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Thursday, January 21, 2010
  DVD Review: Pandorum

Pandorum is a weird little sci-fi/horror movie. In some senses it’s better than I expected it to be, and in others it’s really quite bad. The story takes place on a ship in deep space, and follows Bower (Ben Foster), a member of the flight crew who awakens from hyper-sleep apparently before he’s supposed to. He finds the ship empty and apparently without power, and wakes Lt. Payton (Dennis Quaid), one of his superiors, to try to figure out what’s going on. The problem is that one of the side effects of the hyper-sleep process is temporary memory loss, so neither of them has much of an idea what they’re doing there. The two get separated when Bower descends into the bowels of the ship to try to get the power back on, only to find out he and Payton are far from the only people (or things) awake on the ship. (The title refers to a sort of “space madness” that causes hallucinations and other craziness as a result of long-term space travel.)

Pandorum, while being a sci-fi/horror movie that borrows very liberally from Alien and the Resident Evil movies (it shares producers with the latter series), is also structured largely as a mystery. Because of the conceit that Bower doesn’t really remember what he’s doing on the ship or even what their mission is, co-writer/director Christian Alvart doles out information a bit at a time as Bower pieces his memories back together. It’s an interesting idea (if a fairly obvious device to manufacture the mystery), and that’s where Pandorum’s strengths lie. Alvart is obviously a serious fan of science fiction, and the concepts he delves into, particularly in the final act as the mysteries in the film are revealed, are (with one glaring exception that I’ll touch on in a moment) certainly more intriguing and reminiscent of classic sci-fi stories about space travel than I expected.

Where Pandorum definitely does not work is the action. It’s explained in the DVD extras that the film started when two separate, similar projects (about the effects of extended space travel on the crew) were merged, and when I learned that, most of my issues with the movie seemed to be retroactively explained. The parts that work are the sci-fi elements; the parts that don’t are the horror and action elements. See, shortly after waking up, Bower encounters a bizarre, freakish mutant-thing with metal spikes sticking out of it, and subsequently learns from a couple of human survivors (who have clearly been awake for quite some time now, another nice little detail that deepens the pervading sense that something’s just wrong) that these creatures are infesting the ship.

The monsters aren’t necessarily lame because of how they look (they’re actually fairly creepy, especially their noseless leader…they were designed by Stan Winston studio; I just wish the late, great master’s final work was a better movie), but rather the explanation for what they are is vague and ultimately disappointing. I won’t spoil it, but considering how freakish they look, and how much the movie relies on them as a driver of the plot, their origin is basically tossed off in a line in passing. But in the light of the film’s aforementioned genesis as two separate projects, I assume the half-assed nature of the monsters is a casualty of that process. Maybe in the movie that was about monsters in space (rather than a bunch of people trying to figure out what’s going on with the ship while also evading bizarre monsters) they were more fleshed out. Usually things that go unexplained are scarier in movies like this (and I’m not asking for a prequel graphic novel or anything explaining how they came to be), but here the monsters are just a weird distraction, a way to keep things “exciting” by just having some more flesh-eating freaks show up every few minutes so the audience doesn’t get bored with all the talking. (The monsters, for some reason, also leap through the air, Crouching Tiger style, when they fight. It’s an incredibly irritating and stupid detail that makes no sense, is never explained, and makes the already-weak monsters even worse. I can’t express enough in words how much I hated that detail.)

While Bower’s dodging flesh-eating monsters, Payton remains on the bridge, trying to get the ship back up and running and figure out the situation for himself. He finds another crew member, Gallo (Cam Gigandet), hiding in a bunch of wires, and naturally, he has some more information to dole out to Quaid’s character in between cuts back to Bower and the two survivors he finds (played by German actress Antje Traue and mixed martial arts fighter Cung Le) as they sneak and fight their way through the ship.

Traue, while very hot, is charged with delivering the bulk of the film’s exposition – and in a movie relying this much on mystery to create tension, there is much explaining to be done – and her thick accent makes those scenes even more leaden than they should be (she also adopts an unfortunate “tough chick” growl that sounds totally put-on; her whole character is just a paint-by-numbers “ass-kicking woman,” which has, in itself, become a tired cliché in genre movies like this one). She sounds like she’s speaking phonetically, and it’s really noticeable every time she’s onscreen. That said, she is really hot, and there are worse things than watching her run around in a grimy tank-top.

Foster and Quaid, though, are the ones tasked with most of the heavy lifting in terms of acting, and they’re both solid. Foster is fast becoming one of my favorite young actors (his tweaked-out turn in Alpha Dog is amazing, and I’ve always lamented how wasted he was in the third X-Men movie), and he’s very good in his first big lead role. He wisely doesn’t play Bower as some sort of badass; of the three characters he spends the bulk of the movie with, he’s easily the least capable in a fight, which is an interesting dynamic considering he’s the hero. A less compelling actor in the role probably would have rendered much of Pandorum unwatchable. Quaid is also quite good, and he gets most of the over-the-top stuff to do – Payton is shown to be afflicted with Pandorum fairly early on, and Quaid is clearly having fun playing a guy gripped by space madness.

I actually dug most of the story and the ideas at play in Pandorum, but ultimately Alvart and company just didn’t do enough with it (not to mention the clearly shoehorned-in monsters). There’s a battle going on between a “things going wrong in space” thriller (an odd little subgenre of sci-fi thrillers than I have a major soft spot for) and a horror movie about flesh-eating monsters with big pieces of metal sticking out of them, and Pandorum’s biggest flaw is its failure to combine the two into anything more than a third-rate cross between Alien (a great movie, and a smart one to borrow from) and Resident Evil (decidedly less so). The twists at the end are actually pretty clever, and I didn’t see any of it coming. The mysteries are also handled well enough that, as much as I didn’t necessarily enjoy the movie, I can’t pretend I wasn’t interested to learn the explanation for everything. And with the exception of the origin of the monsters, all the revelations (and the ideas behind them) are intriguing enough that I was actually sort of disappointed they were lost in such an otherwise generic, unoriginal movie.



The Pandorum DVD has a nice assortment of stuff on it, including a commentary track from director Christian Alvart and producer Jeremy Bolt. Alvart’s clearly a smart guy who understands not only movies but also science fiction, and his perspective is fairly interesting, focusing more on the story and the characters and what he was going for in a given scene, while Bolt focuses more on the details of production. I never got bored by the track, but it didn’t really blow me away either.

There’s a collection of deleted and extended scenes, and most of them are slight variations or extensions of what’s already in the movie. The alternate ending is actually pretty cool, but it’s considerably darker then the one used; Alvart (correctly) notes in the commentary that it’s unusual for a film like this to have something approaching a happy ending, so it would have also made his film feel even more generic and ripped-off if he’d used it.

There’s a pretty standard making-of featurette that’s nothing special, but it’s interesting enough. Also included are two odd little extras, neither of which works particularly well: ‘What Happened to Nadia’s Team’ ostensibly shows what happened to Antje Traue’s team of scientists before things went pear-shaped on the ship. It only runs a few minutes and is shot Blair Witch-style with a handheld camera. It looks cheap, and nothing about it really clicks with the movie itself. It just feels like a weird, gimmicky thing to put on a DVD, and I failed to see the point of it. There’s also a ‘Flight Team Training Video’ which purports to be a video shown to members of the ship’s crew before the ship takes off, and it doesn’t really do much other than remind the viewer of some aspects of the plot. It’s sort of cute, and not as lame as ‘Nadia’s Team,’ but, again, I didn’t see why it was included.

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