Taking the lead from the Alien scenario, Pandorum (2009) is set in the distant future on the spaceship Elysium, which was sent into space on a mission to populate a distant planet that is able to sustain life, Tanis. In a familiar set-up, a pair of crew members awakens from stasis with no signs of what has happened on board, and little or no memory of why they were there. All they have are tattoos on their arms with their rank and team number. Bower (Ben Foster) is first awake, and realising things are a little amiss, brings Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) out of his hypersleep. The ship’s engine is about to give up, and they must reset the cycle of the reactor if they are to have any chance of survival. Bower can’t remember what their mission or destination was but does have a recollection of his role in the crew: technical engineer. Leaving Payton at the control panel, he attempts to make his way through the ship’s ventilation system shaft and miles of corridors.
The two of them are not alone on the ship, however, nor were they the first to awake. Bower comes across the mummified body of one of their crew mates, who appears to have attempted the same route and having succumbed to a fall that nearly kills Bower early on. He also comes across a few more people on his perilous journey to the heart of the ship; some are hostile but calm down while others have only one motivation: to kill and eat. These mutated creatures are incredibly fast moving and appear in great numbers. Another threat to the survivors is the fear of coming down with ‘pandorum’, a sickness that grows like mental illness and causes the victim to lose all sense and reason, ultimately resulting in mass murder.
One of the members of the previous crew Bower comes across (who sadly doesn’t last too long) is played by Norman Reedus, best known as fan favourite Daryl from The Walking Dead. However, Dennis Quaid - who used to be a stalwart of some of the biggest movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s and starred in some fantastic sci-fi fantasy films, such as Innerspace (1987), Dreamscape (1984), and Enemy Mine (1985) - is brilliant here, even if he gets little to do but sit at a console for the first three-quarters of the movie. Naturally, we’re not going to reveal too many of Pandorum’s secrets, but let’s just say, there are more than a few twists and turns, and the desolate spaceship is stunningly realised. The tension as well as the growing sense of isolation and desperation that the film conveys is palpable. It’s a lower budget film that slipped through most viewers’ gaze, but it’s certainly worth checking out.
Keeping the Alien vibe is 1999 shocker Virus, based on the Dark Horse comic series by Chuck Pfarrer. That said, Alien isn’t the only film this one riffs on, although it’s not annoyingly derivative. Donald Sutherland is Captain Everton, skipper of a small salvage ship that gets caught in a massive tornado at sea. Taking shelter in the eye of the storm, they come across a stricken Russian science ship, seemingly deserted. Being the money-minded man he is, he claims salvage rights on it, and the crew begin to attempt to get the massive vessel ready for towing to land. Everton’s navigator, Foster (horror royalty Jamie Lee Curtis) is apprehensive at making such a bold venture - as she points out, should any of the original crew be found alive, they won’t be able to claim anything. “We better not find any alive, then” Everton sinisterly smirks.
And find one they do, indeed. Or she finds them as Russian science officer Nadia (Joanna Pacula) comes bursting from a storage cupboard all guns blazing. Foster manages to stop Everton killing her, but the panicked woman warns them all that they are going to die. However, it’s not a threat; she’s talking about something that has taken over the ship. Apparently, an alien life force passed through the MIR space station, bringing out of orbit and hitting the ship. The alien has taken over the electrics of the vessel, learnt from its computers, created mechanised creatures to do its bidding and perhaps even more terrifying, found a way to meld man and machine. It now wants to get rid of the humans that it sees as a ‘virus’ and danger to the planet (to be fair, it has a point).
What follows is a standard haunted house scenario, with those left alive attempting to shut down the ship, therefore robbing the entity of its power. William Baldwin is along as one of the crewmen, but it’s Curtis who is the hero here. Even then, she has her share of scares and almost comes a cropper herself once or twice. As well as the Ridley Scott movie, there are numerous influences to both the look and story of Virus, be it the robotic spiders from Michael Crichton’s Runaway (1984) or the biomechanical Borg hybrids of Star Trek, with an added dollop of Hardware (1990). Despite the pillaging, it’s actually a fun movie that certainly deserved to do better when it was released back at the turn of the millennium. The special effects actually hold up well and it’s suitably gory enough to merit its inclusion here.
