Space horror: the final frontier. It's a sub-genre that doesn't get all that much play or attention, and each entry inevitably gets compared to Alien. That's fine with me, though, because I'll take a hundred Event Horizon knock-offs for every star-studded romantic comedy. I like being creeped out by the unknown, and there's nothing I'll ever know less about than living in a spaceship. I'm also unaware of why the writer of Pandorum only went five or six yards instead of the whole nine. This movie could and should have been better, which for me made the entire project seem like a failure even though it really wasn't a bad flick. It seems silly to talk about the basic plot, as that's all anybody knew of Pandorum almost until its release date. A gigantic vessel, the Elysium, floats through the vacuum of space. Inside, a flight crewman named Bower (Ben Foster) awakens suddenly, pulling tubes and things out of his orifices before falling out of a hibernation chamber. He's unaware of who or where he is, and uses his surroundings to figure things out; he doesn't have much to do, because the one exit is blocked and none of the ship's electronics appear to work. Thankfully, we're not subjected to inner monologue narration explaining everything. The vibe here at the start is dark and atmospheric, perfect for such a film. The camerawork is edit-heavy and sprinkled with shots from odd angles in an anti-Kubrick way.
Bower soon finds Payton (Dennis Quaid), another memory-impaired member of the ship's crew. The concept of "pandorum," a deep-space madness, and its symptoms, are discussed. As with most psychological conditions, the effects aren't concrete, and they don't affect everyone. It's hypothetically sound, but I think it's mainly used for a sandbox plot, where anything the writer wants can happen. That the two have selective memory loss instead of complete amnesia is one of these questionable details. But if that were so, then Payton's full understanding of the communications console, which he starts up with a nifty hand-crank, would seem suspect. There isn't anyone to communicate with, but an electronic ship blueprint is present, which will be essential to the next 20 minutes or so. Thus enters my next criticism, which is that our two main characters are separated, in touch by headsets, and don't get back together until the end of the movie. I'll soon explain my problem with this.
Bower climbs up into an air vent, and crawls through the labyrinthian tunnels. The claustrophobia of The Descent is never realized, but it's still pretty creepy, especially considering Bower hits an unexpected incline and brutally lands on his face at one point. He and Payton jabber back and forth, and Payton eventually directs him out of the vents and into an actual room. Bower then explores for a while longer, and Payton sits at his computer. Bower keeps getting mental flashes of a pretty blonde; Payton's wife is mentioned (plot points!). At some point they realize/remember that they're a part of a ship sent to colonize an Earth-like planet in a distant galaxy. This is explained in a needless opening caption; I think it would have been better to find this out along with the characters. Anyway, the action is pretty dismal until Bower finds an enormous room full of hibernation chambers. There's a motivating factor for these guys to find their respective women, but it doesn't really come across as personally urgent for either one.
I know I'm pounding on negative details. Let me generally sum up the rest. Bower finds two more people elsewhere in the ship, a vengeful female, and a vengeful Asian man. Then he also learns the ship is inhabited by violent "Marilyn Manson circa 1998" looking creatures. Of course the camera gets all flashy and crazy when they're around, but for the most part, it's handled with maximum creep factor. The weapon-toting woman and Asian have been awake for a while, long enough to shift Bower's perception of his own time spent aboard, and have battled these monsters all along. There are some ridiculous "fight" scenes here and there, which look good but don't make much sense. Payton eventually finds another human, Gallo (Cam Gigandet), who pushes Pandorum from humdrum monster movie to something altogether batshit crazy. The transition is too large for it to be completely successful, but it did make me wish that the whole movie was that bizarre, instead of being comparable to the first hundred turns of Sid Meier's Civilization.
Here's my supreme example of why this movie didn't work on all fronts: a lack of character development. I'll buy the amnesia thing; that's not a problem, even though we don't really learn all that much about Bower and Payton even when memories do come back. But relegating them to radio banter was a misstep, because the few interactions they have at the beginning and end feel slighted. Also, the female that Bower meets is silent for the most part until she sort of trusts him, and even then she just kind of barks her thoughts about the monsters. And the Asian guy doesn't understand any English, so his speaking role is nil. Why stick two mutes in a movie that already has a lack of substantial characters to begin with? The absence of psychological practice in a psychological thriller killed it for me. But that's just me. Again, the movie looked really good; Christian Alvart's direction is solid from start to finish, and more so when things get loonier. That said, it probably would have worked as a silent film, and that's not exactly a compliment. Not a bad DVD, though, but as nothing more than a rental, unless you loved it. The picture and audio are spot on. The score is exciting enough and the sound effects do their thing. The movie is mostly free of cheap scares, so there's no emotion-guiding going on. The extras themselves are just as competent, if a little strange.
There's an audio commentary with the director, Alvart, and producer Jeremy Bolt. It's not bad, but there's a lack of humility going on, as both think that this is the best movie they could have possibly set out to make. Otherwise, some production stories are shared. "The World of Elysium" featurette is also pretty good. It's a tad long, but it covers almost all of the bases, from concept to casting to filming. There are a bunch of deleted and alternate scenes that tested my patience, because a lot of them were the same as in the movie, with added lines or a different close-up. That's not bad in comedies, where different lines make the difference, but here it's just boring. There's also a still gallery that has some gorgeous shots from the movie.
Rounding things out are three oddball features that attempt to expand the story. "Flight Team" and "Training Video" are presented as realistic documentary films. Admittedly, they are pretty cool, just because they were made for this and seem real enough. More real than FOX News anyway. The last one is "What Happened to Nadia's Team," which depicts the events that lead up to Nadia's lone-wolf syndrome. Not bad, though it looks amateurish. And there you have it.
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