Figuring Out Pandorum

When my friend and I arrived to see “Pandorum” at the Century 24 last week, the parking lot was empty.  This is the place where bad movies open to die an unwatched death.  For a science fiction movie, good or bad, this wasn’t a bad situation.  We were horrified to find a bevy of pre-teen girls moving through the concession stand, wondering if “Pandorum” appealed to the teeny-bopper set of”Twilight” and we should return our tickets.  We were relieved see them go into the theater playing “Fame,” a re-make of the classic 1980’s TV/movie/play/whatever since Hollywood can’t think of anything more original.  Unlike “Jennifer’s Body” the week before, no one was talking behind us since there were fewer people watching.   We had one question that was left unanswered by the trailer thatwe first saw at WonderCon 2009.

Was “Pandorum” more like “Alien” (an alien creature) or “Event Horizon” (a demon-possessed spaceship)?

The bridge crew of the Elsym receives the final transmission from a dying Earth that they are now the last survivors of humanity.  Later on, two crew officers, Bower (Ben Foster) and Payton (Dennis Quaid), are awaken from hyper-sleep.  They have functional memories for operating the various subsystems of the ship that comes back to them sooner than their personal memories of who they are as individuals.  They discover that they’re locked inside their compartment, unable to raise the bridge crew on the radio, and a periodic power surge is slowly destroying the ship.  Bower goes into the ventilation system to bypass the locked door to find out what is going on with the ship and reset the nuclear reactor before it shuts down forever.  Payton monitors Bower’s progress via radio and tries to find a way to unlock the door to the bridge.

Bower comes across the pale-skinned creatures that are roaming around the ship, hunting down and eating any survivors they can find.   Are these space vampire or space zombies?  Neither.  They appear to be space cannibals who violently eat humans—or each other—into shreds.  Bower discovers two other crew members, Nadia (Antje Traue) and Manh (Cung Le), who had eked out a marginal existence of staying alive while avoiding the creatures.  Together they travel towards the nuclear reactor.  When they come across another survivor in a bolt hole, he recites how one member of the bridge crew reacted violently to Earth’s last transmission, taking on a Messiah complex, and exiling the other crew members into the ship, referring to the elaborately carved images into the metal panels like cave paintings that resembles the exile of humanity from Eden.  Of course, the survivor telling them the story posioned their water so he could have them stay for dinner as his dinner.  They convinced him that they would be his last dinner if the nuclear reactor shuts down to kill everyone aboard the ship.

Payton, meanwhile, discovers a crew member crawling in the ventilation shaft, Gallo (Cam Gigandet of “Twilight”), who was on the bridge when the last transmission from Earth came in.  Pandorum, as Payton explained to Bower earlier, is a psychological condition that sometimes effect crew members in deep space, introducing paranoia and homicidal rages.   The first ship sent to the Earth-like planet failed because a sick crew member took over the ship and jettisoned the hyper-sleep pods of 60,000 people into deep space.  When Payton confronts Gallo about what really happened to the ship, the Pandorum madness spirals out of control in a fight to the death.   Meanwhile, Bower resets the nuclear reactor with minutes to spare and comes under the influence of Pandorum when reaching the bridge.

The ending has several twists, some obvious and some obscure.  The most significant can easily be missed when the camera crosses over the mission time clock—924 years from launch—that explains the evolution of the cannibals from the exiled crew.  When the doors over the bridge windows are opened to reveal a dark void, the distinctive lifeforms swimming outside explains where the ship had landed.  Although Pandorum the disease nearly killed the mission again, the ship itself had completed the mission to bring humanity to a new planet.  Only 1,200 some odd survivors are left to restart humanity.

Cannibals in space is a subject rarely touched in science fiction. The closest example I can think of are the Reavers from the TV series,“Firefly,” who haunt the space ways looking for flesh to consume and decorate the outside of their ships with skeletons.  The only other science fiction series where the crew evolved was the TV series, “Red Dwarf,” where Cat is the humanoid descendent of a pregnant domesticated cat during the three million years sealed in the ship cargo hold.  This makes “Pandorum” a rather curious blend for a science fiction movie, less like “Alien” and “Event Horizon” in many ways.

