Saturday, February 06, 2010

JKM Visits Sci-Fi Pulse!

Hey everybody, I'm the guest this week on Sunday's Sci-Fi Pulse Radio Talk Show, episode 55.

The popular genre talk show is hosted by Ian Cullen with writer Marx Pyle, and together we all discuss everything from sci-fi television and film to my dramatic web series, The House Between (now nearing the fourth anniversary of its debut on Veoh), to my upcoming stint as film festival judge in NYC.

Sci-Fi Pulse airs tomorrow, Sunday, February 7th at 5:00 pm, EST. So check it out. Here's the link and the advert:

"For episode 55 we feature a discussion with journalist and writer of many science fiction reference books. John Kenneth Muir. Over the years John has written a number of books, his first of which was Exploring Space 1999. During our chat with the Writer Marx Pyle and Ian Cullen asked the writer not only about his view point on the current state of genre television, but also about his web series The House Between. Want to learn more? Tune in this Sunday."

Friday, February 05, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Final Destination (2009)

Truth be told, I've often enjoyed the Final Destination horror franchise.

For one thing, I appreciate the idea of Death as a formless, relentless predator...and one with an aggressive quota to meet.

Even more than that, I enjoy the conceit of Death as a kind of cosmic Rube Goldberg machine: murdering unlucky people in an indirect, convoluted and labyrinthine manner.

In other words, one accident leads to another accident. And as the last domino falls, the result is that an unlucky character dies. The Final Destination film series has always been at its morbid best when talented directors stretch their imaginations to carefully stage the escalation of the accidents, creating in the process an accelerating aura of inevitability.

Watching a death scene unfold in the original Final Destination (2000) is like watching God play Ideal Toy's classic board game, Mouse Trap. With people.

And heavy machinery.

I admire this approach because, in some odd way, I believe it actually reflects the shape of life (and death). Case in point, and I've told this story before: In 1989, I was driving to Richmond from New Jersey with my parents. We made a last minute decision to take the family van and not our smaller sedan. About half-way to Richmond, we became positioned on 1-95 behind a car carrying a surfboard on its roof. In short order, the surfboard became unloosed from the top of the car, and -- like a guided missile -- flew backwards into our van's grill. It bounced off and did minimal damage.
But had we been driving in the sedan, the surfboard would have smashed right through our windshield and probably decapitated everyone in the car. I've never forgotten this incident (which is probably why I've brought it up on the blog more than once.)

I remember the feeling of inevitability -- the impression of my life in slow-motion -- like it was yesterday. I remember seeing the board's restraints break; I remember seeing the surfboard shake and shimmy on the roof-top of the car ahead. I remember the wind lifting it up like a plane on ascent. And I remember the surfboard gliding right at us and thinking, finally, "This is it...I'm gonna die." And what a weird, unexpected way to go...

The Final Destination (in 3-D no less) is perfectly positioned to thrive on that very brand of feeling: on the inevitability of death; on the relief at miraculously evading it; on the thought "There but for the Grace of God go I."

And the opening credits indicate that the director, David Ellis, is out to have some fun in that regard too. There's one shot in the credits of a human spinal column (seen in X-ray vision), and the camera actually rides down it like a roller-coaster car. That's the movie's central metaphor: The Final Destination is a roller-coaster ride. Nothing more. It's not a deep horror tract about social or political ideas...just a 3-D amusement park ride.

In theory, I have no problem with that. I like a roller coaster ride as much as the next guy.

Anyway, the film opens at a quasi-Nascar race, the Megatech 3000, with cars zooming about the track loudly...and I quickly felt that pit in my stomach...realizing disaster was around the corner. But my feelings of queasy (and delighted...) anticipation didn't last long.

That's because we are soon introduced to the four insipid, interchangeable leads, Nick (Bobby Campo), his girlfriend Lori (Shantel Van Santen), and their buddies Janet (Haley Webb) and Hunt (Nick Zano). Nick experiences a premonition of disaster and gets his friends away from the race track just before there is a gory, over-the-top accident or truly apocalyptic proportions. Afterwards, Nick concludes that Death is stalking all the survivors of the accident because, well, it was cheated on that mortality quota.

Nick comes up with this theory by reading old newspaper accounts of the previous Final Destination movies. We don't actually see him doing the research; we just see him announcing his conclusions.

