Budget Warps, Cinematic Overdrive & Unending Bombast

Lost In Space

published in Real Time No.25, Sydney, 1998

Airheads. Space cadets. Head in the clouds. Off with the birds. Lost in space. Welcome to the film industry. We know nothing about what we do; we only hope that somehow something will work. We believe that as the media we are powerful, but we haven't the faintest idea why that might be the case. We just like to believe we are powerful, and hope you do too. So we make powerful block-buster films about ... well, powerful block-bustery type stuff.

Picture that TV news image of Wall Street. All those GEORGE-reading (or RALPH-reading) wanna-be Tom Cruises, screaming to be heard through the noise of the free market, altering values in a system held together merely by the ruthlessly binary pressures of inflation and deflation. That's how movies get made. Everyone's got the money, everyone's a director, everyone's creative. They're all 'making movies'. Their little ego thrill of being a cog in the machine allows them to believe that they are a prime force in controlling the power of production, just as a blue-shirted drone on Wall Street feels that his pathetic voice is directly controlling the economic forces of the world. Masters of the Universe, one and all.

Audio-visuality reaches critical status under these contemporary conditions. In those 'powerful blockbustery type' films, every moment, every event, every gesture is pressurized to simultaneously contain and release the totality of the film, to express not single values but complete value ranges. Yet despite the highly fragmentary nature of films full of these pressurized incidents and details, a primal fear of the fragment governs the films' production, belying a neurotic reflex to tell everyone everything all the time lest they misunderstand, misconstrue, misapprehend. Stupidity is evident in wanting to tell a story so correctly, so ultimately, that one ends up saying nothing except that one is concerned to tell a good story.

Lost In Space has all the key ingredients for such stupid story-telling. It's based on a TV series - 15 years after it was interesting to make viral references and allusions to the television medium. It fetishizes technology in its representational content and its imagineering - like, as if technology is some sort of big deal in the cinema. It's about outer space - so 'big power' concepts invoking the military and NASSA can be inferred. And it stars a family - for all those people who still haven't resolved things with their parents or (worse) for all those who know no better than to have kids of their own. But my sarcastic comments are not needed. This film degrades and degenerates these pithy humanist, rationalist ideals far more than I could critically achieve. It aptly expresses the chaotic delusions of a film industry that thinks it is powerful, believes it has control, and pays post-dubbed lip-service to whatever social mores currently are deemed worthy of story-telling.

The film opens with your standard pomo textual pretzel which cinema seems incapable of escaping: a representation of army dudes fighting Star Wars via virtual simulation. Reality, realism, depiction and grain confound each other - but this is the typical state of cinema, caught between championing and chastising the mortal struggle between the chemical and the digital. Furthermore, the pretzel effect is normalised to the nth degree, freed of any textual knots through the fetishization of speed. Things might be textually confounding, but they move so fast that everything blurs, blends, blands-out. Thus, Lost In Space's opening Star Wars scene collapses under the force of its own acceleration. 10 minutes of screen time states the same thing at every nano-second (there's some battle going on in outer space), suggesting that the endless options to pan/track/zoom anywhere in the screen void (of outer space and digital space) are ultimately meaningless. The scene could have been 1 minute; it could have been 20 minutes. In the digital realm, you can get anything you want - which means you get ranges without points; options without decisions; stuff without stuffing.

The role of sound design in such a dizzying realm of traumatized semiotics is to further confuse and disorient the auditor. Spatialization accordingly constructs not a 'dimension', but a network of directional impulses: movement is sensed not for dramatic purpose but for pure vertiginous sensation. Yet - and the most intriguing aspect of Lost In Space is the consistency with which it corrupts its own formal logic - there is a clear demarcation between music and noise. That is, between the sound effect of an orchestra streaming out 'film musicy type stuff' (to remind me that I've paid money for a powerful blockbustery type of film) and the gorgeous noise of explosions, detonations and weaponry. The former is locked into a boxed stereo field emanating from the front screen, with occasional lifts off the screen into the surround channels, while the noise effects hang loud and heavy over the audience, mixed strongly into the wider surround field. So, despite the disorientation of what the sound effects are doing and why they are so overloaded and continual along with everything else, they have their own territorial place. Typical of conservative modes of cultural production, chaos and otherness is allowed but accorded its place. Their existence is never a problem (as claimed by taboo theory) - but their place is. Fixity of location is safety. Heroin dealing in streets you never go to is OK. Consistent noise in the surround will eventually grant you sonic equilibrium to filter the noise and concentrate on the frontal dialogue and orchestra.

But I got my money's worth in Lost In Space. For about 8 seconds, the orchestra was mixed solely into the surround channels when the Space Family Robinson realized that they were indeed lost in space. No noise; only some slightly mournful orchestral murmuring to my extreme left and right. Then William Hurt took control of the situation and the family regained hope, and bang: the orchestra hits centre field again. That was worth $3.50. The remaining $1.50 of my 1/2 price Tuesday cinema patronage was for the two explosions which were preceded by some beautiful silence. The spatial and gestural shape of these explosions were erotic and eventful, and reminded me of the sophisticated sound design which has typified Japanese animation for the past two decades. But then I thought of the complex formal, technological, semiotic, audio-visual and spatial logics which energetically swirl throughout series like BLUE SEED, DNA2, ARMITAGE III and NEON GENESIS EVANGELION. And then I realized I was experiencing a fast-flickering version of a Little Golden Book.

The only other sonic character of Lost In Space worth mentioning is its voice-dubbing. Is that really Penny's voice? Or did that stupid cute CGI chipmunk do it for her? And what's with her and Will each talking like a journalist who wants to be a stand-up comedian and mulches advertising-saturated bites from Lenny Bruce, Marshall McCluhan and Oprah into a supposedly knowing take on sitcom dialogue? Don't tell me - you script writers are hip to the fact you're working on a powerful blockbustery type film and you're being really subversive. Uh huh. These kids are mutant simulations of an old fart parent culture who wouldn't know how a kid thinks at the great non-eventful close of the millennium. These actors will be holding up convenience stores for their drug habits ten years from now. Maybe they'll rob the houses of the script writers. Hopefully they'll escape tabloid terror because no one will recognize their real voices from Lost In Space.

Conceptually, this mania for telling everything at once, showing everything at once, sounding everything at once suggests great potential for new spectral materializations of audio visual combines where sounds fuse with images in unimaginable ways. Usually, loud noisy action cinema with an exploitation bent delivers. However Lost In Space is funnelled into a thin stream of humanist pro-family syrup whose potency overpowers all the assaultive pyrotechnics of the film's chaotic narration. It voices the audio-visual noise of production - a mechanical cacophony not of controlled forces, but of wildly unleashed effects and terminally unresolved decisions. It is so dense in its restless networking of fragments it creates a highly compacted veneer of bright, shiny, impenetrable nothingness. Most people recognize this glossy surface as 'entertainment quality' and 'production value'. It's what they want, and they'll get it until they die. Despite the bourgeois banality of adhering to tasteful cinematic decorum, Lost In Space is not vacuous, trashy, inferior, insubstantial, dismissible. It adheres to the Speilbergian/Lucasian mythological ideals both dumb and intelligent people admire so much. It is good, solid family entertainment of the most despicable sort. Unlike true exploitation cinema, it never ventures into those terrains of the pornographic, the horrible, the de-gendered, the abjectly violent, the psychoacoustic or the terro-sonic which would make it an engaging intellectual object. Go to sleep, Will Robinson. There is absolutely no danger whatsoever.

Text © Philip Brophy 1998. Images © New Line Cinema