Pandorum: Capitalism and the Fear of a Cannibal Planet
by Christopher Vitale (Crossposted at Networkologies)
So I just got done watching the relatively new sci-fi/horror flic Pandorum for the second time. Its a film that’s got many of my guilty pleasures – namely, sci-fi, horror, and a ton of other anxieties on its mind. Its the sort of film that psychoanalytic tropes were made for. I think its a pretty underrated film. My brain and gut knew that before I was long into it. The question, though, is why.
As with any horror film, the task is decoding the film – what social anxieties show up in encoded form in this film/dream? That is, if films are the collective dreams of our culture, what anxieties were troubling us before we went to ‘sleep’ in the theater to make us not only want to keep watching, but through our intermediaries in the film industry, create this dream? Psychoanalytic film theory is all about linking the dream-works of traditional Freudian theory with the ‘dream factory’ of ‘Hollywood’. In which case, society is both dreamer and dream-maker. The task is to find out what about, and why.
Most horror, sci-fi, and genre films (including just about any film you watch that isn’t hyper avant-garde) is always telling a story which is really a retelling, in that it tells the story of its genre. Westerns always tell the tale of the establishment of the law, and were perfect symptoms of America in the 60’s and 70’s, trying to retell is own birth story in a time of crisis. Horror and sci-fi films are new versions of the same. The question with each film in a genre becomes then, how does this film comment on the general narrative of the genre? What is its statement within the form? Like Levi-Strauss’s reading of myth, the question becomes knowing how to use the myth as a template for utterances, not about the past, but the present. Myth ties past and present together in the rearticulation of the past to create the future. The only difference with using such structuralist tools today, after post-structuralist critique, is that we don’t believe in ‘deep myths’ anymore, but rather, a procession of mutating, small-form myths. But otherwise, the same structure applies as ground for a very useful form of social analysis.
The film starts off with the lead character, Bower, who abruptly awakens from a very claustrophobic, terrifying sleep pod aboard some sort of very dark space ship. He’s alone, the ship in general doesn’t seem to be functioning, and worse yet, he doesn’t know who he is. Luckily, signs are around him to lead him to some answers, though not many at first. He reads the front of his pod, and learns that he is named ‘bower’. He matches that name to a locker nearby, where he finds clothes, a military uniform, so we now have his role in society. He also sees a chart that advises, amongst other things, how to deal with the temporary memory loss associated with hypersleep.
This is one of the first horror or sci-fi films I’ve seen that uses this unique trope – the slow restoration of memory. Many films which involve amnesia use this trope, which allows the (psychoanalytic) process of ‘learning/remembering about one’s past in steps’ to proceed, but I don’t think I’ve seen this trope used in sci-fi or horror, its usually in more contemporary films (ie: Memento). This is one of the first films of its type to force its characters, and with it, the viewer, to ask the question that haunts all psychoanalysis: “who am I, and what do I want?”. And as I figure out my past, as my memory returns, “who will I become?”
As the film continues, Bower finds that another crew member of the ship has woken up. This crew member, a superior officer named Payton, also remembers next to nothing. But they do realize it is their duty to find out what happened to the ship, get it up and running again, etc. In the process, various clues and slowly returning memories fill in some of the story. They are on the ship Elysium, whose mission was to take a crew of settlers to a planet named Tanis which is the first inhabitable, Earth-like planet found in deep space. Something must have happened to derail the voyage of the ship, and their goal is restart the reactor, get the ship from reserve to full-power, get back in touch with Earth, and resume the mission. Hopefully their families are simply sleeping elsewhere on the ship.
Hyper-Amnesia: From Symptom to Sinthome
The fact that this question haunts psychoanalysis might not be immediately apparent, because it seems that when people look up a therapist, they usually know very well who they are, but they just have this nasty symptom that they want to make go away. According to psychoanalysis, this actually isn’t the case. Rather, the symptom is evidence that some repression has stopped working, allowing a traumatic memory to be triggered and rise to the surface. That memory holds within it the source of our future self, for it is evidence that some part of our inner core has rejected the modes of repression we have adopted to make our life work. That is, some part of ourselves has decided: ‘I can’t go on like this’. We have symptoms when our unconscious has decided we need a major life change, but our conscious self has vetoed that. So our unconscious speaks, but in code. Decoding a symptom means we come to learn what in our present triggered what in our past that this situation reminds us of.
