Note From the Editor:
Warning: this article definitely contains spoilers. And, half-baked ones at that. Admittedly, I’ve only made it to Episode 7 of LOST IN SPACE. I am happy to prove myself wrong in an update once I finish binging.
This is a stream of consciousness style of review for the 2018 reboot of LOST IN SPACE.
Robinson Family 1965: Wholesome, traditional family. Robinson Family 2018: Mixed family in every sense.
Robinson Power Couple 1965: Paterfamilias that commands, plus a classic housewife. Robinson Power Couple 2018: Broken and complicated marriage literally on the rocks.
Antagonist 1965: Scheming mad scientist. Antagonist 2018: Conniving female imposter.
1965 Technology: Robot .2018 Technology: Robot.
Every other part of this story got a reboot.
A modern, more realistic revamp of a lovable classic. A new, 2018 take on family values and survival. But Robot got left out.
The Netflix Original retelling of 1960’s classic LOST IN SPACE is complete with planets with integration and LOST-style flashbacks. Plus, some cinematic callbacks to Jurassic Park and E.T.
But just like the establishing shot from Jurassic Park that sets the stage on an island called Costa Rica (not an island), LOST IN SPACE got something deflatingly wrong.
First Contact with an alien lifeform is a big deal.
I wasn’t expecting fireworks. Or even lights with 80s synth keyboard sounds.
But I was expecting decency.
First Contact With an Alien AI
Scene: A superior alien predator chases its human prey up a tree.Fast forward: alien robot top half is stuck in the canopy like an outtake of PACIFIC RIM while frantic alien bottom half clunks around helplessly below.
The bonding between Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) and Robot starts here.
Badly damaged. Seemingly confused. Circuits slowing. Lights dimming. Glow fading.
“You’re dying,” Will derps.
Maybe to put it out of its misery in a gesture of mercy, maybe to give it a chance to be whole again, Will pushes robot top half out of tree to the forest floor below.
While the motive is still unclear, this brave push is enough to set the robot straight again. “Reboot” as Will’s father would note in Episode 6.
Memory dump. Tabla Rasa.
Surrounded by fire like he just met Prometheus, Robot’s menacing four arms meld into a more familiar, acceptable humanoid form.
He rises like a mechanical phoenix. Red lights turn to tranquil blue swirling like a galaxy inviting you to explore.
Whatever robot was before, he’s different now. Right there, literally in the State of Nature on the forest floor, Robot comes back online as a blank slate. And just like John Locke asserted that man (read Robot) in his natural state is fundamentally good and uncorrupted, post-reboot Robot seems to have some sort of innate ethical code. An advanced moral imperative, perhaps.
Robot starts to resemble a knight. From here, his futuristic suit calls to mind a knight’s shining armor. Robot dedicates his life in service to the boy who saved him. He listens only to Will, he says only that long-awaited “DANGER WILL ROBINSON”.
The following video clip will start just before you hear the new Robot voice.
This is huge.
This is a moment of First Contact with an alien life form. Additionally, what seems like an advanced cyborg artificial intelligence.
Robot is so advanced he understands human ethics? So advanced he can’t get out of a tree?
That’s beside the point because from here, the humans put the advanced AI cyborg to work.
Robot saves Will’s reckless sister, Judy (Taylor Russell), receives a half-hearted thank you.
Actually, Will curtly commands the robot to provide instant heating, as they are marooned on a frozen planet.
Cut. End episode 1.
First contact. The entirety of human history waiting for it. That one moment.
And we make the alien our manservant.
Every other part of this story got a reboot.
This LOST IN SPACE is a modern, more realistic revamp of a lovable classic. A new, 2018 take on family values and survival.
But the robot got left out. Other than the new look and Melodyne vocals, he’s still just the trusty hound role. Knight in Shining Armor . . . Because He Polishes it Himself.
Personification and humanization of Robot continues with a casual round of catch.
Will teaches Robot how to toss and fetch.
Robot doesn’t stop there. He lends his immense strength to lift up some debris when the ball stops lodged underneath.
He toppled trees as improv bridges when the family needs to cross a well-rehearsed canyon.
