I’ve dredged up some strange films from the depths of obscurity during my tenure at Paste, but it’s been a while since I’ve come across one that left me completely and utterly perplexed. Not since I witnessed 1975’s The Astrologer, a film I’ll likely never get another chance to view again, have I been as fascinated and confused as I am right now. That’s because today, I came across Quantum Quest.
This film—full title being Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey—has all the elements to make for a classic “what the hell is this, and how did it get made?” movie mystery. It has a nebulous origin story. Talented filmmakers. Massive revisions and reshoots. Tantalizingly weird trailers. But most notably, it has one—no, make that two—of the most star-studded casts of voice actors you’ll ever see on an animated film. And yet almost no one has ever heard of Quantum Quest, much less seen it. In fact, its entire domestic “theatrical” run seemingly consisted of playing at a single IMAX theater at a Kentucky science center, and today the film can’t be viewed anywhere. Placing a call to the phone number listed at the website for more information, I found it disconnected. Quantum Quest has totally disappeared.
There was only one thing left to do: Dig deeper. What I unearthed is a strange little story of a fledgling “educational” film, a crazy talented voice cast, and a disappearance into total obscurity.
Quantum Quest appears to have begun its life as a partnership between NASA itself and the federally funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with funding from Taiwanese animation studio Digimax Inc., which also provided the animation. These details are all hazy, but the release of the film revolved around promotion of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, a probe that was sent to gather information on Saturn and its moons. It would appear that NASA and the JPL wanted to bring attention to the mission and its findings by packaging those findings within an educational animated film that also would just so happen to take the form of an space adventure/fantasy story with a stacked voice cast. The film was directed by author and multi-PhD holder Harry “Doc” Kloor, with production beginning in 2007.
At that time, the cast of Quantum Quest was already impressive, including the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, James Earl Jones, Christian Slater and David Warner, with John Travolta as lead character “Dave the Photon.” Here’s how the film’s own, still-active website describes the plot:
Quantum Quest tells the story of Dave (Chris Pine) a photon who refuses to grow up and leave the Sun. Until one day, circumstances force him on a quest to save his fellow photons from being annihilated by THE VOID (Mark Hamill) and his anti-matter forces lead by Admiral Fear (Samuel L. Jackson), General Ignorance (Tom Kenny) and Major Moron (Jason Alexander). THE VOID desires everything that exists to be destroyed. THE CORE (William Shatner) is a being that lives in our Sun, he seeks to stop THE VOID. His children are photons, neutrinos and photons born in the core of the Sun. The best of the best of the “Sun Citzens” are selected to join The Core’s Battle Fleet which fights the anti-matter forces of THE VOID.
Sam L. Jackson played a toothy monster simply named “Fear.”
If you’re noticing some different names in that description (what, no more Travolta?), it’s because that synopsis reflects the second version of Quantum Quest. It seems that during production in 2008, additional discoveries and images from the Cassini probe forced the science-minded filmmakers to rethink Quantum Quest in a dramatic way. For whatever reason, this meant recasting most of the roles with an even more star-studded cast, although some like Samuel L. Jackson appear to have been present in both versions. How they managed to get this cast together, I have no idea, but the new version starred Chris Pine (just before he starred in Star Trek) as Dave the Photon, along with Jackson, Mark Hamill, Amanda Peet, Hayden Christensen, James Earl Jones, Sandra Oh, Brent Spiner, Jason Alexander, Tom Kenny, Abigail Breslin, Doug Jones, Robert Picardo and William Shatner himself as “CORE,” a god-like figure at the center of the sun. It begs the question: How did the filmmakers manage to reach so many Hollywood luminaries, and what kind of pitch were they making to get them to sign on to Quantum Quest? Moreover, with such a sprawling cast, how did this film never get any kind of streaming release?
