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Friday, October 2, 2009

In the Midst of Pandemonium, Profundity?: A Review of Pandorum

by Gary Westfahl

If I were posting film reviews on Twitter, instead of Locus Online, I might limit my review of Pandorum to "It's I Am Legend Meets Alien!" and stay comfortably within the 140-character limit. All director Christian Alvart and writer Travis Milloy have done, one can easily argue on the basis of their final product, is to take the basic story line of I Am Legend (2007) (review here) — a few genuine humans struggle to stay alive while battling hordes of mindlessly homicidal, pale-skinned mutants — and transplanted it from the streets of a deserted New York City to the dark, dimly-lit corridors of a large spaceship — making their film suitable entertainment for filmgoers in search of another cinematic thrill ride, but a disappointment to those who would prefer a thought-provoking idea to an adrenalin rush. And it's all sort of a shame, since it transpires that lurking underneath this seemingly unending humans-versus-monsters slugfest is a reasonably interesting future history of the human race, and one suspects that Alvart and Milloy originally envisioned a film that would be slightly more cerebral — more like Sunshine (2007) or Moon (20090 (reviews here and here), perhaps, than an action-packed Will Smith spectacular. Fortunately, despite the hypothesized revisions in the screenplay to boost the body count in hopes of maximizing ticket sales, the fossilized remains of a different film remain visible.

That much of this film is a homage to — or ripoff of — I Am Legend seems indisputable, given that its mutants are virtually identical to their predecessors in their appearance and behavior; indeed, if they haven't already been paid off, the producers of I Am Legend could plausibly sue the makers of Pandorum — even the way the mutants set booby traps to ensnare humans and make them hang upside down seems transparently stolen from Smith's epic. As for other influences on this film, many will think of Event Horizon (1997), another horror film set in a spaceship which was uncoincidentally directed by the producer of Pandorum, Paul W. S. Anderson, but since he was also responsible for the lame Alien vs. Predator (2004), I suspect that Ridley Scott's masterpiece was more on his mind while supervising this particular project.

In defense of the notion that this film departed from its original design, one can readily detect the outlines of a film that omitted those derivative mutants (officially named the "Hunters" in the closing credits) and instead generated drama exclusively from the interpersonal conflicts of interstellar crewmates and the dangers of madness induced by space travel. After all, the title of the film is another of science fiction's made-up terms for the condition of "space madness" — hurriedly explained as some sort of bureaucratic acronym — and the screenplay retains dialogue suggesting that such insanity, not mutated monsters, represents the major menace awaiting long-distance space voyagers.

And Pandorum involves a truly long journey through space, featuring what science fiction readers would term a "generation starship." Some two centuries in the future, Earth is threatened by massive overpopulation and a deteriorating environment — one flashback reveals that humans at the time had to wear plastic facemasks in order to survive outdoors — so people are heartened by the discovery of an earthlike planet, Tanis, in another solar system. A huge ship, the Elysium, is constructed to take 16,000 people on a 223-year voyage to colonize Tanis (clearly, this future world has not mastered faster-than-light travel), though passengers spend most of their time in suspended animation — "extended hypersleep" — leaving only a small number of crewmates to be awake during rotating shifts (presumably, so that they can avoid succumbing to Pandorum). One problem is that reawakening crewpeople take a long time to regain their memories — so that when Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Colonel Payton (Dennis Quaid) wake up at the beginning of the film, it takes them a while to remember the information they need to figure out exactly why the ship isn't running the way it is supposed to; another problem is that a few crewmen have been violating protocol and staying awake too long, causing them to go insane. On the face of it, these seem like reasonably sensible premises that could lead to a generally palatable film in which Bower and Payton explore the ship, gradually learn why it appears to be out of control and running out of power, and finally succeed in restoring the ship to normal functioning and allowing everyone on board to complete their important mission.

But then there are those constantly attacking mutants, which simply don't make any sense at all. The official explanation is that the colonists were given some sort of special gene or treatment which would allow their bodies to adapt to the different conditions on Tanis, but in some people it somehow malfunctioned and instead made them adapt to the different conditions on the Elysium. However, to say the very least, it seems extraordinarily unclear why losing one's intelligence and becoming a feral cannibal would represent the ideal biological adaptation to life on board a starship. In any event, we have been told repeatedly that Tanis is an earthlike planet, meaning that no sort of special adaptation would be needed, and without saying too much about the movie's final twists, you have probably already deduced that its happy ending involves the main characters reaching the surface of Tanis and finding it a habitable home, with absolutely no physiological changes required. This serves as yet another indication that the mutants represent an inorganic, forced addition to the original story — recalling the egregiously incongruous "Mutant" belatedly inserted into This Island Earth (1954) — but at least that creature only appeared in a few scenes. In this case, the egregiously incongruous additions virtually dominate the entire film, reducing all other events to the status of subplots.

In order to appreciate Pandorum, then, one must ignore those silly mutants and instead focus solely on the shorter, better film they are viciously struggling to conceal. The film, of course, is yet another meditation on the folly of damaging the delicate environment of our home planet, and the potential need for human beings to seek salvation by traveling into outer space — points also made in worthwhile films with similar back stories like Titan A.E. (2000) and Wall·E (2008) (review here). Believe it or not, the film also shares a theme with the works of Octavia E. Butler — that humans do what they must do in order to survive, and one should not judge them for what they might do — and there are trite homilies about the importance of people learning to work together, such as Bower's eloquent "A little fucking solidarity goes a long way."

