Way back in 1941, author Robert Heinlein demonstrated some of the pitfalls of the colossal, generational space ark in two stories that would eventually form the novel Orphans of the Sky (1963). In that tale, the vast vessel Vanguard, bound for Proxima Centauri became pilot-less en route; and the passengers and flight crew aboard her separated over time into distinct classes or sects (like the mutants or "muties.") They even forgot they were aboard a ship...
After Heinlein, sci-fi television soon took the lead in terms of huge space ark dramas. Cordwainer Bird (a.k.a. Harlan Ellison) created the Canadian program The Starlost (1973), which concerned three Quakers learning that they were living not on a planet surface, but rather in a dome that was part of a much larger vessel, an ark. Led by a man named Devon (Keir Dullea), these unlikely explorers discovered that the ark was actually on a collision course with a star, and that it -- like the Vanguard -- was essentially pilot-less. They spent the series visiting different domes (and different cultures) and trying to control their ark.
In Johnny Byrne's brilliant "Mission of the Darians," an episode of Space: 1999 from 1975, the errant Alphans came across the space ark of an alien race called the Darians. There had been a nuclear disaster aboard the vast ark, transforming some crew into mutants while leaving the remainder of the crew physically intact. Across the centuries, the "pure" Darians resorted to cannibalism and transplant surgery from the ranks of the mutants to stay alive; so they could reach a "new Daria." The Darians rationalized this exploitation of the lower caste for one reason. Carried about the ark was the DNA gene bank of the entire Darian race. Theoretically, this gene bank would ensure that, by landfall, the Darian race could re-constitute itself.
In Doctor Who's "The Ark in Space" (also in 1975), another twist on the space ark format was developed. Man's future generations -- the crew of a space station in this case -- was being devoured while asleep in their cryo-tubes by a predatory race of alien insectoids called The Wirrn.
There are other examples of this narrative, both literary and video, including David Gerrold's Star Trek novel The Galactic Whirlpool (1980). And now, director Christian Alvart's harrowing horror film, Pandorum (2009) is the latest permutation of the formula. Of course, you wouldn't know it from the advertisements, which sold the movie more as a "space zombies on the loose in a spaceship"-type of thing.
In Pandorum, the generational space ark Elysium departs from Earth in 2174, bound for the only habitable planet ever discovered: distant Tanis. Early on the Space Ark's journey, however, the crew receives a frightening message from Mission Control on Earth. "You're all that's left. Good luck and god speed."
And then, mysteriously, Earth blinks out of existence. Perhaps -- as one crew member suggests -- the planetary disaster was "nuclear" in origin. Or perhaps the demise of our world was caused by an asteroid collision. Regardless, the 60,000 human colonists on Elysium are all that remains of the human race...the seeds of our future. The seeds of our hope.
The film then jumps to an undisclosed time in the future. A likable technician, Bower (Ben Foster) awakens from extended hyper-sleep in a state of disorientation and suffering from temporary amnesia. The ship itself is a wreck: no one is at the helm, and the bridge is locked and sealed. Bower awakens another crew member on the flight team, Lt. Payton (Dennis Quaid), and together these two men learn that the ship's reactor is going critical in a matter of hours. The ark -- and the human passengers -- will be destroyed if the reactor can't be fixed. While Payton attempts to gain access to the bridge, Bower heads down into the ship's bowels, bound for the reactor core. His is an Orphean journey into the Underworld, to be certain.
Specifically, what Bower finds throughout the gigantic ship is terrifying indeed. A species of sub-human monsters has turned the passenger section -- the cryo-chamber rooms -- into their hunting and feeding grounds (like the Wirrn on Doctor Who.) These beasts were once "sleepers" and colonists themselves, but the synthetic accelerator that was pumped into their cryo-chambers (to help them adapt to life on Tanis) has instead adapted them to life aboard the ruined, out-of-control. Elysium. These monsters -- who physically resemble John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars and Joss Whedon's Reavers -- have set nasty booby-traps for flight crew members throughout the ark, often using live human beings as bait.
There are some normal human survivors left too, but they seem to possess no knowledge that they are even on board a ship. Eventually, Bower encounters a woman -- a scientist -- named Nadia who takes him to a laboratory where all of Earth's biological heritage and legacy is stored; Pandorum's equivalent of "Mission of the Darians'" gene bank. This biological legacy must be protected or Earth is really and truly lost.