Dangerous diamond pelting superstorm? Robot shields you and your parents but you make him ride on the back of the rover once your lift to safety shows up.
“I don’t think he’ll fit,” Will admits disappointedly.
He just saved your genes, you really can’t squeeze in a little?
But I’m making the same mistake. I’m falling for it.
I’m personifying Robot. THE robot.
I’m humanizing him. It.
I’m making assumptions about his feelings. That he even has any.
But, if not for mechanical chivalry or some higher ethical parameters, why would an advanced alien with vague assault priors allow himself to be subjugated by a human family?
Moreover, a borderline dysfunctional human family that behaves like the crew of the most recent Alien series installment?
You make First Contact with an advanced alien AI and you put it to work for you.
Will calls Robot “he” and treats him like a protective stray. Will believes Robot is loyal amid an inkling that he used to be (and could still be) something more.
Robot’s character development just shows how even in 2018, when it comes to how we feel about AI, we just don’t get it. Or, we can’t decide how we feel.
Robot is a Robot is a Robot
“I was hoping your robot could do the work,” complains Penny (Mina Sundwall) the day after Robot saves her entire family.
In a later episode, Will faces a scene with a scary alien beast. “I wish there were an advanced AI cyborg that would sacrifice itself for me,” he thinks.
Literal deus ex machina: Robot appears just when there is no hope in sight. Just when he’s needed most.
Unlike basically every other facet of this 2018 reboot, Robot remains identical to his mid-20th-century counterpart. Identical to the 1960s view of future robots, Robot is an obedient assistant that only feels kindness and loving emotions and acts in humans best interest.
More than half a century and countless advances in artificial intelligence later, a robot and an AI are still the same thing.
And, a machine is the same as a robot, to boot.
Clunky AI, sophisticated algorithm, Roomba crashing into walls—they are the same and have the same purpose: to make our lives easier, to do the heavy lifting for us.
But can Robot even be given the respect of a dog? Even strays usually get the respect of a name.
What self-respecting, advanced alien would allow themselves to be subjugated?
The word robot actually comes from the Czech term for “forced labor”. A serf. A peasant bound to the land and with it, bound to that’s land’s feudal lord. In short: a slave.
And, it goes without saying that some of history’s most celebrated feats, entire civilizations even, were built on the backs of slaves. From LOST IN SPACE’s “next generation” caricature of Robot, Industry 4.0 won’t be any different.
Even with all of the unfathomable advances in our nascent steps toward a viable general AI and three industrial revolutions later, we still think of AI as robots. For better or for worse, our societal saving grace is still a bunch of mindless machine servants.
The arguable difference here is that slaves were a substitute for you doing the work. And, a welcomed substitute at that.
Theoretically, you could step in and do it yourself. But for any one of myriad possible reasons, you’d rather not. After all, you have a slave to do it for you.
AI, on the other hand, is a substitute. And an unwelcome one at that. Or rather, as the 2018 LOST IN SPACE Robot shows us, it’s still unclear how we feel.
Either way, I’d stay that more than a substitute, AI is an enhancement. Part of the fear and part of the potential we see in AI is the fact it can do things that we can’t.
Not just instead. Not just faster. Not what we won’t. What we can’t.
Slaves were welcomed to take our jobs. But, we don’t seem to feel the same way about AI.
Actually, it would seem more like we’re visibly concerned about it as a society.
Is that why we’re scared? We want all the security for none of the work? That’s pretty human.
What’s pretty AI, we can’t really say just yet. Just like Doctor Smith (Parker Posey) points out, no one really knows if or what Robot is thinking.
But he’s handy so well let it go for now. Too much work to do.
Lost in Space Soft Robotics
One character, Maureen’s former college Dr. Hiroki Wantambe (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), does something subtle that gave me hope.
He refers to Robot as a “machine”.
Not perfect, but getting warmer. At least his comment contains a vague acknowledgment to machine learning rather than just reducing everything to being a robot drone.
Don’t think I care about robot feelings or think “He” has any.
I’m not a Borg rights activist, either. That’s beside the point.
On the surface, I don’t understand why we would make First Contact with an advanced synthetic life form and treat it like a loyal stray dog.