Updated – Sunday, 20 March 2011: A newer blog post about Pandorum can be found here.

Watching Jennifer’s Body

When my friend and I arrived at the Winchester 23 to see “Jennifer’s Body” last week, the parking lot was empty.  We thought were at the Century 24 down the street, where bad movies open to die an unwatched death.  A few more people arrived after we settled down inside the theater, including a couple who talked during the moving because they were either drunk or stupid (hard to tell in the dark).   As the Shepherd Derrial Book says in the TV series, “Firefly,” there’s a special level in Hell that’s reserved for child molesters and people who talked in movie theaters.  Like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” (cue music), we found ourselves in that special level.

I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to watch this movie.  I read that Diablo Cody (who wrote “Juno”) was calling this the “anti-Juno” movie, where the story focused on the bad girl doing bad things rather than the good girl doing good things.  Being able to deconstruct your own work, doing a reverse transformation, and adding a twist are the hallmarks of a good writer.  Because I was in the middle of writing on my own horror short story about teenagers and a shopping cart possessed by a senior citizen, I found myself deconstructing “Jennifer’s Body” to figure out what works and what fails in this particular horror tale.

The story begins and ends with a Needy (Amanda Seyfried) being in a women prison facility for murdering her best friend forever, Jennifer (Megan Fox), narrating how she ended up there and being able to kick a nurse across the room by explaining what happened before.   I don’t like this form of storytelling.   I prefer that a story be told straight through.  Other than serving as bookends for the tale being told, I don’t see why this movie couldn’t be told straight through.

The first thing we find out is the location: Devil’s Kettle.  A town named after a waterfall of the same name, where a part of the waterfall spills into a hole that no one knows where it goes.  Turns out that Devil’s Kettle Falls is a real waterfall in Minnesota except the movie version looks like a bathroom sink made out of marble surrounded by a whirlpool of water.  The town appears to be fictional.  The high school mascot is a red devil (obviously), and where else would you have a virginal sacrifice to Satan (that comes later).

Since Needy is a blond and Jennifer is a brunette, we got the classical Betty and Veronica archetype of the blond being the good girl and the brunette being the bad girl. I struggled to like Needy (way too nerdy) and took an instant dislike to Jennifer (looking for trouble).  This probably has more to do with Archie proposing marriage to Veronica rather than Betty, which makes Archie an idiot in my book.   (I have nothing against brunettes; I just like good girls more than bad girls.)   Jennifer drags Needy away from her innocent boyfriend (who complains about his girlfriend being kidnapped all the time) to go to a roadside bar to meet a rock band that plays some very U2-ish music.   Like any good horror story, people die if they have drugs, premarital sex, and/or liberal politics.

Since the band leader had identified Jennifer as a virgin (taking Needy’s word when she overhears them talking), a mysterious fire breaks out that kills most of the people inside the bar, including high school students and a teacher, and Jennifer is kidnapped while Needy watches helplessly from the roadside.  Jennifer is sacrificed as a virginal offering at the waterfall to have Satan’s grant the band’s request to be rich and famous, and the knife tossed into the pool below the waterfall but it doesn’t go into the hole.  The request is granted but not as expected because the instructions downloaded from the Internet weren’t that explicit.  Because Jennifer wasn’t a virgin, a demon took possession of her body with a craving for boy flesh.

When the boys start showing up dead and eaten a month after the bar fire, Needy goes to the school library to pull out a book of demonology to discover what’s going with Jennifer.   What school libraries in post-Reagan America still carry books on demonology, witchcraft and liberalism?   Mine didn’t.  The public library did.   (If you want to spook out a librarian today, ask for a book on building nuclear weapons.)  Only the school libraries in “Carrie” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” would stock books on those topics.

