Director : Christian Alvart
Screenplay : Travis Milloy (story by Travis Milloy and Christian Alvart)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Dennis Quaid (Payton), Ben Foster (Bower), Cam Gigandet (Gallo), Antje Traue (Nadia), Cung Le (Manh), Eddie Rouse (Leland), Norman Reedus (Shepard), André Hennicke (Hunter Leader), Friederike Kempter (Evalon), Niels-Bruno Schmidt (Insane Officer “Eden”), Jonah Mohmand (Childhunter), Delphine Chuillot (Young Bower's Mother), Wotan Wilke Möhring (Young Bower's Father) Julian Rappe (Young Bower)
Pandorum, which takes place entirely aboard what appears to be a deserted deep-space cruiser, marks the English-language debut of German director Christian Alvart, an autodidact who spun his love of cinema first into a career in fanzine publishing and then into making his own films, including the low-budget thriller Curiosity & the Cat (1999) and the well-received serial-killer psychodrama Antikörper (2005). Not having seen his previous films, I cannot compare them to Pandorum, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the style of the film has been heavily influenced by producer Paul W.S. Anderson, whose affection for hyperkinetic overkill in such films as Resident Evil (2002) and Death Race (2008)--if you can’t make it good, make it fast--appears to have provided Pandorum’s basic template, at least where action is concerned. Additionally, Pandorum is quite reminiscent of Anderson’s return-from-hell spaceship chiller Event Horizon (1997), especially the way in which the film uses dimly lit, clanking metallic hallways and cavernous spaces as a sci-fi twist on old haunted house tropes.
The story begins with a pair of men waking from deep hypersleep with no memory of what their mission was, how far their ship gone, or even where they are (not to mention what happened to the thousands of other people who should be on the ship with them). In essence, they are waking into a nightmare, rather than from one. The first to regain consciousness is Bower (Ben Foster), a mechanical engineer who has vague memories of a beautiful wife who he believes is also on board somewhere. Next to awaken is his commanding officer, Payton (Dennis Quaid), who is unfortunately just as befuddled and frightened as he is. Bower sets off to explore the ship and try to jump-start its fading reactor while Payton keeps tabs on him from a control room while trying to figure out how to get onto the bridge, which is locked from the inside and may hold the answers to their questions. Bower eventually discovers other crew members who have awoken some time before he did, including Nadia (Antje Traue), a fiercely defensive woman; Manh (world champion martial artist Cung Le), who speaks no English but has impressive strength and fighting skills; and finally Leland (Eddie Rouse), who has been awake the longest and may be the worse for it.
Screenwriter Travis Milloy allows the answers to the film’s central mysteries to unfold slowly and methodically, and in this regard Pandorum is a surprisingly effective mystery-thriller that keeps you engaged right into the climactic moments, which start piling on the revelations one after the other. However, the mystery also involves the eventual discovery of a race of screeching, mutated, cannibalistic humanoids that look and sound like the subterranean creatures from Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005), but appear to have taken fashion notes from the postapocalyptic warriors of the Mad Max series. Thus, much of the film is simply a game of cat-and-mouse as the rag-tag group of survivors work their way through the gargantuan ship trying to avoid the hoards of rampaging humanoids, although we do cut back regularly to Payton, who is engaged in a power struggle with another survivor named Gallo (Cam Gigandet) who thinks they should abandon ship rather than try to save it.
The title of the film refers to a psychological disorder caused by deep-space travel that is akin to the paranoia and mental disorder caused by high-pressure nervous syndrome, thus we know that at least one of the characters must be suffering from it at some point, and it is only a matter of time before we figure out who it is. To the filmmakers’ credit, they keep it successfully hidden for a good stretch of the narrative, which effectively merges the physical horrors of the cross-spaceship journey with the psychological horrors of hallucination and madness.
And, when Alvart sticks to the mystery portions of the story, Pandorum is an eerily effective mixture of ecological science fiction and horror, especially once the purpose of the mission is revealed. Unfortunately, the film is constantly undercut by the perfunctory use of the cannibalistic humanoids (although a sequence in which Bowers finds himself stuck in a room full of them sleeping is quite creepy) and the jackhammer editing of the chases and fights, which renders them virtually incomprehensible. It also doesn’t help that Cung Le’s character is such an obvious sop to the choreographed-fight-loving crowd, especially since his presence requires that the humanoids also be adept at martial arts to keep the fights interesting (I guess we are supposed to believe that there happened to be a lot of black belts onboard the ship when it left). Alvart shows a deft touch when developing suspense and he knows the value of a good shock moment, but he allows too much of the film to devolve into hectic action sequences that makes you feel like someone suddenly dropped you into a blender and turned out all the lights.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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