- Title: Pandorum
- Year: 2009
- Rating: R
- Running Time: 108 mins
- Director: Christian Alvart
- Writer(s): Travis Milloy, Christian Alvart
- Cast: Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse, Norman Reedus, André Hennicke, Friederike Kempter, Niels-Bruno Schmidt, Wotan Wilke Möhring, Yangzom Brauen
Pandorum begins with crewman Bower (Ben Foster) awaking after an undisclosed period of hypersleep aboard the deep space voyager Elysium. Traumatized, disoriented, and essentially amnesiac, he is soon joined by his commanding officer, Lt. Payton (Dennis Quaid), who is in the same sorry state as he is. Both ascertain that things have not gone as planned aboard the ship, as the flight shift they belong to has been awoken out of sequence. The door leading outside their command center is barred, the third member of their team is missing, and it soon becomes apparent that the Elysium’s voyage to colonize another planet has gone completely crazy.
‘Crazy’ is, in fact, what the word ‘Pandorum‘ itself means — the idea of hyperspace madness that has been a staple of science fiction stories for decades. A movie that exists comfortably within sci-fi genre expectations and utilizes them quite well, Pandorum is about equal parts Alien and Event Horizon, seen through the aesthetic filter of Pitch Black. In conception it comes close to being a great movie, in execution it’s competent but not exceptional, but overall Pandorum is easy to recommend as a dark sci-fi actioner that won’t insult the viewers intelligence. Well, won’t insult it too much.
Following the set up, Bower, being the junior officer, is sent crawling off through air ducts to find out what is going on in the ship, while Payton stays behind and monitors his progress and feeds him information. Bower soon realizes that he is not alone, being confronted by primitively armed crewmen . . . and something much stranger. It seems a vicious horde of subhuman monsters has infected the ship — and the ship, it turns out, is in danger of reactor meltdown — and Bower has to survive their onslaught while fighting his way to the reactor room. The mystery of just what happened to the Elysium is front-and-center to the action, and the threat of madness and the questioning of identity is a constant for Bower and Payton.
Pandorum does a lot of things really well, but it fails to live up to its potential in several key instances. Firstly, for a movie with a heavy psychological dimension, it’s unfortunate that it is essentially only telling an action story. Bower, in his journey through the ship, confronts one situation after another in purely physical terms — never the flash of insight, clever escape, or even dose of technobabble that might lend his character (or those of his eventual companions) some added depth. And, for a movie that is overwhelmingly about action, the action itself is often fairly lackluster, relying on the stale techniques of shakey cam and quick cut to disguise the limitations of the budget and choreography. And because Pandorum does such a great job creating a sense of tension, confusion, and claustrophobia early on, the action-heavy sequences later in the film tend to feel both flat and out of place.
While Pandorum does give a decent explanation for certain key points of the film (which I will not spoil), there are some minor issues that crop up to unintentionally mislead the savvy viewer. One such is the complete illogic of the fighting abilities of certain crew members. Falling into the contemporary trend of granting even average people superhuman fighting skills, Pandorum actually muddies the water of its own revelations — when it turns out that the people we see kicking ass like Neo after a disk defrag aren’t actually the products of multiple generations of shipboard warfare and survival, or a super-solider experiement, or alien DNA, or the side-effects of Pandorum, or any other thing the alert viewer would come up with, it’s pretty disappointing. Nope, turns out those folks are just farmers or scientists that developed mad knife skills and superhuman acrobatics while scrounging for food and hiding from cannibals. Again, we see the need to be showy undermining the integrity of a film, an unfortunate dumbing down of a story that manages to be quite smart in other areas.
But even if Pandorum stumbles in certain respects, overall it’s a fun sci-fi thriller with some unexpected twists and a firm grasp of genre expectations.