David Lynch’s mewling retreat from his (1984)[9] Dune makes clear. As an excuse, it works fine “within the industry” in terms of not scuttling the possibilities for your future work, but in terms of public relations, it marks a piece of bad faith that a pretension of conspiracy better offers.

Okay, but this only colours how the cock-up/conspiracy dichotomy functions as a strategy for excusing disasters after the fact (on the part of those responsible for the disaster). One fires up the spin machine to make the mess pathetic (and thus forgivable) or malicious (and thus at least audacious if nothing else). How anyone, as a part of the movie-going public who aspires to frame culture toward more socially just ends, can “field” or interpret this sort of train wreck spectacle remains a question.

Does it seem more advantageous to describe the people of Lost in Space (or some layer of the people) as something more sinister than merely venal capitalists? Can we say that they deliberately earmarked certain available resources (financial, human, creative) in order to bottleneck, hoard, and waste those resources, making them unavailable to anyone else? Or does the fact of that hoarding, bottlenecking, and wasting merely follow as a consequence of the neoliberal capitalist milieu that it occurs in? Or do we simply feel pity for these fools or negligent fools, handed all these resources now delusively squandered?

An economist once remarked to me, “Money is never wasted.” By which he meant, money spent does change hands. We might object to how the money got spent, but to speak of waste in the sense that nothing came of the exchange or it turned into unusable garbage does not follow. So my objection that the resources were squandered does not ignore that a movie got made and all of the people in the credits received money for doing it. The self-pitying argument of neoliberal capitalism as well insists that if it did not create the occasion and circumstance of various enterprises, then people would not enjoy the standard of living that they do. It remains perfectly fair and reasonable to ask of that claim, “But at what cost?”

Because a film like Lost in Space represents a capitalist venture in the first place, it perforce participates in the psychopathic character of corporations and thus becomes undeserving of our pity. Because to feel pity for the cock-up of the thing politically licenses the psychopathology that underlies the (neurotic or narcissistic) production of this kind of cultural offering in the first place. We might necessarily feel embarrassment for the people involved (actors and the like) and to take a moral high road of dudgeon—a sort of laughing-all-the-way-to-the-gutter-not-the-bank attitude of disgust over the spectacle) serves just as much to politically neutralise forces as pity, as cock-up.

For want of something more intelligent, one could call this an unconscious conspiracy—a conspiracy in the sense that it involves actors on the wrong side of history, unconscious in the sense that part of their agency gets corrupted by the forces at play. However, at the end of the day, no matter how much a person howls about necessity on Death Row, still nothing truly forces the executioner to throw the switch. He could walk away—he’d just rather murder someone to feed his family. And the production team for Lost in Space would sooner throw hundreds of switches rather than do the right thing as well, on similar grounds.

The simplification that reifying this process into an “it” seems less problematic than some sort of anal-retentive attempt to characterise distributed Power in a Foucaldian sense. This distributed Power simply passes the buck around, like a network token, without ever really stopping anywhere, and that dizzying confusion serves well Power as it seeks to go on its merry way unmolested by anything like morals, ethics, or social responsibility.


[1] I quote here Harlan Ellison’s three-word review of the Partridge Family TV series when it first debuted in 1970.

[2] New Line Cinema Corporation., Oldman, G., Hurt, W., LeBlanc, M., Rogers, M., Graham, H., Chabert, L., Johnson, J., Hopkins, S., Goldsman, A., Prelude Pictures., & Irwin Allen Productions. (1998). Lost in space. Letterboxed, widescreen version. [S.l.]: New Line Home Video.

[3] When LeBlanc’s character gets to slam a fist into the face of Oldman’s character and declare, “That felt good,” this marks perhaps the only moment of authentic truth that LeBlanc manages (and not because he’s acting).

[4] Warner Bros. Pictures (1969- )., Cuarón, A., Cuarón, J., Heyman, D., Bullock, S., Clooney, G., Harris, E., Esperanto Films (Firm)., Heyday Films., & Warner Home Video (Firm). (2014). Gravity. Rental [edition]. Burbank, CA.

[5] Sadly, or honestly, on the IMDB page for this movie, no one includes any of the worst stinkers from the film.

[6] Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation., Cameron, J., Landau, J., Fiore, M., Wilson, C., Kalogridis, L., Worthington, S., Saldana, Z., Lang, S., Rodriguez, M., Ribisi, G., Moore, J. D., Pounder, C. C. H., Studi, W., Alonso, L., Weaver, S., Carter, R., Stromberg, R., Rivkin, S. E., Refoua, J., Rubeo, M., Scott, D. L. 1., Horner, J., Dune Entertainment., Ingenious Film Partners (Firm)., Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, I., & Lightstorm Entertainment (Firm). (2010). Avatar. Widescreen. Beverly Hills, CA.: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

[7] Universal Pictures (Firm)., Grazer, B., Howard, R., Goldsman, A., Crowe, R., Harris, E., Connelly, J., Bettany, P., Goldberg, A., Hirsch, J., Lucas, J., Rapp, A., Plummer, C., Deakins, R. A., Guerra, R., Thomas, W. P., Nasar, S., Dreamworks Pictures., & Imagine Entertainment (Firm). (2002). A beautiful mind. [Widescreen version] ; Awards ed. Universal City, CA: Universal.

[8] However much the “moonbats” go on insisting that cock-ups constitute conspiracies.

[9] Universal Studios Home Entertainment (Firm)., Lynch, D., MacLachlan, K., Madsen, V., Ferrer, J., Smithee, A., & Herbert, F. (2006). Dune. Extended ed. Universal City, CA: Universal Studios Home Entertainment.


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