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. []