This is an early indicator that something feels rote and by-the-numbers here. The exposition about Death, for instance -- and about the way to break the chain of Death's checklist -- actually seems lifted word-for-word from earlier franchise entries, making this screenplay feel like a rerun. Thus we're not riding a roller coaster for the first time; we're really riding it for the fourth time. And that's a lot less fun.

More troublesome, all these characters here are literally as dumb as stumps. The lead character, Nick tells his girlfriend, Lori that he's had another vision of disaster...and she's dumbstruck, baffled. Like she's never heard the word "vision" before. A vision, what's that? I couldn't tell if it's the stupid writing at fault, or if Van Santen was hired not for her acting ability but because she looks good (very good indeed ) in her green panties. Other characters are pure stereotypes: the drunk redneck (whistling Dixie...) who has it coming, for instance.

All of these characters soon do stupid, stupid things in The Final Destination. For instance, Nick and Lori explain to Hunt and Janet in detail their theory about Death's pursuit. So what do Hunt and Janet do? They storm off!! They go their separate ways and totally ignore the warning. No, wait: Janet is even dumber that. She barely survives being drowned in her Scion XB in a malfunctioning car wash, and then -- when informed again that death is stalking her (in a movie theater this time...) -- she ignores the warning a second time.

Some people are just too stupid to live, I guess. The movie also forgets to let Janet grieve over the fact that her buddy Hunt has been killed. The very next day, she and Lori are out buying sneakers at the mall.

Again, a roller coaster ride is fine. But to really enjoy one, you should like the people who are riding in the car beside you. That doesn't happen here. The characters are off-the-shelf cliches, and you never really like or get to know any of them. They don't behave realistically, given the situation, and that kills the movie's verisimilitude.

The specifics of this roller coaster ride are kind of disappointing in other regards. The death scenes are not nearly as elaborate or as creative as in the previous entries. The scenes don't build and build the way they did in the original film. And remember the roadway pile-up in Final Destination 2 (2003)? There's absolutely nothing here that can compete with that bravura sequence.

At the moment, I'm an agnostic on the use of 3-D as a film technique. I think it was deployed brilliantly in Avatar (2009), but here, I believe it just made everybody lazy as hell. Why arrange spectacular, snowballing death sequences of real ingenuity when can you just point a sharp stick in our eyes? And I have to acknowledge, for the record, that the myriad 3-D objects hurled at the camera during these 82 minutes look artificial; very CGI-ish. They just don't appear real, and that fact makes this roller-coaster less fun than it should be as well.

Without characters to identify with; without death scenes that really rattle you or get your blood going, The Final Destination degenerates into a movie about one thing: people dying in really bad industrial accidents.

And -- sorry -- there's really nothing much fun about that. The narrative is so loose here, you wonder why they bothered at all. The filmmakers could have just named this movie Death By Tools & Gears (and Bad Luck!) and filmed a series of unconnected vignettes in 3-D. Yeah, it would have been a Geek Show, but The Final Destination is already a Geek Show; only with only the most modest trappings of a real story.

In one of The Final Destination's more absurd sequences, coffee spills on a newspaper and obligingly highlights the message "break the chain." That's also my advice to the makers of the franchise, but I'll type it out with my keyboard instead of creating it by dropping a hot beverage:

Give this movie franchise a rest. Break the chain.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Antichrist (2009)

One quality of a great work of art is that it provokes you. It consumes your mind and your senses. You find yourself returning to the work of art over and over to suss out meaning; to seek clarity; to judge how it makes you feel and what you think it attempts to convey.

Not everyone is game for such a mind-bending exercise. Especially if the work of art in question happens to be a film. After all, it is much easier to reckon with a two-and-half-hour entertainment about giant robots (with robot testicles, no less...) than a dark, brooding film about guilt, self-hatred, human nature, and psychoanalysis.

Directed by Lars von Trier, Antichrist is just the sort of horror movie (and it is a horror movie...) that will infuriate many and captivate others. The director made this 2009 film in the midst of a deep personal depression, but despite the film's brooding, lugubrious nature, Antichrist remains a vibrant and masterful meditation on nature. Human and otherwise. The primary argument against Antichrist -- which you will find popping up again and again on the Net -- is that it is "overtly misogynistic." That the movie hates women.

I've written about this subject before in regards to Brian De Palma, but when charges of misogyny are leveled, it is sometimes helpful to contextualize a filmmaker's choices and to look back at the director's overall career, rather than simply leap to the knee jerk conclusion that one particular work happens to be misogynistic.