I enjoyed how one student explains that if something appears on Wikipedia, it must be true.  Or how Needy explains to her boyfriend how real evil is different from high school evil.  I’m quite certain that both of these lines appeared in one form or another in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and the movie itself reminds of an extended conflict between Buffy (good girl) and Faith (bad girl) that also played out against the Betty and Veronica archetype.

There are two pairs of counterpoint scenes involving beds that I enjoyed and detested.

The most publicized scene was the extended lesbian kiss that establishes a psychic connection between Needy and Jennifer in Needy’s bed that eventually leads to the counterpoint scene where they fight to the death in Jennifer’s bed.  I don’t know if the underlying message should be that teenaged girls spend an awful lot of time in each other’s bed.  A good horror story requires counterpoint scenes (or references) that defines the characters and foreshadow the conflict.   My own horror short story that I finished writing today had a half-dozen references.

The other counterpoint scenes happens at the same when Jennifer takes down the goth boy (their shadows cast against the wall when the blood and guts are tossed) and Needy loses her virginity to her boyfriend (an almost top-down camera view).  This is where the psychic link between the two girls comes into full play.  While Needy losing her virginity wasn’t overly explicit, it comes across to me as being pornographic.  Porn is almost always the kiss of death in a horror story.  When used in moderation, restraint, and well integrated into the story, sex can be a powerful force.  When the boyfriend asks if he’s “too big,” the scene went over the top for me.  If I had a popcorn container, I might’ve hurled.

The best part of the movie is where Needy escapes from prison through the use of the demonic powers she inherited from a bite while fighting Jennifer, locates the knife used to sacrifice Jennifer’s body in a gully off the river, and hitch hikes with an older man (J.K. Simmons, a.k.a. Juno’s father, making a cameo appearance) to track down the rock and roll band.  While the end credits are rolling, a series of Beatles-like still pictures shows the band getting out of the limo, entering the hotel, checking out the hotel room, and doing stupid things.  A security camera shows a lone girl wearing a hoodie entering and leaving the corridor before a mob of girls stampede through to see the band.   Then girls then screams in horror.  A series of crime scene still photos shows how the band members were sliced, diced and filleted.  A priceless revenge.

As for Megan Fox’s body, not much is shown.  What is shown reveals her to be a scrawny little thing, and I don’t find seeing ribs on a woman to be that sexy.  Without the CGI special effects from “Transformers,” she isn’t that hot.  This is supposed to be her movie debut away from the “Transformers” franchise, her bad girl character seems to fall flat.  Maybe she would do will to play Betty rather than Veronica in future movies.


The Top Chef Bottom Fell Out In Sin City

A funny thing happened to Top Chef when Season Six started in Las Vegas: the whole bottom fell out.

Contestants who obviously shouldn’t have been in the competition in the first place were quickly eliminated.  The contestant who sliced her fingers to bleed all over the place in the Quick Fire challenge was eliminated for a dish that died on the table in the Elimination challenge.  Another person who wasted time during the Quick Fire challenge for not knowing the differences between opening clams and oysters was also eliminated for a dish that died on the table in the Elimination challenge.  For the first couple of episodes, this was an exciting departure from past seasons where the obvious loser lingers on forever before being eliminated.

Then the bottom kept falling out.

A typical season of Top Chef has contestants that fall into a familiar pattern: a few on top, a few on bottom, everyone else in the middle.  Which often has the judges cajoling the contestants to get out of the safe middle to cook their way into the top or bottom.  The worst season I ever saw was where the middle stayed the same, but those at the top and bottom kept trading places up and down with every episode.  Half a season goes by before the middle is squeezed out to produce the top contestants to go into the final round.  But this season is different.   The middle is being squeezed by the bottom falling out faster than usual, making the top the safest place to be that only a few contestants are there consistently.