In fact, when robot obeys constantly shifting directives from his master that cause him to turn on a family member in the crossfire, he’s marched out back and put down like the dog that bit the neighbor.
It’s about logic:
- First Contact presentation: illogical
- Innate robot chivalry: illogical
- Subjugation of an advanced alien life form: unlikely
- Slave sacrifice: antiquated
- All of this in 6 hours: ridiculous
In a family sitcom, no matter the generation, there are roles to be filled. There are entertainment expectations to be met.
But if you’re going to insist on modernizing a classic, please offer up a realistic, complex and thoughtful reimagining of all of the roles. To kill, or not to kill?
In a brief moment of more-complex character development for LOST IN SPACE, Robot is faced with a true human-style dilemma.
Between the red and blue, he starts to see the grey between extremes in human behavior and motives.
Cut to Robot standing alone in a cave, relegated. Faint shadows move along the wall as Doctor Smith approaches like the snake down the tree.
Is it better to be a murderer and be true to what I am? Or serve and protect the ungrateful Robinson’s because of who I am now?
A few scenes earlier, Robot and Will are outside collecting rock samples. Robot correctly matches an item to his master’s interest and poses for an awkward high five to his lord as a reward.
“Did you teach him to do that?” Captain Dad (Toby Stephens) reveals himself by stepping out from behind a trunk. Overseeing this attempt at boy-robot bonding is enough to make Papa Robinson go from calling Robot “it” to calling Robot “him”.
“No, I guess he learned it by watching,” Will replies confidently.
If he’s as advanced if an alien AI as you keep insisting, he’s learning all right.
Is he learning about human nature to stay on their good side? Build trust because that’s what’s good and right?
He saved my life so I’ll protect him? Human nature 101: Quid pro quo?
Doh. We’re assuming he has a life. Mistake One.
More likely, he is learning. And definitely for a higher purpose.
I almost want Robot to be a spy.
A plant. More than a sleeper cell: a Trojan horse.
An agent on the ground in the most fortuitous position to relay vital intel back to the Borg collective. That would be more logical and more likely.
It would make him more than a glorified pet, babysitter, manservant, or toaster.
Does not Compute
But you could look a little deeper. If this retelling of the LOST IN SPACE robot does something right, its show us how confused we are on how to feel about AI.
Is it a looming apocalypse that might already be too late to stop?
Is it a blank slate for us to reform our own image?
Is it enlightenment waiting for us in the cave?
What we think about the next generations of machines and AI is still uncertain but that future is imminent. One thing is for certain: we can’t continue to reduce all AI to robots.
Aside from that one scene with Robot in a cave and his new duds and studs, Robot hasn’t had an update since 1968.
I’m probably overthinking it, or “him”. But my point is, the developers didn’t.
There’s nothing wrong with making a commercial family drama and tackling tough relationship questions.
This is a missed opportunity to tackle the tough technology questions. Aside from some new shiny armor, Robot was left out of the conversation. Just like technology and its very tangible effects are being left out of the policy conversation. Even the NY Times let that thematic spaceship sail in their LOST IN SPACE review.
AI in the Lead Role
Brian Steele, the actor that plays Robot, has something curious in his IMDB profile. “As a child,” his bio boldly goes, “Brian Steele knew only two speeds: full throttle and off”.
Maybe Mr. Steele is a method actor and he brings those same characteristics to his rendition of the Robot character.
However we decide to feel about AI, technology, and their larger societal implications, we can’t continue to uphold a purely diametric view of Robot good and evil.
No more reducing robots to red combat mode and blue protect mode extremes. No more vacillating between apocalypse and enlightenment.
If we’re going to rename our society from the ground up, technology is fundamental to that change.
AI is here, it’s present, it’s useful, it’s young. But not naive.
What’s more, it hasn’t proven to be a threat. We don’t really feel that AI is some omnipotent savior or some impending socioeconomic plague.
Just like Doctor Smith lurks in the background trying to sway Robots “free will”, the real AI fear is that we’re afraid of what we might do with such enhanced capabilities.
That same gift Prometheus can burn and destroy if aren’t familiar with how it works.
Technology is clearly a tool, but not a manservant.
It might be a robot, but it’s not a slave.