Lars von Trier, if you don't recall, is the Danish director (working from Zentropa Productions in Hvidovre) who created in the late 1990s the informal "Golden Heart" trilogy. The films in this Dogma 95/Goldenheart cycle included Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). The premise underlining each of these Golden Heart movies is that a sweet, put-upon woman -- one who plays by the rules -- is utterly destroyed by an uncaring, cruel society. Specifically, the "Goldenheart" is so good-hearted and sweet that she sacrifices all that she has -- all that she is -- for other people.

Dancer in the Dark -- which was also a critique of the application of the death penalty in America -- was perhaps the most heart-breaking of Von Trier's Goldenheart films. Starring Bjork, it involved a woman who viewed her sad, poverty-stricken life as a beautiful musical in the mold of The Sound of Music...right up until the very moment she waltzed into the gallows and the State snapped her neck.

On the other hand, Von Trier is also known for putting his leading ladies through...difficult paces. If you've seen Nicole Kidman in his controversial (but I think brilliant...) Dogville, you understand. Yet being a difficult and perfectionist director doesn't make one a woman-hater. It makes one a difficult and perfectionist director.

What The Mind Can Believe and Conceive, It Can Achieve.

Antichrist tells the strange story of a middle-class married couple, known only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainesbourg). In withholding their names from us, von Trier indicates that "He" and "She" are more than individual people. They are symbols of Male and Female nature.

As the film opens in sumptuous, slow-motion photography and in black-and-white, we are treated to an extended, extremely passionate sex scene between He and She that includes close-up views of vaginal penetration.

As He and She make love, steam rises luxuriously from the shower enclosure. Glittering water droplets fall all around their nude atmospheric flourishing that adds to the atmosphere of stimulation. Outside the couple's comfortable home, it snows and snows...a winter-time fantasy brought to life. The sex itself looks extremely...gratifying for both husband and wife...but a troubling object soon looms into the foreground of one composition (set in their bedroom).

It is a baby monitor.

As the couple continues to make love, the baby monitor's sound levels (represented as ascending bars) spike dramatically. The couple's young son, Nick, is awake. His parents don't notice. Or if they do notice, they don't stop their carnal pursuit. As the sex grows more heated, the world seems to grow increasingly disordered. Things fall on the floor. On open bottle spills its contents chaotically...

Von Trier then cross-cuts between the continuing, focused sexual intercourse of the parents, and little Nick's innocent nocturnal exploration. The toddler slides out of his crib. He opens the baby gate. He strolls by his parents' bedroom door. Horrifyingly, he climbs to an open window to touch the ubiquitous falling snow just out of reach...

All this -- edited to an Aria by Handel -- culminates in a frenzy of sexual orgasm and tragic death. Passion has been sated. But responsibility has been neglected. Nick -- the little boy -- falls from the window to his death in agonizing, almost cruel slow-motion (replete with falling teddy bear at his side...). After the child's death, the family's dirty laundry stops circling in the dryer in a separate shot. This is an image of domesticity shirked for passion.

After this terrible incident, He and She attempt to cope with their child's tragic death. She blames herself, becomes dependent on mood-altering medication, and ends up in the hospital. She finds herself prone to panic attacks. He -- a therapist -- immediately makes his wife his pet project. Instead of coping with his own grief, He makes coping with her grief his only care; his only concern. Yet he is distant and arrogant, and treats his wife like an experimental subject case. The doctors believe that She is experiencing an "atypical grief pattern," but He knows better. He always knows better. Grief is normal; she just has to "work through it."

One day, He asks his wife what She is afraid of most. Rather surprisingly, she tells him that she fears "the woods." So together, they travel to the woods. "Nature is Satan's Church," the movie informs us, and that warning soon proves accurate. But specifically, the couple travels to a pastoral corner of Earth named "Eden." At their cabin there, the couple works out her grief, her panic attacks, her self-hatred. All by his timetable and modus operandi.

At the rural cabin, He also discovers evidence of his wife's academic thesis, which she mysteriously abandoned during her last trip to Eden. That academic work involved witches and "gynocide," the mistreatment of women by men throughout history. Her notes also reveal a transformation in her thinking process: They go from being extremely detailed and academic to looking like the lunatic scrawlings of a schizophrenic, or someone possessed by the Devil.

Then, He discovers photographs of their son Nick, from the boy's last summer trip to Eden (alone with his mother). In every single photograph the man unearths, the boy's shoes were placed on the wrong feet. And the official autopsy reveals that the boy's feet were slightly deformed...a result of his mother's strange, repetitive behavior.

