Pandora (2016) Review: the Atomic scare and civic virtue

Pandora (2016) Review

The Atomic scare and civic virtue

Cast: Kim Namgil, Jung Jin-young, Kim Myung-min, Kim Dae-myung, Kang Shin-il, and Lee Gyeung-young 

Disaster Porn!
What a movie genre!
From the Hollywood of the old, we got disaster movies such as “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974). Around the birth of the 21st century, we started to get what many have called “Disaster porn” movies which are disaster movies on steroids and overdosed on CGI. The master of this sub-genre is or --- from what we seen of his recent work --- was Roland Emmerich based on movies such as “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) and “2012” (2009). However, over the last few years, Hollywood’s interest for these movies have subsided. In contrast, in Korean cinema industry, the interest in making disaster movies have been on the rise. There were “Tidal Wave” (2009), “The Tower” (2012), and “Flu” (2013). Even the zombie Korean blockbuster “Train to Busan” (2016) could be viewed more as a disaster movie than a “pure” zombie movie. The reason for this trends can be debated. But, what is clear is that the Korean cinema industry has now matured in terms of expertise and finance to be able make this genre of movie that is known to be intensive behind the camera.

Pandora: Gift/Curse of the gods
In the waning days of 2016, Korea got a “traditional” disaster movie called “Pandora” (2016) that deals with the subject matter of nuclear energy. Yes, the title --- based on Greek myth and referring to nuclear energy--- is rather pretentious and cliché; this is Korea! You shouldn’t expect anything less. From the title alone, you could guess how the movie would go. In this way, “Pandora” (2016) is a very traditional Hollywood disaster movie. You could swap some names and fix a few lines of dialogue; then use the script for a Hollywood remake without needing to overpay a hack scriptwriter. This doesn’t mean the movie is inherently boring and bad. In many ways, the success of disaster movies is based on the fundamentals; more so than other genres. Keep the characters simple but instantly recognizable.  Keep the pacing steady with increasing degrees of thrills. Focus on “establishment bashing” and “civic virtue”! More about that last thing later. The movie “Pandora” (2016) does check all these boxes off.

What does Plot got to do with it?
From “The Towering Inferno” (1974) to “2012” (2009), the plot of a disaster movie hasn’t really changed. You have a subject you have to fear --- volcanos to asteroids --- then you have characters that represent the establishment and the rogue “Casandra” ---another Greek reference regarding those that claim danger--- character. Then, you have the ordinary people whose role is to die as sadly and horrifyingly as possible for the enjoyment of the audience. The movie “Pandora” (2016) is no different.

Set in Korea, the subject that one has to flee like the Japanese under the foot of Godzilla is a nuclear power plant; an aging nuclear power plant to be more specific. In this type of movie, it is rather obvious what is going to happen. I’ll give you an unneeded hint. The movie was inspired by 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that happen right next door in Japan. So, “boom” anyone? Things will be raining down on people and cars. People will run in fear. Expect chaos. The establishment will do stupid things and thus make it worse. The “Casandra” character will criticize the establishment. More terror. Things will get worse every 10 minutes and the orchestra will play dramatic and heart breaking music. It is a stressful and emotional roller-coaster!

Cast of a dozen
Roland Emmerich’s movies tend to use a lot of characters leading to the term “a cast of thousands”. “Pandora” (2016) is not that extravagant in its casting but does have over a dozen relevant characters with decent screen time. You have the corrupt prime minister and the weak but well-meaning president representing the establishment. You have the plant superior --- the “Casandra” of this movie --- and the company representative who is the representation of bureaucracy. You have the ordinary dreamer born into the plant town around the nuclear power plant but who wants to get out. Then, you have his lifelong friend who just wants to live the life he has been living; working at the plant and then coming home to family and friends.  There are their family and relatives.

It is a decent cast. No one is terrible --- across the board decent ---although I cannot say that there is a breakout performance. You have Kim Namgil ---actor from “The Pirates” (2014) --- who I don’t really like but he is okay as the dreamer in this movie. You have Jung Jin-young --- actor from “King and the Clown” (2005) --- giving a good but, for him, standard performance as the plant superior. Other familiar faces such as Kim Myung-min, Kim Dae-myung, Kang Shin-il, and Lee Gyeung-young fill the cast. It is a very experienced and professional cast which is a must for this type of movie. You do not go to this type of movie for character development. “Pandora” (2016) is an ensemble cast movie even though technically Kim Namgil’s character could be said to be the protagonist. Screen time is shared between the many characters and thus each character is given a brief moment to expresses who he or her is. And, for the most part, the cast do their job.

The Message
The downside of the this cast size is that the subplots regarding the aforementioned pairs --- prime minister vs. president,  plant superior vs. company representative, and  ordinary dreamer vs. his lifelong friend --- are somewhat underdeveloped. This is less of an issue for the latter pair but the former pairs are more of a problem. This is because their subplots are connected with the film’s “anti-nuclear power” message; more specifically the Korean government’s management of nuclear power. While the total amount of destruction wonderfully shown on screen --- you can see all the money on screen--- shows you the film’s “anti-nuclear power” message, after a while, it just becomes spectacle. The movie needs to summarize the message from time to time through the plot so that the message isn’t buried under the spectacle. “Pandora” (2016) fails to do this. And thus, when the text regarding the reality of Korean nuclear power come on screen --- a standard use of text--- at the end of the movie, it comes off as being heavy handed. This sounds weird considering the amount of destruction we have just seen, I know…

This weakness --- not too strong --- of “Pandora” (2016) leads me to a discussion about the factors that make disaster movies special beyond the mere spectacle on screen; other movie genres can also deliver similar goods. The first is the criticism of the establishment or “establishment bashing”. This is rather self-explanatory. The second is the praise of personal sacrifice for the community or “civic virtue”. A great disaster movie needs to emphasize both as the two factors are interconnected. Or more accurately, the former is required to make the second resonate among the audience. And, without the second, a movie becomes one of those heavy handed message propaganda movies.

