Pandorum

I watched Pandorum over the course of a couple of days this past week1. I really hadn’t seen or read a lot about the film, other than a trailer and a very short interview with Dennis Quaid on Leno (or some evening talk show). I wasn’t really sure what to expect; but whatever I was expecting, this film wasn’t quite it.

Needless to say, this is going to be filled with spoilers. You have been warned.

This poster of Pandorum makes sense. The one with the wiring in the man’s arm does not. The latter perhaps let to some of my misplaced expectations.

The film is really like two scifi films spliced together, with only a minimal attempt and bring the stories back together at the end. This, I think, was where I felt most disappointed in the film. And I mean disappointed. I really wanted to love this movie. The acting is really quite good, I thought. Quaid gave one of his stronger performances in some time2. I really liked Ben Foster as Bower. I couldn’t help but think that he reminded of a younger Edward Nortorn; and that is a very good thing. Cam Gigandet was truly un-nerving as Gallo and one of the highlights of the movie. The remainder of the cast were strong and all of the action was believable 3.

As a technical effort, this film truly shows off the German film industry exceedingly well and credit should be given because almost all scenes employ physical sets and real actors & monsters. That’s a rarity in the age of hyper-real CG films like Avatar; and this film looks great. I’ll certainly be watching director Alvart’s other films and would love to see him write/ direct more science fiction. If any were to be set of the planet of Tanis in the 32nd century, all the better.

But at the end of the film, I felt empty. I wanted something more out of this movie that I really wanted to like. It sort of stayed with me for the past few days. Namely, what I think this movie really needed was one strong plot. Instead, it had two weak ones.

In plot A, we have the protagonist who represents sanity and humanity fighting hordes of monsters4 with a few survivors to reach a goal and return. It is pretty classic scifi/ horror/ apocalypse/ survival stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that genre and this film does a modest effort at that.

In plot B, we have a physiological thriller as we try and figure out which of two characters truly suffers from Pandorum (aka – space madness), either the good Lt. Payton or the edgy Gallo. We soon find what passes as the story’s one novel twist in this plot line. That is, that they are Tyler Durden.

Some Issues

Pandorum’s treatment of hyper-sleep for sub-light speed space travel is scifi gold and is rightly used to advance the plot (both of them, actually). From the grogginess and “mild” memory loss to the absolute gross cleaning off of hundreds of years worth of shed skin5, it all really helped to give Pandorum a bit of its own style right from the beginning. It said to me that the writer and director had thought about this and were going to show us their own vision here. It really helps to set why a lot of these events unfold and was a bit of brilliance; and I really hate to see that not play out in the end.

We see the psychological effects of deep space travel as well, in the form of the film’s namesake illness. We get a school-book explanation from Payton early on as Bower asks about him about it. Later, we seen both men seeming to suffer from some of the symptoms. However, other than some weird looks and what we can only assume are hallucinations on the part of Bower, his issues are never really explored (Payton’s & Gallo’s are pretty well explained in full, bad guy monologue style). The polarity of Bower and Payton/Gallo as humanity versus insanity really could have been better dealt with in the film’s climax. We’re left with a sense of confusion. What caused Bower to be able to overcome the illness? What struggles did he face in doing so? Simply having him shake it off seems a bit weak for the illness which so important the film was named after it. Otherwise, we could have called the movie Space Mutant Hunters.

The biggest failure in terms of story is tying the two protagonists together in some meaningful way: Payton/Gallo and the mutant hunters. Just to say that Gallo slept and the hunters evolved is like trying to assume the butterfly effect as a plot device. Sure there may have been some dominoes from one that resulted in the other, but why not give us a bit more of a concrete relationship? This would have woven the two plot lines together, instead of just licking the back of one and hoping it stays on the other.

Some Suggestions

So, what would I have done differently? I mean, after all, I’m just throwing spitballs if I don’t offer something constructive, right?

I think the reactor core should have been related to hunter mutants in a more concrete fashion. There seems to be no rational as to why they all sleep there. It may be a trite scifi convention to claim that exposure to radiation causes rapid (and often horrific, backwards) evolution, but it isn’t so commonplace that it can just be assumed (if that is even what has happened here). So, in very clear terms we should state to the viewers that the ship decided to wake Bower up specifically for his expertise with radiation leaks in reactor cores (most of the flight crew are dead, so the ship has to wake up the one specialist it has left). Unbeknown to the ship and to Bower, some of the passengers closer to the core who were woken by Gallo centuries earlier began to get sick (Pandorum!) never went back to sleep normally. They began to try to use power from the reactor core, but instead damaged it. After generations (and having been given the evolution-enhancing drugs for settlers), they devolved into the hunters we see today. They live near the reactor core as they have learned that it mutates their offspring faster, making them more effective hunters.