Before long, the wife tells her husband that perhaps it is the Female's very nature to be evil, and that is why their son is dead. She indicates that all those men who burned and brutalized women as "witches" were only murdering "evil." He categorically rejects this argument, stating that she -- as an educated woman -- should know better. That her research should tell her differently. Those women were brutalized. Those women (the witches) were destroyed by a male society that feared female strength and power.

But his wife proves her point most dramatically. During sexual intercourse with her husband, she batters him in the penis (and this is seen on screen...) with what appears to be a heavy log (though I have also seen it described as a brick in some reviews ). The pain knocks the husband unconscious. And while he's out, his wife jerks him off until he ejaculates torrents of blood. This is depicted on camera too. Nothing is hidden.

And that's just the beginning! The man's wife bolts a heavy, industrial pole (and thick metal grinding wheel) to one of his legs...and throws away the wrench that could unbolt it. He tries to crawl away to safety, fearing for his life (but the "weight" of his wife drags him down...get it?)

Later, in perhaps the most harrowing scene I've seen in years, the wife in Antichrist mutilates her own genitals with a pair of scissors (also depicted on screen, in nauseating close-up), and then sets upon her husband with the scissors too. He fights back.

Finally, after the last battle, He walks alone in the isolating forest of Eden. Mysteriously, an army of faceless women pass him by him on the hill...headed for some unknown destination.

Good and Evil: They Have Nothing to Do With Therapy

So what the hell is going on in Antichrist, and why do some people insist it is misogynist in intent?

Well, the movie is about one big idea: how people (women or men) believe and internalize the messages sent out by the culture, and the serious damage that those messages can inflict on a fragile ego.

"She" has internalized all of the literature and history that she's read about witches (including the book, "Gynocide"), and decided must be true. That women are evil. She believes this -- as the movie reveals in the final act -- because she actually saw her son climb to the window before he fell...and didn't stop him. She was in the midst of an orgasm, actually. She didn't save her own boy, so she must be evil, right?

The woman's act of slicing off her own clitoris is important here. It is the act of cutting off the part of herself that is not acceptable to society; the part that wanted "sex" in one moment of passion. And putting the boy's shoes on backwards? A passive-aggressive push-back against the male-dominated culture that tells her she must be a maternal care-giver first and an intellectual (and a sexual being) second and third.

Her husband believes he can talk to his wife rationally in terms of psychotherapy jargon and platitudes; that he can deploy rationality and the intellect to talk her out of her very real grief, sadness, and blistering self-hatred. What he learns is that in Satan's Church (nature), "chaos reigns." Therapy has nothing to do with good or evil. Good and evil are more powerful forces than the constructs of man's science. And in acting out the part of "witch" (down to the physical torturing of her husband), "She" accomplishes something else. She forces her cold-fish of a husband to feel something too, a denied emotion. Rage. She rips the veneer of civilization from him. Now it is his nature -- his ugly, violent "male" nature that is in play.

The therapist's wife forces him into a role from "Gynocide" indeed: the respectable man (the priest, the judge, the governor, the farmer...) who puts aside all rationality and condemns a woman as a monster. When, in the film's last shot, Dafoe sees the hundreds of faceless women milling about in the woods, it is because he -- the coldly rational therapist -- has joined the ranks of the abusers. All these women, essentially, are the victims of his male nature.

Dafoe's character is not a bad or evil man, per se, but he is a dominating one. Throughout the film, He forces his wife to "play" therapist games on his timetable, in his fashion. He forces her to confront things she doesn't want to confront. He forces her to go where she does not want to go. He is demanding and relentless that she be "open." Yet in the end, his wife performs an experiment on him: burdening him with physical pain (and literally a physical weight), so as to see, finally, what he is made of. What she discovers, sadly, is that her husband is made of the same matter as the historical men in the academic books. When push comes to shove, he succumbs to rage. He commits murder. His hatred for her (and for all womankind, by extension) is the thing he has kept buried, and her experiments have exposed it.

The Three Beggars: A Shamanic Journey.

Antichrist is filled with odd symbols. "Eden," of course, is a reference to the Biblical Garden of Eden. It is the place where He and She attempt to return to a state of innocence (free of guilt).

But because nature is Satan's Church, there is no return to innocence; only a darkening of the situation. An opening up of the Evil. A giant life-less tree seems to dominate the landscape, and it is the Biblical Tree of Knowledge, now an ugly, malevolent husk.