An unexpected twist in the familiar space ark format arises from the film's unusual title: "Pandorum."
Pandorum is a feared disease of the mind that sometimes afflicts astronauts in deep space. The illness begins with quivering, shaking hands and then culminates with hysteria, paranoia and violence. For a comparison, recall Michael Biehn suffering from the bends in Cameron's The Abyss (1989). [Editor's note: my friend and regular reader Le0pard 13 corrected me on this, it wasn't the Bends it was High Pressure Nervous Syndrome!] Pandorum is the space-borne equivalent.
There's an oddly beautiful, if utterly horrifying sequence regarding Pandorum early in the film's first act. Payton recounts the tale -- and we see it unfold in flashback -- as a crew member on another space mission goes irrevocably mad and ejects all his crew into space, in their separate sleep chambers (which, let's face it, are the equivalent of space-bound coffins).
The film cuts to a spectacular long shot from deep space as the troubled ship literally ejects hundreds of these tiny flowering, technological spores. Then, at closer range, we detect a screaming human inside one of these tubes and quickly realize he is headed into oblivion...alive and conscious of his situation.
Simply stated, Pandorum is pandemonium.
And that quality is both the film's greatest strength and the film's most troubling weakness. The movie opens with total chaos and we -- like Bower himself -- have no idea what the hell is happening aboard Elysium. We experience the horrors of the ark alongside Bower, and it's a scarifying descent into a man-made, technological Hell. Then there's some wild action and jolts that really get the blood rolling. But before long, the story starts to feel repetitive, and there are some plot points that I would have preferred to see explored with deeper insight. I don't exaggerate when I say that this movie is madness, violence, madness, more violence, and more madness, until you feel whiplash. It's all a bit exhausting.
Pandorum is also, perhaps, stuffed with one narrative u-turn too many (particularly the schizoid psyche of one character), though I understand why he's present. This schizoid crew man reflects the schizoid personality of the ship, as well as the new cultures that have sprung up aboard her. I just wish this character's back story felt more organic and less like a de rigueur third act "twist." By film's end, Pandorum is already ramped-up to insanity; it doesn't need more of it.
However, I have always enjoyed stories like the one dramatized here: stories of lost and imperiled space arks, of generational ships bound for disaster. I love the intriguing concept of cultural identity, heritage and history forgotten; and the accidental birth of a new social order, one based on the enironment at hand. Pandorum encompasses all that (and indeed, will seem very familiar to fans of Space:1999, The Starlost and Dr. Who).
Outside the space ark template, Pandorum also borrows from The Abyss, as I mentioned above, and even, to some extent, The Poseidon Adventure, since much of the film involves traveling from one end of a damaged, dangerous vessel to the other, facing all kinds of hazards on the trip. An authentic horror film, Pandorum also lingers on some extreme violence and gore. In particular, there's one scene here that will definitely cause nightmares: an innocent crew member awakes from cryo-sleep only to be viciously set upon and devoured by the cannibals. Grotesque stuff, but vivid and memorable.
Pandorum may not be a great movie, but it is a good one; a hectic one that captures the essential elements of the space ark tale. The lead character, Bower, is drawn well enough that he anchors most of the crazy action...at least until the over-the-top climax, which relies on a surprise you'll probably see coming a mile away.
Pandorum ends with the legend "Tanis, Year One." And instead of seeing Elysium's journey end right there, I wanted more...which probably indicates the movie is better than I'm giving it credit for in this review. But Pandorum made no money at the box office and critics hated it, so we'll probably never see "Tanis, Year Two."
To tell you the truth, that makes me sad. This decent, technologically updated re-telling of the classic space ark adventure would make the perfect prologue to an updated "colonizing a new planet at the edge of the galaxy" story.
Besides, there are lots of episodes of Dr. Who, Space:1999 and Starlost left to mine for inspiration. Pandorum may ultimately be a derivative riff on a familiar, oft-told science-fiction tale, but at least it isn't a remake, a re-boot or a re-imagination. And in my book, that's what passes as "original" in Hollywood these days.