A little more down to earth, but certainly out of this world, is The Signal (2014). Directed by William Eubank, whose previous film, Love (2011) was an interesting - if flawed - tale of an astronaut stranded alone on the International Space Station. The Signal opens with a trio of friends are taking a road trip. Nic (Brenton Thwaites), who’s suffering from a debilitating illness, is taking his girlfriend Haley (the fantastic Olivia Cooke, best known for Bates Motel) across country as she has decided to relocate for a year. Their friend, Jonah (Beau Knapp) is along for the ride. The two boys are computer boffins and had recently been accused of hacking the MIT system. While they’re in the midst of their journey, they get a communication from someone called Nomad who confesses that he framed them and taunts them with his knowledge. They decide they can’t let this ‘kid in his mother’s basement’ win, and manage to find his location, so detour the route to the heart of Nevada to confront the hacker.
Finding a shack in the middle of nowhere, they enter to investigate. There’s no one there, and it’s pitch-black, having arrived there in the middle of the night. Lit only by torch, they explore the almost barren dwelling. Jonah manages to throw a little Blair Witch gag in, but there’s nothing else for them to discover. When they get back out to the car, Haley is gone. Naturally, they panic and begin to shout and dash about to look for her, but ‘something’ overcomes them.
Nic awakes in a sterile-looking place, being pushed in a wheelchair by a man in a hazmat suit. He’s brought to a table where someone introducing themselves as Dr Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne) is waiting to ask the disorientated lad some questions. “Can you recall the first time you encountered the signal?” Nic is puzzled, but Damon continues his monotone questioning, before explaining that the conversation they were having with ‘Nomad’ was, in fact, coming from something not of this Earth - an E.B.E. - extra-terrestrial biological entity. He also tells him that the contact he has had with it, they have no idea what they’re dealing with and ‘the possibility of alien contamination is very real’.
He’s given a room but no more information until he hears Jonah talking to him through the vent. They hatch a plan to escape using their advanced intellect to memorise escape routes and the pattern of the workers they have seen at the base. Haley is being kept in a coma in another room, but they are refusing to let him see her, too. The only problem being that apparently Jonah wasn’t found by the hazmat crew.
The Signal is an intelligent, slow-burn gem of a film that reveals its secrets like layers on an onion (without the tears). There’s much more to it than we can fairly reveal, and it never stops surprising. Although shot on a low budget, it looks fantastic - in both the opening ‘road movie’ element and the later, more fantasy sci-fi scenario. The young leads are all exceptional (we expect nothing less from Olivia Cooke, obviously) and having the ‘hero’ being a disabled young man is a refreshing change. The opening focuses on the emotions of Nic - suffering from an illness that will ultimately leave him in a wheelchair - as he struggles to come to terms with his girlfriend choosing to move away and is filmed sensitively but gives the viewer an opinion that the boy isn’t too strong. He’s strong-willed, sure (we see him struggling to do simple things rather than accept help), but could he withstand what’s to become of him? And when we find out what that is, it’s equally handled sympathetically (you’ll have to watch it to find out what that is exactly!). The Signal is a bold, complex (but not bogged down with exposition - one has to make their own mind up on several aspects) and often intensely atmospheric watch, and certainly a fascinating entry into the realm of intelligent sci-fi thrillers. Plus it has Lin Shaye being completely bonkers, what more do you want?
Special mention must be made, of course, for the fourth film in the Sci-Fear season: David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999). As usual, the Canadian writer/director was way ahead of his time with this icky piece of body horror. Like his earlier masterpiece Videodrome (1982), eXistenZ looks at how technology is taking over our lives with sinister and sickening results. The focus this time is video games, with organic game pods that plug straight into the spines of users via an umbilical cord, replacing the usual plastic controllers.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra Geller, a games designer who goes on the run following a failed assassination attempt. She convinces security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law) to help her finish playing the only copy of her experimental game eXistenZ. What follows is a twisted visual treat, with the viewer never quite sure what is real and what is in the game, and some of Cronenberg’s brilliantly visceral special effects. There’s certainly no synopsis that could do the film justice; like Naked Lunch, it’s a film best entered with little knowledge but an open mind.
The Sci-Fear season runs every Saturday in February on HORROR CHANNEL. Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freesat 138, Freeview 70.