Throughout the film, He and She also encounter a variety of animals in the wild: A fox who speaks ("Chaos Reigns," he says...); a deer who carries a stillborn doe on its back, and a crow who eerily mimics the call of a dying child.

In the end -- when these three beggars meet -- someone has to die, according to the wife's understanding of witchcraft lore. These animals represent, then, the woman's tacit philosophical acceptance of her "evil" sisterhood: so-called "pagan witches" who danced and prayed by moonlight in the forests; who controlled familiars (animals), and who -- their powers joined -- could make the sleet fall. Late in the film, She also makes it hail. (And thus, one must wonder, if she can make it hail; can she make it snow? And if she can make it snow...did she create the snow on the night her son died?)

The answers aren't easy to know here. All we can do is interpret the signals and determine what the story of Antichrist means to us, personally, based on our best reading of the clues.

My viewpoint is that, like the Goldenheart trilogy by the same director, Antichrist is actually a rejection of misogyny. The film indicates that the woman -- the once-obedient and "good" wife and mother -- has internalized all the negative and hateful messages of a patriarchal culture and arrived at a place of self-hatred. Like the Goldenheart, she was good, and obligingly put her faith in the wrong place. That's what destroys her.

This woman enjoys sex (you'll notice the woman is always the sexual aggressor in this film...) and yet she feels guilty about that, because our society by and large does not believe this is how a proper woman should behave. She also chafes under the role of "mother," because she is unable to continue her intellectual pursuits while acting as the child's caregiver. And also, her husband does not relate to her as an equal, but rather as a patient, a child needing to be corrected. She thus doesn't see herself in the role the culture demands of women: she is not happy as a Mom; she is not happy as a wife. She wants to feel passion and enjoys sex. In the lingo of the society that makes her a whore or a slut, doesn't it?

The result is something terrible: after absorbing all those messages about the Evil in Female Nature, "She" decides to live up to them. She believes them. Her extreme guilt over her son's death allows her no other trajectory. Similarly, her husband's denial takes him down the same path. He can only "blame" his wife for her mistakes and miscues, and this battle of the sexes ends in murder.

In whatever way you should choose to interpret Antichrist, it is a visceral, haunting film. Some of the images found here are impossible to shake. The opening montage is a disturbing masterpiece, a mini-film unto itself. And the shamanic,dream walk through the forest by "She" is filled with gorgeous, portentous imagery that harks back to something primeval about the woods. Darkness has come early at that lonely bridge, in a frozen, misty woods. Cross that bridge, and there is no turning back...

is weird: an art-house movie that is, literally, gorier than Saw or any Saw sequel. Here, however, the violence is much more disturbing because it all occurs within the framework of the marital relationship; in the very place where love should reign.

What is there to fear in the woods of Eden? As the wife says, "Can't I just be afraid without a definite object?"

will make you afraid. And the definite object to be afraid us. Or as is scrawled by "He" on his wife's "pyramid of fear: Me."

Human nature.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The 2nd Annual Cyber Horror Awards: Announcing the Nominees

They're heeeeeeere!

The Vault of Horror's B-Sol has just announced the nominees for the 2009 Cyber Horror Awards.

Along with Zombos Closet maestro and League of Tana Tea Drinkers Founder John Cozzoli, and B-Sol, I was quite honored to serve on the nominating committee this year.

Be sure to read the full list of nominees, here at the 2009 Cyber Horror Awards site.

Ballots have been sent out, votes will be tallied, and winners will be announced the first week of March, 2010. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Pandorum (2009)

Important note to architects of the future: the Generational space ark or "sleeper ark" is a very problematic vehicle. At least, that is, if we are to believe the examples of science fiction novels, TV series, and films focusing on the topic.

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 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.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Millennium Group Sessions Podcast: JKM

T.L. Foreman and James McLean, two masterminds of Back to Frank Black -- the dedicated campaign to resurrect Chris Carter's Millennium -- have just posted the 20th Millennium Group Session Podcast at their site.

And --yep! -- it's an in-depth audio interview with yours truly, me! Click here to listen to the full hour.

This the first part of a two-part conversation. The topics range from my writing career to my opinion of the social value of the horror genre. We discuss Millennium, the ways beloved TV series age and change over the years. And there's also some talk about my officially licensed Space:1999 novel (The Forsaken)...and more.

Coming up in Part 2 next week there's more Millennium talk as well as a detailed look back at my independent web series, The House Between.

Anyway, I'd like to thank James and Troy for doing such a great job hosting the show and for including me in their impressive Podcast series. I hope you'll take a listen...