First, a confession: Open a film with a vast expanse of stars and you’ve instantly grabbed my inner geek by vice grip right where it counts. Put a knobby starship plowing through that expanse of stars to regions unknown and you’ve won my goodwill.
As the most recent big screen addition to the grime-crusted house deep space sci-fi morphed into circa 1979, German director Christian Alvart’s Pandorum manages to kick off in disorienting fashion, nicely setting up unanswered questions while tightening its lights-out tension. But that’s just the first 20 minutes. The middle 70 devolve into standard fare better executed by a long list of films to which Pandorum owes a large debt of gratitude; Alien, Pitch Black and Event Horizon just off the top. Add some Stan Winston created creature design wholly inspired from The Descent and you’ve got the bucket of inspiration from which Pandorum heavily draws both its production design and mood.
Despite its ad campaign emphasis on posters alluding to icky space body horror, Pandorum isn’t that (in fact, the “skin” of the poster is more a shrink-wrapped freezer bag for cold storage “cryo-sleep”). Set completely aboard a spindly, spyrographic starship christened Elysium–the kind of starship where tight corridors lead to massive open spaces that jettison compact practicality for cavernous, art-directed impracticality–, Pandorum instead turns out to be mystery and creature horror/action. Coupled with a mild dose of underlying psychosis, Pandorum loosely packages its genre-faithful elements into a surprisingly smart film, but one that gets lost and fragmented in a hyper-edited pursuit of its fringe plot-points.
Awakening from a round of cryo-sleep Corporal Bower (Ben Forster) finds that on a ship of what used to be 16,000 people headed for a newly discovered planet called Tannis, he and Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) seem to be the only two left. Since long-term cryo-sleep results in memory loss–and space dementia coined “pandorum”– neither of the two know exactly what’s going on, what they’re doing there or why the power is out. Of course, all the answers lie on the bridge which is locked. Bower– who turns out to be one of the ship’s engineers– sets out to investigate. Working his way through cables and claustrophobic hallways to the ship’s power core, he begins finding answers from several mysterious crew members and more than a few unpleasant surprises along the way–including what happened to the Elysium crew and why the ship is pushing through space in the first place.
The premise and underlying story are great– both are mysterious and compelling. Pandorum starts to lose its way, however, once Bower meets up with and runs/jumps his way amidst the crowds of running/jumping Descent-like nemeses. Filmed almost entirely in the dark with action fueled by insanely choppy editing, action and sequence become virtually impossible to spatially follow. The edits are no doubt done to conceal creature mystery, but when cinematography and editing force you to ask yourself “Who was that? What just happened? Where did that happen?” it’s failed. In that sense, there’s a lot of frustrating failure in Pandorum‘s action and chase peices.
As murky as the cinematography can be, major plot points follow the same path. All lead to plot twists I’m not big on divulging, but suffice to say, whole reasons for critical events and existences leading up to them go unexplained. I could entertain arguments these gaps exist, possibly, because in the end they’re more more red herring than anything, but if that’s the case, it’s a cheap trick that saps time from a more intriguing story.
Luckily, the dependable Ben Foster takes his creepy intensity down a notch to play a tech-geek everyman. It’s Foster who really anchors the proceedings where overly expositional and basic dialogue start to run amok. Dennis Quaid is all bearded gruffness and the rest of the small cast make little impact as they’re quickly introduced and left untended.
Pandorum wasn’t screened for critics, but I did manage to get into a promotional screening anyway. While it probably would have been panned, Overture Films should have had more faith here. On its own terms, Pandorum succeeds as well as, if not more, than Fame does on its. So, dilemma. Despite its rough visual and scripted narrative flaws, Pandorum is a relatively tight, focused and scrappy little movie. Pandorum takes advantage of its German subsidized budget to create a dingy, used environment and gives it enough mystery, mood and strong finale to at least make it interesting. I can’t excuse this film from its missteps, but thanks to its expansive, star-soaked opening and intriguing premise, Pandorum is sticking with me and I can’t bring myself to completely trash it. All said, it’s worth the watch.