When we figure out the context from the past, linking present trigger, usually a seemingly meaningless event, with a past trauma, we can help understand why the present, which seems otherwise fine to us, is actually quite traumatic. In the process, of learning about past traumas we repressed, our relation to the present transforms, and with any luck, we learn to integrate those parts of our relation to the present we’d rather not deal with. The result is that we change during the process of analysis. As we learn more about ourselves and who we were, who we are mutates before our eyes. All of which was triggered by the coded message of the symptom. When we are at a point at which we can understand the symptom, we necessarily have changed so much that from when we started analysis that we are no longer the same person. This is the manner in which the symptom contains the germ of our future self.
This doesn’t mean that our future is determined by the symptom, but rather, by means of the integration of the symptom, we are able to kill off the old self that required this symptom as its other half. Who we become after both symptom and the self that created it become unnecessary, however, is impossible to say beforehand. This is how the symptom becomes, in a sense, what Lacan calls a ‘vanishing mediator’. It becomes the stepping-stone between the killing off of the old self, and the birthing process of the new. The first half of this is determined by the symptom itself, for one needs to be beyond the confines of the perspective of the former self to be able to read the symptom. But there are many potential other positions from which this can happen, so long as they do not possess the particular characteristics which made that symptom necessary in the first place. The symptom knows what you can’t be in your current situation, but it won’t tell you what else you should be. That part is up to you.
Of course, any process of analysis is like a chain, its not actually as simple as we see in the movies, where there is one primary symptom/obstacle to get rid of. Rather, in real life, there’s a chain of symptoms, or rather, one symptom that keeps mutating in spirals of integration and deintegration. We alter our symptom as we go, shifting from what Zizek following Lacan calls ‘symptom to sinthome’. Slowly, by spiraling back and forth between analysis and symptom, we eventually mutate and grow to the point at which, slowly, the symptom doesn’t control us as much as we control ourselves by means of our process of wrestling with our symptom. For Lacan, at least, this is the most freedom humans can get in the world. While my Deleuzian side would argue for a slightly more optimistic point of view, there’s a lot of truth to Lacan’s point. Those who think they have no unconscious or symptom(s) is doomed to be driven by forces beyond their comprehension and control . . .
What’s my Past?
As the film progresses, Bower goes off to restart the reactor, and he encounters more humans running around the ship who woke up at various points and who are running from aliens. Payton, who remains back at the bridge, communicates with him by telecom. He is soon joined by another member of the crew, Gallo, who shows up running away from monsters. Its soon evident that Gallo suffers from a form of classic ‘space-madness’, a form of the ‘sea-madness’ of ocean-going tales of yore, called ‘pandorum’. It starts off with a mild shaking of the hands, something we see happen with both Payton and Bower. So we know both of them are fighting this madness. Its a race against time.
Ok, SPOILER ALERT. As the film goes on, and Bower explores the ship with some comrades, we learn some things. Basically, the ship was on its way and things seemed just fine, when the three man crew piloting the Elysium as the rest slept were greeted with a horrific message from Earth: ‘You are now on your own. Good luck’. With no more info, the planet earth vanishes, and no-one knows why. One of the three crew members, a young man, goes already suffering from pandorum, finally snaps when he hears this news. He kills the other two crew members. He then wakes up sleepers and slowly establishes himself as a king or god-like figure, controlling the ship and taking it off course, making the others his toys, slaves, torturing them in some way, etc. The details aren’t that clear, its all presented as existing in the realm of myth. The point is, he tires at some point of playing god, and decides to put himself back into hypersleep, leaving the crew with no food but each other. They resort to cannibalism. And since all the people on the ship have been injected with a special chemical to ‘speed up evolution’ to help them adapt to the new world, cannibalism and life on this floating tomb becomes their environment. The monsters are thus mutated humans.