Establishment bashing
A common person tends to feel constrained by society since he or she --- in most cases --- have to live in the society and has not much control over the direction of the society which is usually dictated by the establishment. This makes the common person feel small and inconsequential; leads to apathy and discontent. The funny thing is that society actually depends on that common person actively doing the task he or she does within that society. Without the active participation of the common person, the establishment --- especially in modern societies --- cannot live in the manner they do. Thus, in many ways, the establishment needs to keep the common person motivated. But not that motivated. So, you have two contradicting sets of needs that the establishment should foster. One is the need to control the citizens. The other is the need to have self-motivated citizens. And usually “control” tends to come on top which is not good for society and the establishment in the long run.

A disaster movie, by “establishment bashing”, is engaging the audience. It is reflecting how they view the establishment and then brings the establishment a few pegs down by showing them to be fools and incompetents. Now, the audience thinks it can be somewhat on an equal footing with the powerful since the establishment has been stripped of its reverence. Most disaster movies can get this part right. The more difficult task is that next! Civic virtue. 

Civic virtue
Why is emphasizing “civic virtue” in the form of sacrifice important? “Establishment bashing” makes the plane between the powerful and the commons somewhat level. However, the commons/audience still isn’t in control. There is no ownership! How do you get ownership of something? You take the responsibility for that “something”; society in this case. That is what ”civic virtue” is. And what is more virtuous in a civic manner than putting one’s life down for it? A great disaster movie is a movie that makes the audience feel ownership of their society via the actions of the characters. By making characters sacrifice for something bigger than themselves, they are taking ownership of that bigger thing which usually is the community; thus civic virtue. We, vicariously, feel that sense of ownership through the screen. And we feel good!

The Korean movie “Pandora” (2016) nails the “civic virtue” part although it slacks on developing the “Establishment bashing” a bit as mention previously. I can forgive the latter as the former makes this movie special. Its emphasis on “civic virtue” makes this Korean movie especially so since Korean disaster movies hadn’t really been focusing on this area: Civic virtue! If the saying “a society’s art is a mirror onto itself” is true, the same can be said about the Korean society and its movies as a whole. Korean society doesn’t really focus on civic virtue! Well… I wasn’t taught civic virtue in morality classes. We either napped or did homework while the teacher did her paperwork. Welcome to Korea! And I think it hasn’t changed all that much in the few decades I’ve been out of school.

Recent Hollywood Trends
The history of Hollywood disaster movie can be split as pre or post Roland Emmerich. Look at the characters in his movies we are intended to root for. What do they do? I know they try to do heroic things. What do they actually do when the disasters strike? They are trying to save something and will go through hell to do so. But what is that “something”? Mostly it is his loved ones or family. Think about “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) and “2012” (2009). It is all about saving one’s family when the world goes to hell. It is sacrifice. Yes, it is sacrifice! But it is a very narrow view of what needs to be saved: primarily one’s blood. What is be more “primal” and also “selfish” in terms of sacrifice? Prior to Roland Emmerich, the sacrifice was for something larger than mere familial relations. It was about the community and society at large. You can say “Civic”! Even the dueling volcano movie on 1997 (Dante's peak and Volcano), was less about sacrificing for family although “Dante's peak” (1997) focuses more on the family than Tommy Lee Jones’ Volcano (1997). I prefer the latter.

Civics and Koreans
This focus on familial relations in recent Hollywood disaster movies --- for example “San Andreas” (2015) --- is interesting for a Korean moviegoer. I was reminded of Korean culture rather than what I grew up knowing as U.S. culture. Korea, while developed economically, has been late to the “civic community” game. This shouldn’t be surprising since about 100 years or so ago, most of us were still basically surfs in a feudal kingdom. We lack the tradition of modern civic behavior and virtue which originate from Greco-Roman culture. It is either all about the family or political ideology (socialism and communism) --- mostly related to how much money we and our family get--- that motivate us, Koreans. We really have a difficult time conceptualizing beyond that confined scope of the world. And this is reflected in our movies. If it is not a political ideology movie, no character cared about society or community; it’s all about individual or family survival and enrichment. It is weird fact that collectivist cultures tend to be more shellfish if not forced externally.

The Korean movie “Pandora” (2016) is in contrast to what Korean movies depicted in the past. While family is important, it phrases the sacrifice of the common people in saving the day for not only one’s family but the community as a whole. In that way, this is more like Hollywood movies of the past. This is another reason why I say that the script for this movie could easily be used in a Hollywood movie. It is in fact a traditional Hollywood disaster movie! And this fact makes me add a few more points on its favor.

I am impressed with this movie. On a technical side, it is a well made movie for its type. On the visual side, it is impressive. On the audience thrill factor, no one is sleeping through it. And it also brings something special also. I’m not saying it is a masterpiece of the art form. However, for a movie which was made to try to scare you about atomic power and make money from that fear, it is quite impressive.

Grade: A-  or 8.25/10


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