Starz / Anchor Bay // R // $39.98 // January 19, 2010
Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 8, 2010
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Pandorum is compelling and unrelentingly intense when it sticks to being a science-fiction film. Much like Danny Boyle's Sunshine a couple years back, though, it's when Pandorum decides to shift gears into an action-horror flick that the movie completely falls off the rails, and the promise of its intriguing opening twenty minutes or so quickly make way for an underlit, clumsily edited, and ploddingly ineffective spin on The Descent-in-outer-space.

Pandorum opens as Cpl. Bower (Ben Foster) flails around inside some sort of hypersleep chamber. He has no idea where he is, what the ship's mission happens to be, and, if not for his name being printed on the exterior of the chamber, even who he is. Memory loss is one of the side effects of exceptionally long stints in hypersleep, and Bower stumbles around the dark, seemingly abandoned spacecraft as he tries to regain his bearings. He does eventually find one other member of the flight crew to awaken -- Lt. Payton (Dennis Quaid) -- but even working side by side, the two of them appear to be trapped alone in the ship. What happened to the shift that was supposed to take over for them some indeterminate number of years ago? Where are the rest of the men and women that staffed the Elysian? What was their mission supposed to be, exactly? Whatever answers there are, they're not to be found in the chamber they're currently trapped inside. Bower skitters through some air ducts into the belly of the ship, and as he's swarmed by feral, ghostly white mutants swathed in shards of metal, the grisly fate of the Elysian starts to take shape. Aside from these cannibalistic creatures and the few scattered warriors who've managed to survive over the years, Bower finds himself struggling with pandorum, a physical and psychological breakdown from prolonged space travel that had ravaged one of the ship's officers in the past and now seems to be slowly consuming him as well.

Once the fascinatingly disorienting setup is out of the way, though, Pandorum settles into Event Horizon-meets-The Descent with more than a little Resident Evil gnawing on its left flank. There's not much of a spark of energy or imagination once Antje Traue -- a bustier version of Milla Jovavich as the resident ass-kicking zombie slayer -- first shows up. Traue is actually pretty great in the part, and I'd absolutely be up for seeing her in a few more bare-knuckled splatterfests, but her arrival is when Pandorum decides to leap from one standard issue, formulaic genre trope to another. Sure, there's a little more backstory to deliver along with a couple of twists, but for the most part, Pandorum alternates between the survivors darting away from pasty white post-apocalyptic-cannibal-mutant types, trying not to butcher
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each other so much, Dennis Quaid scowling away at a computer terminal, and another dollop of plot points being scooped out of the freezer. The hook of the plot is dulled once Pandorum opts to lean back into convention. The only character I had any investment in is Bower, and even he's an almost entirely blank slate, really. Ben Foster grabbed my attention early on when his performance was more intensely focused around physical language. Pandorum really struggles with its clunky dialogue -- especially the rambling, elliptical chatter about the condition they call pandorum -- and it doesn't help that so many of the supporting players ham it up the more the movie goes along. Dennis Quaid overacting is kind of par for the course these days, but even Foster falls into that trap as he gets all bug-eyed near the end. From the first attack on, I just didn't care about anything that was happening, and the pace is borderline-glacial. Pandorum isn't nearly substantial enough to justify its nearly two-hour runtime.

What's supposed to pass for action is kind of room temperature as well. The marauding mutants never really radiate any sense of menace -- yeah, they have stabby weapons, rip their victims apart, and gobble their innards, but they're not nearly as unsettling as the creatures from The Descent that they seem to be at least partially modeled after. (Think The Descent's subterreanan monsters with a Reavers makeover straight out of Serenity.) Director Christian Alvert tries to up the intensity by leaning on spastic quick-cutting, and most of the action seems to unfold with cuts of four or five frames a pop. It's frantic to the point of choppy that I'd snicker and think, "they're kidding, right?" The muddy, grainy cinematography obscures things enough as it is, but this hypercaffeinated editing makes many of the action sequences almost impossible to follow. Even the climax set above a pit of sleeping mutants failed to get my blood pumping.

Pandorum is so promising at the outset, and I found myself enthralled in its earliest moments by the exceptional set and production design. Virtually everything else about the film is a wash, though: the story is more engaging before the actual premise starts to take shape, the action sequences are a trainwreck straight across the board, and even the acting's all over the map. There's not much left for me to bother recommending, so I'd suggest sticking with a rental if you're hellbent on giving Pandorum a spin.

