Pandora Machine (2004)

This was Andrew Bellware’s first science fiction film.

I’d long had the impression that Millennium Crisis was his first, but three years earlier, he made this cyberpunk detective story about a cop and his partner trying to find an important politician’s murderer in a dystopian future.

For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Bellware is one of those filmmakers who has set up his own small scale “garage band” operation, and he’s made a number of interesting SF films on shoestring budgets — under the banner of his production company, Pandora Machine (which should sound vaguely familiar…).

While he may not be one of the greats of SF cinema, his films offer densely imagined worlds, complex plots and enough style to hide the fact that they cost a lot less than you think they did.

Pandora Machine is not as polished as his later films, and many of the elements aren’t as successful as they would be later on.  One of the hallmarks of Bellware’s work is the use of lighting, filters, static, grainy video and overlaid computer readouts to create a very SF look for what might otherwise be fairly routine images — and yes, to hide the limits of his minuscule budgets.  However, he hadn’t quite mastered the trick here, and one is rather aware that some of his static shots of city backgrounds are just photos of ordinary modern buildings.  But he does find a few interesting locations — and offers us a few strange visuals — like a computer that appears to have rippling water for a screen, and a glowing flower which might be its controller — to distract us from what we might otherwise notice were rather bare sets.

However, unlike the complex snarl of plotlines of his next film, Millennium Crisis, this one has a more straightforward story.  I suspect, without the narrative frame of the computer surveillance that envelops this dismal future, the film would be much shorter.  His future world is as dense and complex as those in his later films, though, and many of the themes that would show up in his later films are already in place.

And, I should note, that his title proves to be quite significant, both for this film, and for many of the others he’s made.

One curious element deserves a mention here:  while his films often contain nudity, you would not describe them as exploitative.  Instead, Bellware’s interest is more aesthetic than prurient, reflecting his artistic appreciation of the female form.  Curiously, Pandora Machine proves to be somewhat of an exception, with two extended sex scenes — one of them very kinky.  However, the lengthy scenes of nudity in one part of the film, involving the last message a character received from his deceased wife, are strikingly erotic, in the original (and often ignored) sense of the word, and seem closer to his normal form.

This is a first try and it shows.  But that doesn’t meant that it isn’t an interesting and reasonably well made effort.  Andrew Bellware would go on to make better films, but, as always with his films, it is refreshing to see a SF film that is reasonably intelligent and makes a sincere effort to build a rich and detailed world where its story can take place.

And that, sadly, is far too rare.

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