Warning: spoilers ahead for Netflix’s Lost in Space.
In the first episode of Netflix’s new Lost in Space, Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) discovers a robot (Brian Steele) and saves it from a spreading forest fire. As a result, it seems to imprint upon him, following him around and obeying him like a loyal pet. As Will is suddenly made responsible for another being’s safety, he starts to mature. The robot starts to develop, too, becoming an integral part of the Robinson family as they struggle to adjust their biases and preconceptions about artificial intelligence. And then the series abruptly dumps this plotline, and all the attendant questions about AI.
Lost in Space is one of many properties that use robots as a way of supporting and mirroring stories about human growth. The way characters choose to treat artificial intelligences is often a leading indicator of how the audience is meant to perceive them, and how their characters will development. Will, for instance, is clearly a central protagonist, as he immediately refers to the robot as “him” instead of “it,” a person rather than an object. Everyone else takes some time to adjust. Will’s mother (Molly Parker) sees a tool; his father (Toby Stephens) sees a threat; Dr. Smith (Parker Posey) sees a weapon. And all of them, including Will’s siblings, take a while to adjust to seeing the robot as a living thing rather than an object, if they manage to make the turn at all.
Lost in Space’s AI storyline should feel familiar to anyone even remotely interested in science fiction. The Iron Giant is likely the most straightforward parallel, as it also follows something of a “boy and his dog” structure. Much like Will, Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) finds a robot (Vin Diesel) and befriends it. It’s an alien entity with destructive capabilities, which immediately makes it seem dangerous to the adults in Hogarth’s life. But Hogarth knows better: the robot is capable of learning and growing, and it ultimately transcends its intended purpose and becomes a superhero. And Hogarth grows too, confronting the nature of death, just as he explained it to the Giant earlier in the film.
Lost in Space follows a similar trajectory, in that Will’s growth runs parallel to the robot’s. He tells it to be good rather than to follow its destructive impulses. He helps it put itself back together in the same way Hogarth helps the Giant. And Lost in Space’s robot briefly wins the camp’s approval after it fends off a pack of monsters, just as the Giant wins over Hogarth’s town by saving two boys from falling from a roof.
Unfortunately, where The Iron Giant contains a graceful arc, Lost in Space sputters. Finally convinced that the robot may pose a threat, Will tells it to destroy itself. So it walks off a cliff, and out of the story for a while. The reasoning behind the writers’ choice is fairly evident — it provides an opportunity for the robot to fall into the wrong hands, particularly given how it parts ways with Will — but given how many other narrative threads the writers are balancing in this initial season, it’s more of a death knell for the AI arc.
By the time the robot returns, there’s not enough time left for its arc to be resolved past, “Is it a bad robot, or isn’t it?” Its developing sentience and human traits are abandoned, resulting in an unsatisfying ending to a storyline with so much more potential. The exploration of AI is a rich narrative field, because so much about it is still a mystery. The kind of AI that populates movies and TV is still far from being developed, and humanity is only beginning to reckon with the ethics and implications of created intelligence.
Blade Runner is likely the best-known example of digging deep into the field, as well as one of the best-executed. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a professional “blade runner,” an assassin who “retires” replicants, a type of biorobotic android. Replicants aren’t considered truly living things, even though they have human emotions and ambitions. They’re even made with set life spans for the express purpose of preventing them from becoming more human. As their innate humanity becomes more and more obvious, the line between heroes and villains fluctuates. That makes it more wrenching when Deckard’s nature starts to come into question.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s 2001 animated film Metropolis treads similar territory in terms of using AI to explore how people treat each other — and those they perceive to be “other” — in the pursuit of what they want. But it hews a little closer to The Iron Giant and Lost in Space in having a firmly human protagonist. The robots of Metropolis are subject to mistreatment and discrimination, and anti-robot sentiment in the city is so strong that the robots have been relegated to the lower levels of the city. Meanwhile, vigilante groups explicitly work to worsen the robots’ existence. It’s a lot to shoulder narratively, but the story works because the focus on the relationship between the human Kenichi (Kei Kobayashi) and the robot Tima (Yuka Imoto) is so carefully cultivated and sustained, and because there’s more to it than a simple dichotomy of good and evil.
Toward the end of Lost in Space, the story’s haphazard quality suggests more of a comparison to Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie. That film treats the idea of AI with the same sense of convenience: the question that’s being addressed shifts depending on what’s easiest for the plot, rather than in service of the characters. Sometimes AI is in the story to make a point about otherness. Sometimes it’s to interrogate mortality. And sometimes it’s just for fun. There are further similarities in how Chappie and Lost in Space set up their primary robot / human relationships to resemble the dynamic between a parent and a child. Chappie manages to delve a little deeper into the idea, as the film’s ending suggests that both the eponymous sentient robot and the humans around him are still learning from each other. In Lost in Space, the balance isn’t as equal. By the time the robot is restored to the narrative, Will seems to have done the growing up he needs on his own.
Lost in Space raises some intriguing issues that are often at the core of any AI story, but the way the writers simplify the robot’s arc undermines the story. And so does the introduction of a second robot in the show’s season 1 finale. The second robot is plain evil, relentless in its attempt to destroy the Robinsons. And the simplicity with which it’s treated feels strange, given the story’s insistence that Will’s robot is sentient and can change and learn. This action-driven twist undermines everything the series has said about Will’s robot, and even about Will himself. Even the gradual shift of the other characters’ feelings toward the robot feels haphazard rather than earned. The Robinson family all come to accept the robot by the end of the season, but it seems to be for the sake of moving the plot along, rather than through any kind of organic growth.
Using AI to parallel and reflect stories about human growth is a common gambit, and it’s easy to see why: they’re literally and metaphorically human surrogates, offering a lens we use to assess how we treat anyone different from ourselves. But the plot thread needs sustained attention and commitment to work, as necessitated by the place of AI as mirrors for their human counterparts. People are more complicated than just being good or evil, and the AI that reflects them needs to be treated with the same level of care. Otherwise, the entire enterprise crumbles — or, at the risk of being glib, it gets lost in space.