"In space, no one can hear you scream!"
It's a great tagline, and a perfect illustration of what's right (and wrong) about the science fiction horror film. Dabbling in a doubled-up genre has its own demerits. You have to be true to both the speculative geeks and the fright fans alike. You mix too much of one into the other, and the "why bother/you suck" mantras start up. A great example of this debate is Paul W. S. Anderson's Event Horizon. While it mostly deals with interstellar time travel and an abandoned spaceship floating aimlessly along the cosmos, there are issues of Hell, judgment, human psychological distress, and straight out monster movie haunting contained therein as well. Some love its proto-techno look and fire and brimstone appeal. Others can't get beyond the schlocky scares and the shivers. One imagines that Pandorum will suffer the same fate (oddly enough, it was produced by Mr. Anderson as well). It wants to be a thought-provoking futuristic thriller. It also tries for ample arterial spray. Somehow, it can't figure out how to make the two concepts coalesce successfully...if at all.
Two starship pilots - Bower (Ben Foster) and Payton (Dennis Quaid) - awaken from hypersleep to find their vessel virtually empty. Sent on a mission to keep the human race from extinction, they are supposed to be on their way to an Earth-like planet far out in the galaxy. But now, not only do they not know what has happened to their fellow crewmembers, but they are uncertain of who or where they are. Locked in the outer chambers of the cockpit, they must find a way to get to the reactor that powers the craft. If they don't, they will lose control and all life supporting systems. Bower finds a way out, and starts his journey toward the ship's core. Along the way, he discovers a monstrous mutant race of creators onboard, deadly and desperate for human flesh. Eventually, he runs into survivors Nadia, Mahn, and Leland, and what they have to say about the source of these horrors will have a profound impact on everything Bower and Payton believe in.
The roadblocks to appreciating Pandorum begin with the premise. You can tell that the screenwriters believe they have come up with a crackerjack idea - Earth is dying and a superspaceship full of genetically altered, evolutionarily advanced human are sent hurtling toward the nearest life sustaining planet. Along the way, (SPOILER ALERT! ) a systems malfunction allows some of the travelers to mutate, conforming to the cold, metallic world of interstellar travel and turning cannibal when food supplies run scarce. It has the makings of a mature, serious science fiction delight, the kind of movie they used to make before George Lucas and his ilk turned everything speculative into retrofitted westerns and extraterrestrial dogfights. But then Pandorum is being made in 2009, not during the days of Silent Running and Soylent Green, so instead of quite contemplation and razor's edge suspense, we get overcranked action, fast-cut kills, and enough faux fright film posing to destroy any chance at allegory or allusion. Indeed, Pandorum strives to say something significant about the nature of man and his place in the Universe. The filmmaking, however, is just in it for the groovy, gory fun (not that any of that truly exists here).
Some have called this movie The Descent meets Alien, and for the most part, they are wrong on both accounts. Neil Marshall made a truly gruesome exercise in claustrophobia with his visionary spelunking scare show. Ridley Scott, on the other hand, turned the old dark house genre into something tech-savvy and spectacular. Pandorum is just schlock, b-movie maneuvering housed inside an intelligent if slick, F/X riddled reality. Had director Christian Alvart taken a more lo-fi and textural approach, we might have something that really resonates. After all, the idea behind the narrative is inherently interesting. But instead of using such a conceit (one that, oddly enough, the writers wanted to pursue), it's all big budget, name star superficiality. This is a movie that purposefully avoids depth to have another sequence of overblown carnage - although the amount of blood used here is also restrained. As we go along, the performances are supposed to pass for insight and the numerous future shock set pieces act as some manner of meta-metaphor. Sadly, Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster are more or less wasted, while their co-stars come almost exclusively from the "who?" department of Central Casting.
Indeed, the frequent borrowing from other, better movies also causes issues. The whole look of the mutants seems copied from Marshall's movie, along with a few nods to such diverse sources as Mad Max and producer Anderson's superior Event Horizon. We also get a plot twist straight out of Psychology 101 and a few dozen failed chillers. The narrative also suffers from a singularity of goal. Foster is only really interested in rebooting the reactor - the flesh eating monsters are just a barrier to his need to engineer. Once he escapes the sleep chamber and heads out into the ship proper, it's just one ornate production design space shuffle after another. The threat is never emphasized because it's never really explained or understood. Indeed, Pandorum employs that really irritating expositional style which keeps everyone in the dark - sometimes, literally - until an ancillary character shows up to spill the beans. Then it's reams of reams of monologue meaning before the creepshow restarts. There is no real attempt to tie it all together, to make something more universal or critical of the concept. Pandorum is a great idea inconsistently realized. It has potential. It also has a lot of problems.
Offered by Anchor Bay and Overture films in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the transfer of Pandorum is really terrific. The sets here are very detailed, and the picture captures the amazing amount of minutia very well. While not really colorful by any stretch of the imagination (Alvart stays with the steel grays and the space browns here), the contrasts and digital polish are impressive. While not reference quality (it would be interesting to see the Blu-ray to judge the difference), the DVD packaging here is highly professional.
The sound situation is also top notch. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix captures the ship's eerie ambience perfectly. Whenever the mutants attack, we can hear their screams resonating through the back speakers, and each action scene offers its own directional delights. The dialogue is easy to understand and the musical score - by Michl Britsch - is excellent.
Thankfully, Anchor Bay have given Alvart and producer Jeremy Bolt a chance to sit down and discuss the film, and their full length audio commentary is very insightful. We learn of rejected ideas, favorite moments, and concepts brought in by the studio that were debated by the actual artists making the movie. In essence, Pandorum was a struggle between serious science fiction and straight ahead horror action. Looks like the latter won out. There is also some interesting EPK like featurettes, including an overview of the Elysium spaceship, a fake flight team training video, a peak at what happened to female character Nadia's team, and some deleted/alternative scenes. All together, they paint a portrait of a complex creation slowly undermined by a desire to "dumb things down."
It's hard to get a true handle on how to rate Pandorum. On the one hand, taken at face value, it is a slowly paced, vacuous mess which never realizes the ultra high aims its striving for. On the other hand, the basic idea has such a newness and novelty to it, and a requisite amount of speculative fiction possibility that it can't be easily dismissed. In essence, what we wind up with is a battle between skipping the entire production or recommending something that never quite fulfills its promise. In such cases, the compromise rating of Rent It will be used, if only to praise the good while warning of the bad. Perhaps someday, if the DVD is successful, a real life "director's cut" of the Pandorum will see a release. Or, better still, we'll get parts two and three of the proposed trilogy. Maybe then we can truly judge the success or failure of Christian Alvart's vision. Until such time, we are stuck with this haunting hybrid that's as satisfying as it is stilted.