Back in the bridge, Payton struggles to control the increasingly unstable Gallo, while Bower struggles to find and restart the reactor. He finds that in order to do so, he must cross a mutant breeding ground without waking them up, and to do so, he puts on the skin of dead mutants to cross this area, and at the last minute, arrives on the other side, restarts the reactor, and heads back with his friends to the bridge.
Before Bower gets back to the bridge, we realize that Gallo is actually a hallucination of Payton’s younger self. Payton/Gallo was the crew member who killed off his crew, treated the ship’s inhabitants as playthings, and then went back to sleep in the pod of one of the crew members he killed named Payton. When he woke up, he didn’t remember any of this. As the recently awoken often say, they remember things like how to operate the ship, but not their brothers and sisters, or where they grew up. They remember their military training, but not ‘who’ they are or ‘what’ they’ve done.
Once Gallo fully remembers his past, he realizes that he committed horrible deeds, but he also remembers why he did them. As Bower and his friends reach the bridge, Bower encounters Gallo in the climactic father-vs-son Oedipal drama scene so typical of films of this sort, with the clearly younger Bower challenging an older, bearded superior officer gone bad.
Gallo tells Bower that pandorum is the madness you get when you ‘fight it’, but once you get to the other side, what you have is clarity. And since earth is gone, there is “no law.” The result is that humanity is its own god – with horrific results. We see here a question which has haunted humanity ever since it started to doubt its gods. This question, perhaps best addressed by Dostoevsky in novels such as Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov, is: if there is no god, then is anything truly permitted?
Bower, of course, screams at Gallo that it can’t be the case that there’s no right and wrong, and they fight, and Gallo opens up a window to show him where they really are. Looking out the window of the bridge for the first time, Bower realizes there are no stars. He asks “where are we? what have you done?” The viewer starts to wonder at this point, did Gallo pilot the ship to a black hole, or a part of space without even stars? But then we see a light, and realize that a phosphorescent creature has just gone by. In fact, we are at the bottom of the ocean on Tanis itself, and have been for nearly 800 years. One of them says, “they weren’t lying when they said the ship could fly itself”. Turns out we were at our destination all along and just didn’t realize it. But we are stuck within what Zizek would call the ‘long, dark night of the soul’ . . .
Anyway, Bower and Gallo clash, Bower accidently breaks the hull, Gallo drowns, and Bower and his love interest escape in an escape pod, jettisoning not into death and deep space, but towards the surface of the ocean of a paradise. As the other pods jettison as well, we emerge into a bright new world for the future of humankind, with all the mutants most likely drowning below with Bower.
Reading the Symptom . . .
Ok, but what’s the film really about?
As with many horror films, we see an incarnation of what Lacan/Zizek would call the Imaginary Father, the one who knows no castration, no limitation to jouissance. Such a figure is usually the imagined obstacle that needs to be superseded, killed, on the way to the assumption of the symbolic order by the protagonist in a film (or real life that resembles the scripts we see in films . . .). In a more self-aware version of this sort of film, often what is necessary is for the protagonist to in some way realize that they are unwittingly allowing the imaginary father to exist, and that by stabbing themselves, or something like this, they will get rid of this external persecutor. We see this for example in a film like Fight Club, in which the hero shoots himself in the face to get rid of his persecutor, Tyler Durden, which makes sense once he realizes that Tyler is simply part of his own hallucinations.
Sci-fi and horror films aren’t often as self-reflexive as this, so that usually the imaginary persecutor is killed externally, which leads to change internally. This signifies, of course, moving on from the symptom, killing our old self to give birth to the new. In this film, Gallo is the old self that needs to be killed.
In a film about mutation and evolution gone wild, the simple reading would be that the film is a way of talking about the fears of losing our morality once we start messing with our genetic code via genetic engineering. That without some real morals or religion, we’re going to go haywire in the process. Film decoded.
