Pandora Machine

PANDORA MACHINE. 2004

Director: Andrew Bellware

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



This is a fine little film, with superb sound direction & art design. But first, the criticism: The story is often opaque & some of what is going on will not be clear until the very end, & some will not be clear ever. On the commentary track some of it gets explained, but even there, the director-writer Andrew Bellware & producer-writer Laura Schlachtmeyer don't always agree what is going on or what the script intended. Now Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey is often just this opaque & no one doubts it's a great film, so there may be something to be said for the approach. But when even the director-author can't agree what a given screen image was supposed to evoke, it could be that some of the confusion was unintended & not such a good thing.

In the main this is a richly textured captivating film. In the future, shortly after the police department was privatized, only those who can afford justice can have justice. That might not seem all that different from right now, except in the future this includes letting murderers go free if the estate of the murder victim cannot afford prosecution. So killing poor people is fine, so long as the survivors can't afford the high cost of prosecution & imprisonment. So is killing your spouse pretty safe, since the surviving spouse controls the estate that needn't pay for the arrest & prosecution.

There is no privacy in this world. Decades of security cameras, most of them small & hidden so people don't even know they're being watched, are watching everyone at all times, & they are all hooked up into a central mainframe which is programed to make the decisions about who is a criminal who would be profitable to prosecute before even informing the police.

Visually this film is incredibly unique, as our point of view is through the security cameras, many of which are broken or so old as to record less data than the new ones. A tapestry of images is built up by the different functions of various security cameras. We see computer notations & sometimes hear the computer talking to itself in a low soft voice; we see how it identifies & labels people, places, actions, & events.

Now here's where some of the confusion comes in, because it takes a while to figure out that the film is supposed to be made up of images collected & stored by the all-observing computer -- or sometimes what the computer records as seen through the eyes of androids -- or images the computer sends to androids. This aspect of the film's multitexture is the most opaque, but the story in general will still work even if the viewer thinks all the images are just the security cameras processed by the computer.

Into this security dystopia come freewill androids. Androids without free will are so well programmed they cannot be told from humans, but each has a human controller who serves the security state. Some of these highly advanced androids are "going sentient" & can no longer be controlled. Because they are killing their controllers, the profit-motivated police have put profits aside to hunt down these assassins, who are a threat to the system.

A lot of this takes a long time to unfold & only on a second viewing begins to make sense. There are few explanatory sequences. Everyone acts as though their emotions have been dampened, & our depressed cop barely shows his own suffering as he is sent out to hunt assassins who nobody bothered to tell him are androids, until halfway through the story the freewill android assassin Athena appears & reveals to our good cop who or what it is he is really hunting.

Even then not everything becomes transparent until it dawns on the viewer that the sentient androids are fed information by the same security computer that is operated by the police state. This is the only way they can operate without the all-seeing computer reporting their movements. Unbeknownst to the police, their security computer has a divided ego.

This is never spelled out on the screen because we are immersed in an impressionistic Philip K. Dickian dystopia without the guidebook. But sometimes the security cameras show an overlay of a spidery light that seems to be an AI which wants to overthrow the heartless security-state system or at the very least permit sentient androids to live, while at the same time the computer strives to obey its primary programming to find crimes to profitably prosecute. It's like a computer continuously struggling against its own virus, & its the virus that provides the sentient androids with whatever information they need to persist & survive without controllers.

As an impressionistic dystopia the events don't necessarily add up to a normally plotted story. There are progressive revelations which serve as "close enough" to a plot. If there is a story, it is a human one: Our police officer as played by Daryl Bolling is a deeply depressed widow who has had a three-year sorry-ass "relationship" with the imperfectly programmed holographic remnants of his dead wife. Relating to her is like relating to an interactive porno program, & it leaves him too enervated even to masturbate.

When a holographic subprogram left by his wife discovers the wife is dead, the holographic wife suddenly has her clothes on & sorrowfully explains that he must get on with his life, hologram terminated. Our hero's passive loneliness can barely remain suppressed. That's when Athena appears. Whether she rapes or seduces him is beside the point; any contact indistinguishable from actual human contact constitutes his salvation. And from that moment on, without it entirely being a conscious choice, our cop acts in behalf of the computer virus that will liberate androids & undermine a cruel & corrupt security state.

The only dystopian films better than this one are Metropolis and THX 1138. It would be their equal if more of it were easy to resolve, but even at its most puzzling points of confusion, it works as impressionism. I frankly disliked it for the first half hour, when the narcoleptic zombified acting style seemed amateur rather than intended. But I loved the hell out of it after Athena (Margaret Dodge) revealed who & what the androids were, & on viewing it the second time I realized that that slow beginning had a great deal more going on than was instantly accessible, with plenty of forshadowing & logic throughout. This is a film to watch more than once, rather than sit through inattentively then quite rightly forget.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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