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Just a few weeks ago I was reviewing the cerebral Sci-fi thriller Moon and belaboring the point that the Space Film genre has been overrun by ghosts and zombies -- even Sunshine, a show with a great concept, can't get from point A to point B without reverting to slavering demons running amok in industrial spaceship interiors still aping the look of Ridley Scott's Alien.
Anchor Bay is giving a strong push to its DVD and Blu-ray release of Pandorum, and I was advised to check it out. I was pleasantly surprised. Although heroic spacemen battle martial arts mutants in dank metallic corridors, the story holds on tightly to a couple of interesting ideas. Director Christian Alvart sees that the tale unfolds in a way that retains our interest. While not exactly original, Pandorum is much better than similar films I've seen from the same Sci-fi action ghetto.
We're told that Travis Milloy designed his original screenplay to be filmed on the cheap, only to see it become a $40 million dollar production. Milloy's clever opening dispenses with the need for establishing exposition by having space flight crew officers Payton and Bower (Dennis Quaid & Ben Foster) awaken rudely from hypersleep in a fog of amnesia, an expected side-effect of the suspended-animation process. It takes them a while to remember their names, let alone what ship they're on or what their duties are; all that's certain is that something has gone very wrong. The computers are down and access to the bridge is blocked. As Bower explores the spaceship Elysium, the facts begin to come back. They should have been awakened by a previous flight crew. The Elysium is a colonial ark heading for a far-off planet called Tanis, with a payload of thousands of humans also stored in hypersleep pods.
Ben loses communication with Payton just as he heads off in search of the reactor room, to reboot the ship's systems. That's when he realizes that he's being hunted by cannibalistic mutants with demonic horror faces. After a couple of close scrapes he teams up with a pair of colonists that have avoided being eaten only through superior fighting skills. German ecologist Nadia (Antje Traue) and Vietnamese agricultural engineer Manh (Cung Le) have already transformed themselves into weapon-toting action figures. The path to the reactor leads through dark corridors and chambers, all controlled by the marauding monsters.
At this point I wondered if Pandorum had been adapted from a video game. All the elements are present -- a goal-oriented mission, episodic combat, secrets to be learned by those who survive each step of the journey. At one point Bower discovers that he has less than an hour to restart the mainframe computer before all life support systems give out, imposing a standard jeopardy deadline on the survival story.
Back on the bridge, Payton helps a member of the previous flight crew shake free of hypersleep, in which the spacemen are sealed with a futuristic kind of shrinkwrap. Gallo (Cam Gigandet) brings a distressing message from Earth. Nobody knows how much time has passed or if the Elysium is anywhere near the destination planet Tanis. Gallo and Payton also discuss the space sickness called Pandorum, in which those afflicted go insane and do harm to their fellow astronauts. Gallo begins to behave weirdly, to Payton's dismay. Bower, Nadia and Manh meet another survivor, Leland (Eddie Rouse), a ruthless loner who has been hiding in a sealed off chamber. Leland's explanation of events clashes with Gallo's: according to him, an "adaption injection" given the colonists so that they can alter their metabolism to the new world has inadvertently mutated some to survive in conditions on the ship, turning them into scavenging cannibals. The monsters have already eaten most of their helpless, sleeping fellow colonists. The only hope for the surviving humans is for Foster to get to the main computer in time.
Pandorum reveals these facts a little at a time, as Bower and his comrades struggle through the treacherous depths of the giant ship. There are actually quite a few more surprises that I won't reveal here. The spaceship sets are impressive and the CGI effects are mostly very good, with nice details like an electric shaver that works with a laser light and a ray weapon strapped on the wrist like a gauntlet. The movie doesn't bother to explain every technical detail, allowing us to identify various mechanisms by observing how they operate.
Star Dennis Quaid remains mostly on one set talking into a microphone, which must have helped with the budget. Friendly hero Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma) is a natural identification figure. At one point he's trapped in an unnervingly narrow tunnel, a situation I've experienced in nightmares. Cam Gigandet is mostly unpleasant as the deranged Gallo, while inexhaustible warriors Antje Traue and Cung Le don't get enough quality acting time. Eddie Rouse draws the worst duty of all, to give the complicated explanation for what went wrong with the Elysium. Unlike the smooth exposition in the first half of the movie, Rouse's main function is to be a living PowerPoint presentation.
Pandorum has no claim on classic Sci-Fi status yet shapes up as a satisfying haunted-house-in-space action thriller. Director Christian Alvart (Antibodies) keeps things moving efficiently and makes few if any false moves. The rather scary-looking mutants will impress fans hungry for kung-fu demon combat, and the action choreography looks plenty rough, especially a number of painful-looking falls. A couple of gory killings are on the gratuitous side but Pandorum works its way to a reasonably interesting finale -- a real rarity for this subgenre. I'd really like to see more space operas that don't involve mutants, zombies, knife fights or disembowelments, but until the tide changes this show fulfills present genre requirements without insulting our intelligence.
Anchor Bay's DVD and Blu-ray of Pandorum looks really good, with a sharp, bright image and rich color that accentuates all those dark corners in the enormous spaceship interior sets. The audio has a nice feel for the atmosphere without overdoing the high-tech sound effects. The DVD review copy can't hold a candle to the HD, not just for detail but for image texture as well. The standard-def video is brighter, more washed-out and less colorful.
Pandorum was released to theaters just last Fall. Anchor Bay has given both discs a complement of extras, with a commentary by director Christian Alvart and producer Jeremy Bolt, deleted scenes, and a standard promotional making-of featurette. A Flight Team training video restates the story's basic setup. A piece called What Happened to Nadia's Team is a weak reality-based attempt at a found video record on board the Elysium. It mainly serves to remind us how well written and directed the main feature is. Galleries of artwork, models and other photo records round out the package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pandorum Blu-ray rates:
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