Of all things, I can’t help but be reminded of another infamous project in the form of Charlie Sheen’s famously reviled 2012 animated film Foodfight! That movie was created solely as an experiment in feature-length product placement, cost more than $50 million, starred countless actors of note (Sheen, Eva Longoria, Christopher Lloyd, Wayne Brady, Hilary Duff) and was also never widely released. It makes me wonder: Is the common link here that these were both just films of such low quality that everyone involved with them wanted the project swept under the rug when they were completed?
Okay, it’s probably not QUITE as bad as Foodfight.
But still: Why did Quantum Quest play at the Kentucky Science Center in Louisville, Kentucky for six months, and then totally disappear? Why didn’t it play at other, similar venues? Why wasn’t it picked up by a streaming service, or available to rent on the likes of Amazon Prime Video, where weird projects go to die? Has Quantum Quest been actively hidden in the years since it was first released?
There doesn’t appear to be anywhere one can rent, buy or view the entirety of Quantum Quest today, but YouTube does have a handful of versions of what is more or less the same trailer. This trailer is the only known actual footage of Quantum Quest, and when we look at it … well, it becomes a bit more clear why perhaps you’ve never heard of this movie despite the voice actors involved.
Suffice to say, yikes. It’s bad, folks. Even for the era, Quantum Quest seemed to feature some very rough animation, although the audio engineering arguably seems to be even worse. The dialogue of multiple characters has been rendered almost completely inaudible in this trailer, especially The Core (Shatner) and Fear (Jackson). If this is really what it was like viewing this film during its screenings in Kentucky (that still feels bizarre to type), perhaps that’s why Quantum Quest seems to have been buried in the sand in the years since. Is it possible that a few of the more powerful members of this cast exerted some kind of influence to make it go far, far away? The only voice actor who seems to be acquitting himself well is perhaps the one with the most iconic experience in the field, Mr. Mark Hamill. Oh, how we would love to get a first-hand account of the making of Quantum Quest from Hamill, if he knew anything beyond “they paid me to record a day’s worth of villain lines in a booth.” Our guess? He’s never seen the finished product, and never will.
What remains fascinating about Quantum Quest, though, is the amount of documenting the filmmakers apparently did with their A-list cast members, conducting interviews with many of them about the film, their characters and their backgrounds with science. It seems to suggest they really thought this film was going to reach a wide audience, at the very least. It is truly surreal to watch Christopher Pine, of all people, sitting in a studio and chatting about how excited he is to play “Dave the Photon.” In the video below, he describes himself as a C+ astronomy student, says he still doesn’t understand much of the science in the film, and closes with the following hilarious line: “I am very prepared to be known as Dave the Photon. I hope that many a kid at Halloween will have a Dave the Photon outfit.”
Oh, that’s rich. That’s what I needed to chuckle at on a gray, rainy afternoon—Dave the Photon Halloween costumes. But wait, there’s more! It’s not just Chris Pine that can be found in such interviews. The Quantum Quest website also has interviews with an incredibly uninterested sounding Samuel L. Jackson, along with Hayden Christensen, Amanda Peet, Abigail Breslin and NEIL ARMSTRONG himself, who apparently recorded a role in the film before passing away in 2012. Particularly amusing is the interview with an 80-something-year-old James Earl Jones, who seems to have been given license to just chat about any topic that randomly enters his head. Oh, and his character in the film is some kind of lizard man space admiral.
In the end, the true nature of Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey remains almost entirely a mystery. It seems to be a poorly calculated attempt to both entertain and educate, but how was the film ever expected to reach an audience without being distributed more widely? What kind of budget did the film ultimately have? Why are both the animation and audio so obviously subpar? Were any of these A-listers paid for their roles in the film, or did their participation in Quantum Quest count toward some kind of mandatory community service?
And finally, just how bad is Quantum Quest as a piece of entertainment? Without getting to see it in full, we’ll likely never know. Take heart, though: You can buy the soundtrack via Amazon. Perhaps the rest will be delivered to the Quantum Quest true believers one day as well.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident bizarre film geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.