There are numerous problems with the sci-fi horror film Pandorum, including some really bad dialogue, corny sequences, poorly-written characters and a clunky twist. What works, though, and works well enough throughout the entire movie to eke out a recommendation from myself as a B-thriller, is the sense of isolation. When Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) is awakened and crawls out of a cryo-tube at the beginning of the movie, he finds himself in an ominous, pitch-black environment. Even after Bower awakes Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid), the overwhelming, oppressive sense of the empty unknown before them remains.
Pandorum opens with a brief history detailing how overpopulation and food and water shortages have crippled Earth during the 21st century, before introducing us to Bower and Payton, the fifth crew shift on a ship called the Elysium. Their job: pilot the ship to Tanis, an Earth-like planet and help set up the planet for colonization. Unfortunately, the ship's electricity is out, the third member of Payton's flight crew is missing, and, most alarmingly, the fourth flight crew is not there to awaken them. Both men suffer from mild memory loss as a result of the cryo-sleep, but they're force to fight through their hazy condition to figure out where they are and what happened to everyone else.
Director Christian Alvart never allows the audience to get any obvious bigger picture or sense of geography in the gigantic ship, a technique that might sound confusing but works in the movie's favor. The Elysium is a massive, miles-long series of rooms and hallways that contain the telltale warning signs of a horrible, twisted accident. Alvart also uses the darkness to bend reality slightly. In an early scene, Bower, crawling through a duct, becomes claustrophobic, and the giant rubbery tubes lining the duct turn into an inescapable mass, and later Bower's light refuses to illuminate a shadowy figure until he's right up next to it.
Recently, it seems like Dennis Quaid has been embracing genre projects, which is nice, but it's too bad he doesn't have more to do. The film's structure is flawed in that it isolates his character from the rest of the proceedings, with Payton stuck back near the cryo-tubes, seated at a monitor, trying to direct Bower through the ship. Even at that, Payton and Bower's radio connection is interrupted several times during the movie, leaving Payton alone until terrified crew member Gallo (Cam Gigandet) crawls into the back room.
Gallo is on the lookout for Pandorum itself, an infamous psychosis that Payton and Bower talk about as if it's a ghost story. Triggered by extreme emotional distress and amplified by the vast emptiness and inescapable confinement of the spaceship, it inspires paranoia and visions and can send people into homicidal, irrational rages. The interplay between Payton and Gallo, potentially clouded by Pandorum, should be excellent, but the movie never tries all that hard to fake the audience out or use Pandorum in manipulative ways. Gigandet's performance is also verging on silliness; the actor reminded me of Hayden Christensen playing Anakin Skywalker more than once during his scenes. Since Pandorum is more effective in an exaggerated, comic-book style of horror than it is as a serious dramatic movie, it's not a major issue, but it's slightly irksome.
Meanwhile, Bower finds himself getting repeatedly beat up and abused throughout the film (this is a particularly physical performance on Ben Foster's part), as he finds himself chased by mysterious figures aboard the ship. I thought I had a good guess as to the identity of the creatures, but the film doesn't seem to care, brushing by the explanation so casually, it'd be easy to miss. Instead, the creatures are basically just incredibly dangerous and extremely loud (bordering on deafening). Bower is eventually joined by Nadia (Antje Traue) and Manh (Cung Le), two other crew members who have managed to survive on Elysium for an unspecified amount of time. Their appearance doesn't affect the film's atmosphere; there's always the threat of the film's creatures around every corner, not to mention the possibility of less-agreeable surviving passengers.
During the third act, the movie starts to unravel. I really liked one of the story's twists, but the rest of them are fairly predictable (if not enough to sink the movie). Much of the dialogue is also paint-by-numbers or poorly-written, and, worst of all, there's a really silly, misconceived battle between Manh and one of the creatures. Additional editing to bring the film down from over 100 minutes to around 95 would probably have solved a few of these problems, but Wedigo von Schultzendorff's kinda-stylish cinematography is enough of a bond to see the audience through, and the movie never feels like it's overreaching or straining to be respectable. Most importantly, Alvart's overwhelming sensation of helplessness lingers even after the mystery fades. Pandorum isn't going to hold up against any sci-fi classics like 2001 or Alien, but it effectively dredges up the same antsy dread the characters must feel, staring into the terrifying darkness of space.
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