Are the cooking challenges and/or judging too hard this season?  I don’t think so.  Everything is what you would expect after five seasons of Top Chef.  These contestants should have analyzed every episode to know what have been done in the past and what skill sets they need to have to face a particular challenge or adapt to a different challenge.  Yet the contestants who are being eliminated are delivering dishes that are dead on the table.  An inedible dish is the quickest way to get eliminated from the competition.

Which raises a disturbing question:  Can any of these contestants cook their way out of a paper bag?

The answer so far this season is quite obvious.  The contestants seem to be perplexed by problems that contestants from previous seasons were able to improvise or work around even if they had no experience with the main ingredient in question.  If these contestants represent the most talented up and coming chefs available, maybe the show should be renamed as Bottom Chef.  At the very least, casting for next year’s season should be better than this year.

Whatever problems that Top Chef had this season in Las Vegas will hopefully stay in Las Vegas.

Twittering My Way Into Bussiness Week

I usually mention on Twitter what I get in the mail as a writer: rejection slips that take four long paragraphs or 20 bullet points before mentioning the obvious (“REJECTED!”), the once in a blue moon acceptance letter, or rarely hard cash ($3.02 USD – KA-ching!).  With about 60 short stories and poems floating in the slush piles, I’m always adding to my rejection slip wallpaper collection.  A few weeks ago, I mentioned a credit card notice where fees and interest rates are being raised across the board.  Since the notice wasn’t in super-extra-fine print that credit card companies love to use, the amounts I could be screwed over for was breathtaking.

Last week I was contacted by an editor for Business Week who saw my comment on Twitter.  We traded emails,  I sent a scanned copy of the notification letter, and we talked on the phone.  The article, Dodging Credit Card Reforms, came out this week’s issue (September 21, 2009, p. 26).

C.D. Reimer of San Jose was switched to a variable card last month. At the same time the issuer, Barclaycards, upped his rate to 26.99% from around 16%. Reimer could have canceled the account. But the 40-year-old was laid off from his software support job and depends on plastic. Barclaycards declined to comment.

This isn’t how I expected to break out in the national media.  (The Oprah’s Book Club nomination is still some years away.)  However, I’m planning to cancel that the credit card before the opt-out deadline in late November.  Unless the credit card companies want to take rejection slips as payment, I need my cash more than they do.

Updated 16 September 2009 @ 2:00PM – Cancelled the credit card mentioned above.  One rule in today’s economy: if something cost money and a pain in the butt, it got to go.


Extract Of Dysfunctional Reality

When I saw “Extract” this past weekend, I expected a movie about seemingly normal people caught up in situations that leads to morally compromising choices that no one in their right mind would entertain and someone dropping dead for no good reason.   I wasn’t disappointed.  This is a Hollywood genre that I like to call dysfunctional reality.

Small businessman Joel (Jason Bateman) finds himself stuck at work and an overly talkative neighbor, Nathan (David Koechner), that prevents him from getting home before 8:00PM, and, once his wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig), puts on her sweatpants, he is so out of luck in getting laid for that night.  If that wasn’t bad enough, a larger company is offering to buy out his extract flavor factory, and his workforce is more interested in bickering with each other that accidents routinely happen.  After one of his employee, Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), loses a testicle in an extended accident that involves everyone on the line, a dysfunctional reality settles on Joel.

The movie starts with Cindy (Mila Kunis) at a guitar shop looking to buy a $3,000 USD guitar for her Dad’s birthday, and, once the two sales clerks are falling over each other to get something from the back room, she walks out the door with the guitar.  At a nearby pawn shop, the clerk is throwing $20 USD bills at her when she tells him about how her poor Dad had just died.  After glancing through her collection of Midwestern driver licenses, and reading an article about the factory accident with the realization that millions of dollars could be gain in a personal injury lawsuit, she gets a job at the factory to learn of Step’s home address to cozy up him and starts stealing personal items from everyone else.