As I said, the hunters and Payton/Gallo need a more concrete relationship, as well. Since it is stated that Gallo tried to act like a god, why have the hunters worship him as such. Fear of him and his whims is one of the few human-like thoughts they have passed on. The reactor core room could be strewn with cave markings (as opposed to the cannibal cook’s chamber) telling this story, which serves to tip off Bower6. In fact, they could see him as the destroy of Earth since he delivered the message to their ancestors and revere him as a hunter of whole worlds. To whatever extent the hunters revere him, in the final encounter with Payton/Gallo, the hunters can be sneaking in and just when Bower thinks they’ll do in Payton/Gallo for him, they refuse to and begin advancing on Bower. This would ad a huge level of fear for the protagonists as now both the antagonists are working together. Water & ejecting in a sleep pod due to hull breach would still be an acceptable end to stopping these unstoppable villains of the story.

Also, as stated earlier, seeing the difference in how Pandorum affected both Bower and Payton would have been satisfying. It would have made it clear to us the kind of struggles that both went through but only Bower could overcome. I think if Payton (while in his right mind) had given Bower the advice which allows him to overcome bits of anxiety/ Pandorum/ space-madness; but that Payton himself doesn’t/didn’t follow when he is Gallo. This would tie the two characters together while setting their paths apart in the story.

I would also have liked to have seen the symptoms of Pandorum, specifically the vivid hallucinations aspect, play a little more prominently into the story for Bower. Clearly, the hallucinations were a major component of Payton/Gallo’s story. So why should Bower only see one such hallucination for a short period at the climax of the film? Were more of his interactions actually hallucinations; maybe even ones which he and other human survivors shared? Not to go all deus ex machina here, but what if the whole hunter problem is just a shared hallucination brought on by paranoia and hallucinations of waking crew? Perhaps Pandorum isn’t a rare illness at all, but in fact the norm when a human has been in suspended animation for centuries? Just seems like a host of missed opportunities here in terms of ways to leverage what set this story apart; all given up in favor of the mutant attack movie.

Lastly, while I appreciated the hunters, I think the at some level detracted from the strong part of the story. Too much screen time was spent on them when the truly novel elements of the story were left for us to guess at. Though it pains to me to say it, I’d have actually rather had less killer mutant hordes in this film (and I am indeed a huge fan of killer mutant hordes, to be for sure). Instead, I’d rather seen more on the internal and human/human conflicts.

This notion struck me as a laid down to sleep the evening after having finished watching Pandorum. It wasn’t the hunters that made me take that one last glace over my shoulder before going to sleep. It was the thought of Gallo creeping up behind me. That’s a great villain.

And there it is. Some of the reasons of why I felt like this movie garnered three out of five stars. I wanted to really like it, but couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that in the enormous effort to craft such a well-styled film that much of the plot elements got left in the director’s notebook or on the editing room floor. It is a good scifi film and worth the time of any fan of the genre, just the same.

Note: I haven’t done a film review on this site in quite a long time and I sincerely regret doing so. I hope to get back into that and often it is a book or film such as this – where I felt that it fell just short of being great – that motivates me to do so.

  1. It’s really not Angela’s sort of movie, so I watched it over the course of two lunch breaks. One of the perks of working from home, I suppose.
  2. Though, given that this film came out around the same time as G.I. Joe, that’s a really low personal bar. I haven’t seen Legion, but I’m also not hearing anything positive there, either.
  3. Nothing ruins fight scenes like bad wire work for me. This film has some aerial, Hong Kong style fighting and it is all done well and blends into the film.
  4. The monsters are essentially the Reavers from Firefly/Serenity with a bit of orcs from Lord of the Rings thrown in to make them seem a bit more alien. That being said, they are creepy as hell and work well.
  5. Not that I’m wanting to be overly picky here, but how could Bower have had a thick sheet of skin to pull off and only the kind of beard I grow in a few weeks. I’d have gone with a crazy beard and hair.
  6. Instead, we have Payton’s wife. A memory of a character who is never explained, nor – for that matter – is Payton. Why is Gallo in his chamber? He sort of has to be for the story and yet I don’t recall any explanation of who Payton was or why Gallo would end up there.

The New Star Trek

With two kids now, finding time to go out to watch a movie is only a great challenge. Given that Angela is a long-time Trekker and that this was Mother’s day weekend, we really wanted to get out to see the new movie. We’re also big Lost fans and had really high hopes for this film.