But there are hints more is at stake. At several points in the film, Bower says to other characters who did horrible things to survive, “No-one will judge you. You did what you needed to to survive.” Bower says this at one point to get away from a human who resorted to cannibalism on other humans to stay alive in a part of the ship free of mutants. He also says it to Gallo at the end of the film. But it turns out that he only says this when he’s being disingenuous. And here we see the two alternatives that Bower fears. The one is the cannibal man, who even though he knows there’s nothing left to live for, still desires to survive, just because. The other is Gallo, who tries to ‘become god’. In history of philosophy, Nietzsche would identify the first as his ‘Last Man’, while the second is a variety of the Dostoevskian attempt at a Nietzschian style ‘Overman’ gone horribly wrong (ie: Raskolnikov, Smerdyakov, etc.).
And we find out, in fact, that Bower only ends up on the ship because of a similar issue. His wife isn’t sleeping somewhere else on the ship. As his memories of his wife come in clearer, he remembers that she left him, and that’s why he enlisted to join the mission to Tanis. As he says, “I had nothing left to lose.” Bower has seen the image of the last man, and he knows its him. Gallo is one of his potential futures, the mutants are another, for in fact, they are two sides of the same, for just as Gallo’s paranoia leads him to cannibalize all around him, so it is that the brute desire for survival at all costs leads the humans on the ship to mutate into cannibals after deserted by their god, no matter how paranoid. Bower is an attempt to find another way.
Inside the Spectacle – and Beyond?
What then is this film about? My sense is that its about the so-called ‘end of history,’ that odd time-less state which is a part of contemporary post-modern culture and ‘society of the spectacle’ forms of multinational capitalism. The film takes place in a period in which Earth is gone, it wishes us good luck, seemingly having destroyed itself in nuclear war or something of the like. We come to the film in what Earth has transformed itself into, a prison full of mutants. We remember our social roles, but not who we are. And if we don’t figure out who we are soon, we’ll go mad. The problem, however, is that some of us have a REALLY bad past. And we won’t know if we are one of those until we figure out who we are. Only time will tell. Do we have a bad history?
After you reach the end of history, the problem is, its very hard to tell. For in fact, what is it that erases history? If capitalism/the contemporary world-system is the ship, the destruction of Earth is I think the loss of referentiality that gave rise to the postmodern age. We don’t know what destroyed the world of meanings and referents, all we know is its gone, and its passing was bloody. Whether this bloody history is a reference to World War II, or the economic imperialism that supports the capitalist system that maintains our contemporary spectacle, is very hard to say.
What we do know, however, is that most of us have turned into cannibalistic mutants. And what is a better way to describe precisely what capitalism makes even the best of us into? For in fact, even us lefties live in a system that compromises us all. Every product we buy, ever service we purchase, are all available to us as first world subjects due to the incredible privilege we get from being born as citizens in Euro-America.
This is what Juliet Flower-McCannell calls the ‘regime of the brother.’ Going back to Freud’s parable in Totem and Taboo, she argues that contemporary capitalism is a paranoid formation in which the symbolic order that used to hold meanings in place has given way. Instead, of symbolic fathers who pass tradition down to us after we banish their imaginary counterparts, instead, we only have brothers, cruel creatures that resemble imaginary obscene fathers, except that there is no stability gained after they give way. There are a proliferation of narratives, but all of them lead to paranoia and fear, simply in different ways. Its like being in a house of mirrors.
Like what Deleuze describes as a crystal-image, if you were trapped in a hall of mirrors and forced to mutate, you’d end up paranoid too. My sense is that Pandorum is a fairy tale for the society of the spectacle. Just like The Matrix tried to reveal to us our underside, I think Pandorum does a more honest job. The underside of our Earth is the spaceship Elysium, a version of Euro-America, which is either sleeping, playing god, cannibalizing itself and the world, or all three at the same time. At least, this seems to me the diagnosis of the film, if unconsciously.
