Imagine if a deadly virus could be onboard a commercial flight right before Christmas. The passengers are to be quarantined. Nobody is to get off the plane, or the planet would be faced with an epidemic with proportions never seen before. This is the exciting story behind the 4-hour mini-series/movie Pandora’s Clock, based on the technothriller of the same name by John J. Nance. It was shown on NBC for the first time on November 10-11, 1996.
During the opening credits, all you hear is an alarm sound and some yelling in German. A helicopter is heard (and later seen) flying overhead, chasing a man running through the forest. Nearby, Professor Ernest Helms (Michael Winters) is somewhere in the mountains of Bavaria, in Germany. One minute, he is filming a deer munching on some grass, the other he spots the suspicious man trying to break into his rental car.
As Professor Helms makes him go away and tries to start the engine, he sees the helicopter and hears a man yelling through a bullhorn “We will not hurt you! We are going to help you” and realizes the gravity of the situation. The engine won’t start and the fugitive, obviously out of his mind, smashes the window. There’s blood everywhere. The engine finally starts, the fugitive is caught by a net, and Helms drives away. Unknown to him, he left his baggage tag on the floor… but took with him something a lot more alarming.
Two days later, in Frankfurt, Captain James Holland (Richard Dean Anderson) tries to reach his doctor from his hotel and looks rather alarmed. Fellow Captain Daniel Robb (Richard Lawson), his check pilot, asks him a trick question: is the flight on time? Holland fails but makes a joke about how he knew he wouldn’t have to. Quantum Airlines, flight number 66 to New York is delayed 30 minutes due to a mechanical problem, to the great dismay of Keith and Lisa Erickson (Scott Bryce and Penny Parser). They’re trying to fly home to see their ill son.
Among the other passengers are an UM (Teru McDonald), an annoying businessman in the textile industry (Kurt Fuller), a reverend who is somewhat of a celebrity (Jerry Hardin) and Ambassador Lee Lancaster (Robert Guillaume) and his assistant, Rachel Sherwood (Jane Leeves)… and Ernest Helms, coughing his lungs out and commenting to flight attendant Brenda Hopkins (Kate Lodge) how weak he suddenly feels. 30 minutes late indeed, they’re all in the air.
Meanwhile, in the Hauptman Laboratory in Erlangen, Germany, the same delirious man who bludgeoned Professor Helms is in a bed, with sensors attached to him, having a boiling fever, convulsions and suffering a cardiac arrest. One of the employees comments that he died exactly 48 hours after. 48 hours after being infected, obviously. Just then, Helms is in the plane, coughing more and more and collapsing in the aisle. He just had a heart attack. Barb Rollins (Jennifer Savidge) immediately calls the flight deck, as Brenda and a passenger doctor (John Considine) perform CPR on him. She pressures them to land immediately, otherwise Helms will die.
Captain Robb immediately requests clearance for the nearest airfield. Holland adds: London Heathrow. However, in the air traffic control center, things get more and more complicated. The German Ministry of Health informed the British Ministry of Health, which informs the controller (Mark Chamberlain) that the flight is no longer cleared to land on British soil. There is a threat that a passenger may be carrying a potentially dangerous and contagious influenza strain. And that passenger may very well be Helms, and because of air recirculation, all the passengers and crew may be infected too! Flight 66 is ordered to turn back to Frankfurt. If it attempts to land in Great Britain, the plane is to be shot down. A civilian on the ground tapes the entire conversation and sells it to a TV news network.
Meanwhile, in Bonn (former capital of reunified Germany), Dr. Zeitner, Minister of Health, (Wolf Muser) is informed by the laboratory that it is no longer a simple strain of influenza but a much more dangerous virus than what was thought of before. The Dutch air traffic control, currently handling flight 66, informs them that they are no longer cleared to land in Frankfurt. Holland then selects to land… in Holland. Just as the plane is starting to descend into Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, a manager at the air traffic control room sees the breaking news on TV about the crisis and receives a phone call. Flight 66 is no longer cleared to land in the Netherlands… and every other country refuses to accept the plane, even Canada, Greenland and Iceland. Just at that moment, CPR is no longer effective on Helms. He is dead.
Captain Holland has no choice. He must inform the passengers and tell them the truth, since they are getting “restless”, as Barb says. Brenda is scared: she is the one who gave Helms CPR, and fears she might be the next one to die. Meanwhile, at the CIA, Dr. Roni Saunders (Daphne Zuniga) informs CIA Director Jonathan Roth (Robert Loggia) that extensive testing is usually required, but with the information obtained so far, the incubation time of the virus is 48 hours, and the mortality rate is 100% (two of the people infected out of two died), all passengers will die within 2 days.
I will stop here, but all I can say is that what follows is rather exciting and involves the CIA, a landing in Iceland, a shooting… or a shootdown, depending on what could happen!
This is a movie where the suspense is constantly growing. At first, it looks like your average aviation flick. But there is one surprise after the other, and it’s all very fast-paced, even for a 4-hour production. You won’t be let down by John J. Nance’s excellent story involving a horrifying conspiracy. The only disappointments are the few technical inaccuracies and the computer graphics which are far from being credible.
I give this movie 7.5 out of 10.
Things to notice
Being written by an airline pilot and aviation expert, Pandora’s Clock is overall accurate. However, movies being what they are, and presumably due to filming location limitations, here are some goofs, as well as some trivia:
- The helicopter chasing the patient, at the beginning of the movie, bears a US registration (N20620). This is not a goof in itself, but with the action occurring in Germany, the viewer would have expected a German registration (only made of letters, and starting with D).
- The take-off sequence showing the Boeing 747 from behind is the one of a 747-400. The rest of the exterior shots show a 747-100 (or -200) and the cockpit is from a -400, and so is the two-men flight crew.
- The first scene showing a wide shot of what is supposed to be Frankfurt Airport is actually the new Munich Johann Strauss Airport. (reported by Max from Frankfurt)
- While Rachael Sherwood is waiting at Frankfurt Airport, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 is visible from the window. Southwest Airlines (from USA) does not operate overseas flights. Additionally, because of the gate number S10, one can deduce the movie was indeed shot in Seattle.
- After further verification of the terminal layouts and airlines appearing, including the position of the control tower, it is pretty obvious that the footage used for the take-off scene as seen from the cockpit is not Frankfurt but Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)… minus space-age restaurant, probably removed electronically.
- Many passengers use their cellphones during the flight, as it is supposedly flying over the Atlantic. Regular cell phones cannot be used in that area. The exception is Rachel Sherwood’s Iridium telephone.
- John J. Nance, the author, has a minor part as Chief of Staff for the Air Force.
Quantum 66 (QN66 or QTM66) is a Boeing 747-200 operating a FRA – JFK (Frankfurt – New York Kennedy) route.
- IMDb – Pandora’s Clock
Cast, plot summary, goofs, from the world’s widest movie database.
- John Nance Productions – Pandora’s Clock
From the author’s official website, a brief description and a short look behind the scenes.
U.S.A. 1996, Produced by Citadel Entertainment, NBC Entertainment and Comsky Group. Directed by Eric Laneuville. Starring Richard Dean Anderson, Daphne Zuniga, Robert Loggia, Richard Lawson, Jane Leeves, Robert Guillaume, Stephen Root, Tim Grimm, Jennifer Savidge, Kate Hodge, Edward Herrmann. Rated PG. Also known as L’horloge de Pandora or Terreur en plein vol (French), Killerviren an Bord der 747 (German).