I should point out that Angela is a big fan of Next Generation in particular. That was what she grew up on 1 whereas my first experience with Star Trek was the animated series on Nickelodeon2. I was probably always more of a Star Wars fan, myself, but we’ve come to embrace one another’s different nerd heritages in our years together. I’ve been to a Star Trek convention before with Angela and her cousin, Jonathan; and we’ve gone to see the recent films with TNG cast together. So of some of the big hit films this summer, we really were glad that we could orchestrate an afternoon of Star Trek together.

You Don’t Have to be a Fan

I honestly have no idea if JJ Abrams, et al are huge fans of Star Trek or not. It would certainly seem so but, more to the point, they are excellent story tellers. What this latest movie is is a high-action, emotional, brilliantly told story. While it most essentially boils down to a buddy-film, it really draws on loads of story elements. A favorite element of mine was that the crew of the Enterprise as we have known them are really a bunch of second-string misfits; either with authority issues or personal conflicts that would prevent them from rising to the top on their own. However, when put together their oddities feed off one another. Each character is introduced to us one at a time as the film progresses. Therefore, what started as a buddy flick about two guys now consists of a ensemble, each the audience has a special connection with. The writers knew better than to bring in more than a half-dozen characters all at once and assume the audience would just recognize them.

I had read enough on Zachory Quinto’s desire to play Spock that I had really focused my excitement on that character. I hadn’t really given more than a passing thought to Karl Urban as Bones ("Oh, he was in LotR, right?"). As it turns out, he was excellent at Dr. McCoy3. The rest of the cast did not disappoint, either. No one hammed up their roles. Instead, the actors all seemed to get the essence of the characters without resorting to just doing impressions of the actors from decades ago.

Being a Fan Doesn’t Hurt

There were plenty of references to the finer points of the Star Trek universe, though. From all the little bits like props that matched much of the style of the original series, to sound effects and music laden with heavy brass, to those wonderful prequel moments of ‘oh that’s how that came about!’ It’s those latter elements that are always the funnest for the fans, I think. They feed our sense of nostalgia for our youth and our (not always) guilty love of pop culture. With a history as long as Star Trek, a film like this could have easily begun to drown in them. However, the writers and director reached what felt like a perfect balance here. Enough of these little memory joggers to bring smiles to a fan’s face but not so many as to keep the general audience feeling their missing the joke.

So much of this film was a balancing act that is really remarkable that it plays as well as it does to such a wide audience. You wouldn’t need to have any more knowledge of Star Trek than simply having grown up in the Western hemisphere to appreciate some of the lines and visuals. Even if you weren’t a fan at all, you could appreciate some of those enough to enjoy them. And there is plenty of plain old damn-good-story to enjoy the movie even if you wouldn’t get those bits. You don’t have to appreciate any of it to understand sacrificing your life to save crew and family or to seek approval and acceptance. These plot fundamentals are what too many of the Star Trek films lacked in an effort to make them solidly Star Trek. Like all great science fiction, the best parts of the story have nothing to do with science fiction.

More to Come? I Hope So.

I am convinced this will be one of the top movies of the summer (and therefore, the entire year). Though this film succeeds at what Enterprise4 tried but ultimately couldn’t do: provide both those prequel moments while also giving a sexy, sleek new edge to what it means to be Star Trek. Many films that attempt to re-envision, re-boot, or regurgitate stories just to so with no reason for existing other than the obvious money grab. This film — much to our delight — stands on its own. Further, in so far as the story line goes it is a literal re-boot. It ends with an alternate, parallel universe as a result of the events of the film For once, time travel in Star Trek actually results in things unpredictably changing. It’s hard to argue when the most impossible part of the story actually results in a logical outcome. This certainly leaves us with some likely sequels to this prequel that aren’t the previous films. Okay, when I put it like that it still sounds like a money grab. But at least this one was enjoyable!

I can watch a lot of films more than once, but this one I could have bought another ticket for as soon as I walked out. Angela — who never likes to watch films twice; at least not in the theater — said she would love to go back again. I honestly can’t say much more than that. It really is just that much fun.

  1. I didn’t get Fox until after the show had begun and only watched occasionally until later in college.
  2. I’m still very disappointed that an Edosian has never made a re-appearance in Star Trek since.
  3. You might even say he was the real McCoy … but you really shouldn’t.
  4. I want to go on the record and say that Enterprise was probably my favorite of all the Star Trek television series. And, yes, I liked that theme song. It was one of the few I never fast-forward through on TiVo recordings.