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Lost in Space

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The old Irwin Allen inter-generational staple of after-school TV gets the prestige treatment as Lost in Space comes to Netflix, boasting a bigger budget, flashier effects, a notable cast, and a curiously old-fashioned approach to sci-fi adventure.

The broad strokes of the plot map onto the original reasonably closely: the Robinson family are part of an interstellar colonial effort, but when things go awry they – and a larger number of supporting cast than we’re used to – find themselves sucked through a wormhole and flung across the galaxy, crashing on an alien planet where they must contend with hostile conditions, aggressive critters, and threats both exotic (the series iconic Robot is re-imagined as an alien combat drone that imprints on young Will Robinson) and insidious (Doctor Smith, now played with deliciously evil glee by Parker Posey, is a murderous saboteur).

By largely restricting the action to one alien world, this new Lost in Space hearkens back to the original’s literary antecedent, Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel, The Swiss Family Robinson. By keeping the focus more or less on 11 year old Will (Maxwell Jenkins), it recalls the early young reader work of SF patriarch Robert Heinlein – the sort of freewheeling adventures typified by Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. That’s a good thing; SFTV has been trending darker of late (The Expanse, Star Trek: Discovery, Altered Carbon), and it’s a nice change of pace to have a genre series you might actually be able to watch with your kids.

Indeed, the series falters a little when it recentres the frame on the familial issues of John (Toby Stephens) and Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker), or the more disturbing machinations of the sociopathic Smith; tonally, they don’t jibe with the more innocent adventures of the Robinson kids, who also include medical prodigy Judy (Taylor Russell) and eternal middle kid Penny (Mina Sundwall). Ignacio Serricchio’s Don West tends to fare better, largely because he’s been re-positioned as a bumbling rogue in the Han Solo/Mal Reynolds/Star-Lord mould.

The biggest problem with the new Lost in Space is the tension between these two drives (that and the usual Netflix issue of being a couple episodes too long). Going forward, a commitment to one or the other will be needed and, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, a lighter, less dour approach to the material will probably serve it best. At this stage of the game, Lost in Space is promising; with closer attention to tone it could be a future classic a couple of seasons down the track.

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In a rundown hotel room, a Nebraska farmer, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) writes his confession, telling how “…in 1922, I murdered my wife.”

Adapted from Stephen King’s 2010 novella of the same name, 1922 is a slow burn affair that begins prosaically enough: man of the land Wilfred is proud of his farm and the son, Henry, (Dylan Schmid) he hopes will follow in his footsteps. His wife, Arlette (Molly Parker) longs for life in the big city (ironically, Omaha – not that big at all) and plans to sell some land she has inherited. Slowly but surely, Wilfred’s thoughts turn murderous. He manages to enlist Henry in his cause and before long, Arlette is at the bottom of a well with a slit throat.

And then things start to get really interesting.

Australian writer and director Zak Hilditch (These Final Hours) mounts 1922 as an American Gothic moral fable, heavy on haunting atmosphere and spiced with the occasional bit of graphic violence and gross-out gore. The shadow of Edgar Allan Poe looms large here; indeed, 1922 is very much King’s riff on The Tell-Tale Heart, with Wilfred gradually driven to madness by guilt over his crime – possibly abetted by supernatural means. The other classic of American horror literature the story is indebted to, in a roundabout way, is Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls, for reasons which become apparent when the symbol of Wilfred’s guilt makes itself known in the text. (Also, note son Henry’s full name.)

Structurally, 1922 is a little weak, running along a “…and then this happened” train track inherited from the source material. What carries us through is an absolutely sterling performance from Thomas Jane, who over the last few years has proven himself to be a top notch, nigh-chameleonic character actor (compare his work here with what he does on The Expanse). In lesser hands, the slow-talking, down-home Wilfred could come across as a caricature. With Jane inhabiting his skin, he’s both human and mythic:  an outwardly decent man slaved to his own petty jealousies and insecurities, and something larger, like a dark mirror of Tom Joad, victim to not just his own moral failings but to the forces of modernity itself – it’s Arlene’s longing for a more modern, urban lifestyle that sets things in motion, after all. And so, 1922 is very much an American ghost story, using a deceptively simple – albeit shudder-inducing – tale of murder and guilt to dig into larger myths about the nature of American culture, in particular American masculinity and its failings in the face of change.

Even if you don’t want to dig that deep, the film offers plenty of thrillers for the shock cinema connoisseur. Hilditch has an admirable command of tone and atmosphere, and he’s not afraid to get bloody when circumstances demand it – the central murder is a messy bit of business, and it’s only the first of a number of strong – in every sense – scenes of violence and mutilation.Those shocks never overpower the film’s somber tone, though, which is commendable – it would be easy to rely on the gross-out gags to hold our interest, but 1922 has more interesting things in mind than jump scares. This is a rock solid, astute, effective and thematically rich piece of modern horror cinema, an absolute must for both fans of the genre and fans of simply great films.