Meanwhile, Joel confesses his martial problems to his bartender, Dean (Ben Affleck), who loads him with booze and a horse tranquilizer pill that’s supposed to be something else, and offers him devious advice about setting his wife up with a teenaged gigolo to pretend to be the pool cleaner to cancel out any the moral qualms about having an affair with Cindy.   (Recycling the 1970’s answer to any problem with sex, booze and pills.)  After sobering up with a killer hang over, Joel changes his mind only to discover that the gigolo had started early after recovering from his hang over and proven himself to be too effective.  Now anger and guilt replaced the long suffering frustration to animate the conversations between husband and wife.

Gene Simmons of KISS fame plays a personal injury attorney, Joe Adler, who seems to be the only sane person in the movie when he explains vulgarly how the monetary value of a man with only one testicle is the holy grail of personal injury lawsuits.  After Joel refuses to pay the holy grail number, the attorney offers to drop the suit in return for slamming Joel’s testicles in a door as adequate compensation for his Step’s loss.  But even the attorney is not immune from this dysfunctional reality when Cindy sets him up to steal his fancy sports car and drives off into the sunset.  I think Simmons performance rivals Meatballs’ performance as a strict fundamentalist father in “Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny.”

Joel eventually figures out Cindy’s game, sleeps with her, goes about righting the wrongs of this dysfunctional reality, and reconciles with Suzie at the funeral of their talkative neighbor who keels over after she tells him off.  You can’t have a dysfunctional reality movie without one person bumbling into his own death.  Which is why “Extract” reminds me of “Burn After Reading” (which I hated) with the gym instructor accidentally shot dead by the Treasury officer who never fired his gun before, or “The Lady Killers” when a fallen criminal is tossed on top of a garbage barge passing underneath a bridge.  When everything returns to normal, you have to wonder why these people put themselves through this in the first place.

This is the kind of movie that makes me glad that I have a normal, boring life with few moral complications. Then again, I’m a writer.  All my characters suffer whatever stupidity that I can think of.   Except I don’t think my imagination will ever be as twisted as what Hollywood is putting out with these dysfunctional realities.


The Snow Leopard Arrives

The newest version of the Mac OS X called Snow Leopard came out last Friday. Since this was a $29 upgrade, I pre-ordered from theApple Store a few days before.  The FedEx driver showed up after lunch with the package, and I waited until my friend came over before installing on my first-generation, black MacBook.  We ate pizza while watching the installation progress bar fill up for 45 minutes, which is twice as fast as installing Leopard.  With Dilbert having a very geeky strip on dating relationships that day, I dared ask the most geekiest question: “Is this the reason why we don’t have girlfriends?”

We both shuddered, inhaled deeply, and returned to our true love.

Snow Leopard has a ton of performance enhancements and no significant features.  My first impression was that the overall interface is much faster and more snappier.  What used to take five seconds for something to happen, now takes a few seconds.  That may not sound like a lot but it does add over time.  Beyond that, you really need to dig deeper to find all the other improvements.  Ars Technica has a 23-page detailed analysis of what’s new in Snow Leopard, if you really, really want to know.  If you work professionally with Macs that will be running Snow Leopard, this is required reading.  Be forewarned, the analysis is so technical that it even put me to sleep.

Snow Leopard has been smoothest upgrade that I ever had on a Mac.  The only program that wasn’t compatible was an older version of Parallels Desktop for running virtual machines that I haven’t upgraded.  (Which, not surprisingly, I got an email today to upgrade to newest version that’s Snow Leopard compatible.)  The Image Capture program has a better interface that makes downloading from my camera easy since I have 385 pictures accumulated over the last three years.  (One of these days, I’ll dump the whole lot intoAdobe Lightroom and erase the memory card.)  I also like how editing a photo in Adobe Photoshop doesn’t change the file association to open in Preview.  That was something I was always changing back under Leopard.

My only real complaint with Snow Leopard is that this upgrade is only compatible with Intel CPUs.  I would very much love to have this performance increase on my Mac mini with a PowerPC CPU.  Then again, I really need to get a newer Mac mini that would run Snow Leopard a lot faster and take advantage of features that my MacBook can’t handle.