What is most provocative about this film, though, is what appears to be its curiously old-fashioned argument about the human habitation of outer space. In Pandorum, as in its cinematic precursors, space is portrayed as a dangerous and evil place, a realm of monsters and madness; space travel, while sometimes necessary, is therefore something to endure rather than something to enjoy. The designers of the Elysium saw fit to ensure that the vast majority of its passengers would spend the vast majority of their time asleep, while the only people awake would be small rotating crews of military personnel who are presumably hardy enough to actually stand living in space.

But there are two objections to make to the way this film seems to characterize space travel. In the first place, the Elysium is not a tiny spacecraft with a handful of crewmembers, as was the case in Alien and Event Horizon, but an immense space ark filled with 16,000 people. Science fiction writers have long realized that when we construct such vast habitations, it would be both possible, and desirable, to make the interiors of the vehicle resemble a park more than a prison. Why did the builders of Elysium make absolutely no effort to fashion a vessel with more pleasant environments, instead of a Nostromo writ large consisting of nothing but unadorned metallic walls, sterile corridors, and visible machinery? Did anyone ever theorize that space travelers regularly go insane in part because their quarters are so relentlessly and unnecessarily grim? Apparently, it never occurred to anyone in this future world that a large spaceship, properly equipped, might serve as a reasonably attractive second home for a human race facing the crisis of a dying planet — which was precisely the rescue plan carried out in Wall·E; instead, they believe the only answer is to transport humans to the only other earthlike planet available, even though it is many light-years away.

Mentioning Wall·E brings up another curious omission in the thinking of the people who planned this mission: recognizing the complexities and innumerable perils of space travel, both science fiction writers and NASA personnel have understood that astronauts will require constant assistance from advanced computers, typically envisioned in future spaceships as ambulatory robots or ubiquitous voices with traces of a human personality. In Pandorum, while characters are observed punching buttons and staring at screens that are presumably connected to computers of some sort, there are no signs of an advanced computer intelligence continually monitoring the entire ship, either because none was installed in the ship or because it has been completely disabled due to the ship's various issues — but both scenarios suggest a design flaw. Granted, Wall·E and other films point out that it is dangerous to become overly reliant on such computerized colleagues, but Pandorum seems to illustrate the opposite problem of underutilizing computers, as the human astronauts here are forced to overcome their problems entirely on their own.

Thus, even overlooking those nasty mutants, one can maintain that the makers of Pandorum are falsely portraying outer space as an horrific experience by failing to acknowledge two relatively recent conclusions about space travel: that the environments within spaceships will not have to be drab and confining, and that the difficulties of surviving in space will always be mitigated by helpful computer companions. Instead, either because they found it made for better entertainment or because they really didn't know any better, they have returned to the earlier, naïve vision of space travel observed in films of the 1950s like, say, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), arguably the granddaddy of all space horror films.

But there is another explanation for these apparent lapses, one which may be giving Alvart and Milloy much more credit than they deserve, but it remains a possibility: the filmmakers may be deliberately presenting an inaccurate picture of space travel in order to provide commentary on people's stubbornly enduring misconceptions about what life in space will actually be like. Yes, some will immediately say that I am wildly overanalyzing one of this week's popcorn films, and I generally agree that critics should not attempt to excuse flaws in a work by arguing that the wise author was being ironic by intentionally making flaws. Still, in this case there is one aspect of the film which provides powerful support for this seemingly outlandish theory. Unfortunately, if I am to follow the implicit code of reviewing and avoid "spoilers" (which I have been endeavoring to do of late), I am unable to discuss it.

Perhaps, though, I can complete the thought and avoid an outright violation of protocol by discussing a hypothetical case. Suppose that, in a film about space travelers, it turned out that they were not really in outer space at all. Suppose that it transpired that, at any time during that film, the characters could have solved all their grievous problems simply by pressing a few buttons. Such a film, then, would not really be about the dangers of space travel; rather, it would be a film about the dangers of succumbing to your own unexamined preconceptions. As one possibility, such a film might turn out to be a reversal of the scenario of Robert A. Heinlein's "Universe" (1941) and other similar stories — not people in space who falsely believe they are inhabiting a world, but people living on a world who falsely believe they are in outer space.

Such a film might turn out to be much more interesting than a film about people who need to kill a bunch of mutants before the mutants kill them. And it would be a tragedy — hypothetically — if film producers, given the opportunity to oversee such a film, instead insisted that the screenplay had to be reshaped in order to foreground a much less interesting story.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His most recent books are two collections of essays — Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell — and the second edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature.

Directed by Christian Alvart

Written by Travis Milloy and Christian Albart (story), Travis Milloy (screenplay)

Starring Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse, Norman Reedus, and André Hennicke

Official Website: PANDORUM - Now In Theaters



Blogger Glen McBeth said...

I feel like you did not even see the movie, or were not paying attention.

To correct a few points:

The trip was supposed to be 123 yeas, not 225 years.

There were 60,000 people on the ship, not 16,000 people.

Pandorum was not caused by violating protocol and "staying awake too long" but was caused by brain damage caused by hypersleep. There was a random chance that any awakened crew member would have Pandorum. They slept on shifts so that they would live long enough to reach Tanis.

The cannibals were feral not because of the gene manipulation, but because they were the n'th generation of survivors who had survived through cannibalism in a dark spaceship without the benefits of a school system or police department or probably even elders, who probably would have been eaten when they got weak. 900 years equals perhaps 50 or 60 generations of constant life-and-death struggle. I doubt even the English language would survive 50 generations under such circumstances.

"there are no signs of an advanced computer intelligence continually monitoring the entire ship, either because none was installed in the ship or because it has been completely disabled due to the ship's various issues — but both scenarios suggest a design flaw."- Did you notice that the ship was on it's 923rd year of its 123 year mission, and that it had been overrun by cannibals? There would be no robots. No way.

January 24, 2010 7:51 AM  

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