Wow, a movie starring Ben Foster in which Foster isn’t the freakiest thing in the movie! Even when he’s not a deranged lunatic like in 30 Days of Night or a lethal wacko like in Hostage, Foster is riveting on screen. Even his co-star Dennis Quaid performs well when out of his comfort zone. He doesn’t say things like “When all else fails, we don’t” like in G.I. Joe or “Mr. Vice President, if we don't act now it's going to be too late” like in The Day After Tomorrow. His character has depth, emotion and is extremely unnerving. You know what else is unnerving about Pandorum? It takes a brilliant concept and stellar performances and buries them in banality and mediocre scares.
A man (Foster) wakes up in a hyper-sleep chamber with no idea of who he is or where he is. After regaining some strength in his limp legs and peeling off a layer of goo, he looks back at the chamber labeled ‘Bower.’ He finds two other chambers, one labeled ‘Cooper’ which is empty and the other ‘Payton’ with a man (Quaid) still sleeping inside. Eventually Payton’s chamber opens and Bower fills him in on everything he knows, which is pretty much nothing. Flickers of memory lead the men to believe they are the crew of the Elysium, a ship sent to colonize a planet to sustain humanity due to Earth’s inevitable demise.
Rumblings on the ship suggest the mission is salvageable as long as they can restart the nuclear reactor. Bower ventures out into the seemingly abandoned vessel in search of the power source while Payton stays behind to guide him using the ship’s computer system. It doesn’t take long for the men to realize they’re not alone and could be suffering from a psychosis induced by being in deep space for an extended period of time called Pandorum.
The beginning of Pandorum is fantastic. The concept of waking up from a deep sleep completely alone and helpless is terribly troubling. Even as the men start to put together the bits and pieces of their situation you’re on the edge of your seat. The whole concept is smart, novel and disturbingly ominous. But the moment Bower and Payton part, Pandorum does a downward spiral crash landing in a world of cheap chills and thrills.
If director Christian Alvart didn’t take advantage of the dark and eerie environment to make the audience uneasy enough to fear what lurked around the corner, a number of elements of Pandorum would wind up being laughable. One of the people Bower meets along the way is Nadia (Antje Traue), a geneticist who’s turned into an indestructible monkey woman. Well, not really, but she might as well be. She jumps around wielding weapons and can sustain crippling wounds without flinching. Bower’s other two buddies are a jacked Asian man (Cung Le) who’s part of the ship’s agriculture unit and an insane cook (Eddie Rouse) who’s merely there to show how far desperation to survive can take a man. When you think you’ve met all of the human survivors left, out pops Cam Gigandet, literally. He plays a borderline insane crewmember named Gallo. I knew Ben Foster could get freaky but Gigandet has a knack for making audiences uncomfortable too. His scenes with Quaid are downright unsettling.
The archenemy in Pandorum should have been the mental condition itself. The super fast, super ugly alien creatures that take over the ship are pathetic. Not only are they unconvincing, but they’re nothing we haven’t seen before. They screech, they pop up out of nowhere and they eat people. The concept of losing your mind in deep space is far more terrifying than a creature that looks like an albino version of the thing that crawls out of Craig T. Nelson in Poltergeist. Perhaps the alien element would have worked if it were more believable. It’s hard to take rabid creatures hunting humans aboard a spaceship as a realistic situation, but a clearer explanation of why they’re there might have been enough.
Pandorum jumps back and forth between the creatures and the mental condition making the viewer uncertain of which is the actual enemy. Mind tricks are fine, but at least have them lead to a definitive understanding. The finale is frustratingly sloppy and will leave you unfulfilled and desperate for more information. Pandorum isn’t terrible but it’s very disappointing to see a film with so much potential reduced to something that’s just so-so. It’s a fine way to spend an hour and a half of your time, but don’t expect it to resonate after you leave the theater.