Pandorum as Tale of Archival Crisis

I just recently attended the annual Science Fiction Research Association Conference held this year in Carefree, AZ,[1] where I delivered a paper entitled: “Tales of Archival Crisis: [Neal] Stephenson’s Reimagining of the Post-Apocalyptic Frontier.”  I argued for the existence of a significant and unnoticed sub-genre of SF therein by way of Stephenson’s Anathem: what I call the tale of archival crisis.  Though I cannot present that paper here, primarily for reasons that I still have some work to do on it and b/c I want to develop it into a slightly longer piece, I had the great luck to stumble across Pandorum (Christian Alvart, 2009) one night at the conference,[2] via the instant play available on Netflix, and was shocked at the resonance it had w/ my more general theoretical constructions of the tale of archival crisis.[3] It, mixed w/ the rather disappointing Living in the End Times, by Slavoj Žižek—my primary reading recently during various decadent kinds of vacation—has unavoidably occasioned some kind of brief commentary (following).

Pandorum is the kind of (excellent) B-SF-movie[4] that I was surprised to see Steven Shaviro has yet to comment upon.[5] And in lieu of his perhaps much more perspicuous take on it, I submit that it captures many of the features of what I call the “tale of archival crisis” very well.  In short, Pandorum is a film in which the archive mutates/evolves, and this change threatens the very survival of the human species.  In other words, the archive itself produces an apocalyptic-type crisis.

Pandorum is set in a far future where, of course, humans have “exhausted” the earth, have found another planet, and sent an ar/-chive/-k to populate it.  This ship is filled w/ tens-of-thousands of cryogenically frozen humans who have been injected w/ something that causes their mutation/evolution to speed up exponentially[6]; in addition to this, the ship holds the “entirety” of the earth’s biological archive (i.e. DNA, seeds, animals, etc. etc. [one can imagine]).  But (again, of course) things have gone terribly wrong.  (Spoilers.)  For whatever (dumbass) reasons, they’ve only left 3 people in charge of the ship at any time, and one of these people (for reasons that remain scientifically unclear[7]) has gone batshit insane, and killed the other two on duty w/ him.  The film explains this man in mythological terms—i.e. he took total control of the ship, became a sort of god, but got bored so went back into cryo-sleep.

So, the film opens w/ two men awakening from cryo-sleep and, of course, it induces temporary amnesia.[8] One of these men is the god-man reawakened, but we don’t “know” that till the end.  (There’s all sorts of hallucination, psycho-camera-work in between.)  The other is our necessary hero/messiah/whatever.  All this aside, there are 3 striking things about this film:

1)  Near the end of the film, shortly after we have learned that the earth has been utterly destroyed, the characters open the observation windows and cannot help but see an inky blackness.  Dennis Quaid’s character (the god-man) immediately assumes that all creation has been wiped away, that this little ship is the only thing left.  I’m not sure if horror has ever been so effectively boiled down to its pure “essence” than in this scene.

2)  Ben Foster’s (the hero’s) character, Bower, drops into a pit of mutated, sleeping demi-humans, who are usually engaged in constantly cannibalizing everything in sight b/c of the general lack of any food-stuffs on the ship, but at this moment are sleeping.  These “humans,” b/c of the injection for exponential adaptation and evolution they’ve received, have quite effectively “adapted” to the ship.  Their sense of smell is incredible, so Foster has to drape himself in the skin of their cannibalized victims in order to cross their mass of (orgiastically) sleeping bodies.

3)  We learn near the end of the film that, though this journey was only supposed to take b/t 100-200 years, they’ve been asleep/traveling for nearly 1000.  Meaning: plenty of time for evolution and whole new cultural paradigms have been provided for these “humans” to pretty much change into an apocalyptic threat b/c of their archival nature—i.e. they “awake” on occasion from the vast farms of cryogenically frozen humans and “contribute” to the various species’ changes that take place in the film.

Some things should be clear about the above information.  What is encountered in Pandorum is humanity itself encountered as archive.  Both in their spatial orientation—they’re stored cryogenically for populating another planet—and at the very root of their genetic code—they can adapt to whatever their surroundings are, and if they inhabit a dark, far-past its expiration-date-ship, they’ll develop cannibalism to its nth degree.  In addition, the universe itself, for the brief moment when they think creation has been deleted, can be seen as archival—in terms of the “archival remainder”: what is left after the archive has been deleted (meaning everything has been deleted) is merely this part-of-no-part, this piece of humanity left to experience its horrific dying gasps.  Lastly, to traverse the ground[9] of the posthumanity that develops in the film, one must quite literally cover themselves in the archive of the dead, in the skin of those who have gone before.

So it is no wonder that the final scene of the film is the hero “ejecting” the archive from this thoroughly apocalyptic archival-formulation, b/c he’s realized they’re all actually at the bottom of the ocean on the planet they meant to go to in the first place.  So when we get a wide-digital-shot of archives of human beings breaching the surface, with the implied semi-utopian reading that paradise has not only been found, but achieved, we should be skeptical.  What has been released is nothing less than the part-of-no-part, the ineluctable remainder of the archive that just “happened” to be saved from the very logic of the archive itself.  In other words, the archive of Pandorum has virtually no hopeful limits.  The film makes very clear that when you categorize, inject, and “break-down” human beings into their constituent parts (reify them), only their end is assured.  Consequently, the film’s ending is thoroughly ambiguous, b/c to take it as hopeful, we would have had to ignore the entirety of the film, and only participate in whatever ideological illusions still hold today.  We should emerge from its fantasmatic archive-destroying-the-human-species-images w/ another thought in mind entirely: perhaps the only solution is to eject our archive into the void, eject the totality of human “knowledge” (and other stuff) into the void, b/c we’re absolutely doomed (unless we all become bartleby[10]), and that is the only hope we have.  And this, of course, is depressing.  Thank you Pandorum.


[1] See below post.

[2] After watching Allison de Fren’s excellent, disturbing, and timely Mechanical Brides (2010, unfinished), which I excitedly hope is finished and released sometime soon to the general public (i.e. festivals take note).

[3] As in: I just finished a piece delimiting exactly what is going on in Pandorum.  Synchronicity like this should be outlawed.

[4] Btw, one of the arguments used during this conference was that SF represented a significant amount of the highest grossing films of all time, an argument that, if any sort of critical work was applied, would clearly be seen to be an over-generalization at best, and a total ignorance of the really interesting SF that is being made today that doesn’t really gross anything at worst.  In other words, you SF scholars cannot justify yourself by referencing how much Harry Potter Whatever made, but should be consciously and responsibly investing yourselves in the actual interesting and relevant SF that is pecuniarily worthless.  Sorry, this sort of polemic could not help but be occasioned by this gathering.

[5] In other words, I finished watching the film and immediately went to The Pinocchio Theory expecting to see something interesting on it.  It wasn’t there, so in lieu of this imagined document, see his excellent discussion of Gamer (Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, 2009), here.

[6] I.e. going to a new planet necessitates quick adaptation.

[7] Suffice it to say that “being in space for inordinate, hopeless amounts of time,” is enough to drive one insane.

[8] I.e. it is thus very easy for the film to insert instantaneous memory recovery at appropriate narrative moments.

[9] In the Heideggerian sense.

[10] According to Žižek.

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