The regime of the brother, as Flower-McCannell describes it, looks a lot like this. Ok, so it was our parent’s generation that created this mess. Now we just inherit it. But as we wake up, we slowly realize that we are also partially to blame for this – its not for nothing that the hallucination of ‘young Gallo’ looks a lot like Bower. He too fights off the shakes of madness, and we know that he too could easily become the next Gallo. Will we simply become our parents, and on the one hand play god, while on the other hand turning into idiotic, cannibalistic mutants? All we do is watch images, but what makes those images is the labor of the world around us. And the system eats those around it on its peripheries, and when it lack those, eats its own closer and closer to the inside. That’s cannibalism in a sense, right?
Its worth noting that when Bower wakes up, his face is obscured by a mask so that he’s all eyes. This is what the mutants realize when they wake up. The road to cannibalization is our sight, because in the society of the spectacle, our eyes are, in a way, the devourer of worlds. Bower is just a mutant who woke up, but he doesn’t like what he sees. His repressions broke down. Now he’s got to understand the world as it is, with no more illusions.
Will we take the freedom of the death of referentiality, death of history, as license to play god with the world (as Euro-America often does), to hole ourselves up and go back to sleep (as many others do), or just become spectacle-addicted mutants? Or some combination of all three? Because these are all sides of our contemporary culture.
As we wake up from all this, as shocking as it is, pull ourselves out of the matrix, what will we do? Can we find a way to give ourselves new laws, even after the death of god, and the disappearance of the Earth? As we see in this film, it is only by understanding the mutants, learning their ways enough to be able to put on their skin, that Bower gets free. Only when he understands the problem of mutation, and how it can go horribly wrong, can he find a way out and to the new Earth.
The movie ends on a high note, with Bower and his love interest inheriting the new Earth. But I’ve rarely seen a recent popular movie so dark and pessimistic. Maybe that’s why it flopped at the box office, but this half American half German production is smarter than it seems on the surface.
Because I think its really a provocation, a question. In today’s capitalist world, after the death of history and god and referents, can we find a new ethics to guide us? I think the film is very, very skeptical about where we’re going. We need a radical change of course. The film doesn’t give us any solutions. But I think it poses a lot of interesting questions. Or maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see in the film . . .
But can we find an ethics that doesn’t need transcendent god to anchor it? Can we find a way to be ethical beings, and a way out of the society of the spectacle? And can we find a way to stop playing god or being cannibals of the rest of the world off which we feed in the process? Can we avoid becoming paranoidly insane, and devouring ourselves and the world in the process? Can we find a way out of the bubble of contemporary spectacle-capitalism, before we eat ourselves and the world with us alive? The only way, it would seem, is to understand how it was that the original world vanished, and the mutation started in the first place. We need to remember our history, even if this is as much about the future as the past. The alternative is to simply live for pure survival, with no reason why. In which case, the masters of the universe can have their sway with us all, because we can’t see anything beyond the present moment. Which means we are blind to the mutations as they occur. And of course, the masters of the universe are a sham, they don’t exist. They are merely the paranoid projections of our collective, frightened, deer-in-headlights, spectacle dazed selves.
This is I think the challenge we find ourselves in today. How can we argue with out collective unconscious, in such a way as to rouse ourselves from our collective sleep, and learn to navigate this world, take responsibility for our pasts, present, and create a new way of being, but without going back to the simple and in many ways equally as violent forms of life at work before the modern age? Any of us who enjoy the benefits of being born in the overdeveloped world owe it to the rest of the world to ask this question. It is our duty.
Can humanity evolve? So far its seems we mutate, but little else. Can we take control of the system that controls us, but which is really our creation all along? For in fact, we are right under the ocean, we just need to learn to see.
And cinema can teach us that. Maybe not a film like Pandorum, which seems to deal with the problem, if in coded form. But cinema has the potential to be more than just this, I think.
Sorry this is such a dark post. But sometimes you just have to think about the more disturbing end of things to get to the other side.