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Christian Alvert mentions in his audio commentary that his vision of Pandorum was so dark visually that there were concerns about whether or not it could even be sold for television play, and he had to sign a technical waiver when his footage was being processed because of the overwhelming amount of black. It looks like this has been dialed back for home video. Though Pandorum is unquestionably still a dark film, it's devoid of any true blacks; what's left is dark but noticeably gray, a difference that's much more prominent as it consistently fails to match the blacks of the letterboxing bars on either side of the screen. The elevated blacks do leave the movie looking rather flat, and, strangely enough, Pandorum suffers from black crush despite the lack of meaningful blacks. The film stock struggles under this limited light and is swarming with grain, and though this isn't the sort of sparklingly clear HD image that usually accompanies a sci-fi release, it's appreciated that this gritty texture is preserved rather than smeared away through excessive noise reduction. Clarity and detail are frequently spectacular whenever there's any light of note beaming onto the screen, but otherwise, Pandorum is murkier and less revealing than most day-and-date Blu-ray discs. It's better than anything DVD could hope to deliver, but there is an upper limit to how this sort of stylized, underlit photography can realistically look in high definition.

Pandorum's AVC encode spans both layers of this BD-50 disc, and the image is letterboxed to preserve the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1.

The film's visuals may be underwhelming in high definition, but Pandorum makes up for it with a colossal 24-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Some may sneer that the movie is too quick to resort to "boo!" jolts to punctuate its scares, but I found the mix of near-complete silence with loud, jarring blasts of sound to be wildly effective, particularly throughout the disorienting first act. The sound design is every bit as atmospheric as you'd expect for a movie that's in large part a haunted house floating in space, particularly the unsettling creaking of metal off in the distance. Pandorum also takes advantage of the multichannel setup to heighten the intensity of a couple stalk-and-slash sequences as the mutants encircle their prey. There's no shortage of color in the surrounds, from occasional reverb reinforcing the dialogue to the clever instrumentation in the score. The low-end is consistently devastating as well. The only gripe I can muster is that there are stretches where dialogue is dominated in the mix by all of the havoc that Pandorum wreaks, but it's not a constant headache.

A monaural Spanish dub has also been tacked on along with subtitles in English (SDH) and Spanish.

  • Audio Commentary: Pandorum's commentary track pairs together director Christian Alvert with producer Jeremy Bolt, and it's a decent listen. The two of them do spend a bit too much time marveling at their creation and occasionally narrate what's happening on-screen, but there are still quite a few highlights: piecing together two coincidentally similar screenplays, struggling to shoot a film so unrelentingly dark that the lab made him sign a waiver, hiring a futurist designer to come up with the riot control weapon, substituting a bologna sandwich for devoured flesh, and Alvert's daughter winding up in the cast as a mutant child. The commentary doesn't delve too deeply into the film's themes, but there are a handful of comments along those lines, such as how Pandorum deliberately alternates between tight, claustrophobic sequences and vast, empty expanses. Not an essential listen, no, but I liked it well enough.

  • Deleted Scenes (28 min.; HD): The reel of extended and deleted scenes is heavy on additional color and bridging moments: Bower eating and drinking after first waking up, a longer report to Payton that touches on whether or not this is nothing more than a worst-case-scenario simulation, another search for a way out, and a heightened sense of paranoia. This footage spends quite a bit more time in Leland's tank, including a cut of one scene that's been heavily reshuffled. Also included are a peek at the mutants breeding, a flashback to the bio vault in sunnier days, a lengthier explanation about what's going on, exactly, and a tag that would've played at the end of the film. I still find all of the Leland sequences to be awfully grating, but I enjoyed most of what's left since they emphasize Pandorum's view of the future rather than getting hung up on the nuts and bolts of the plot.

  • The World of Elysian (14 min.; HD): Pandorum's making-of
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    featurette sticks to a pretty familiar formula, but it's still a decent look at what went into putting the film together: merging together two similar screenplays about the ravages of long-term space travel, bringing the hordes of mutants to life through creature choreography and KNB's prosthetic effects, and crafting a more worn, utilitarian spacecraft rather than the bright and shiny variety. "The World of Elysian" also touches on some of the questions that Pandorum poses.

  • Flight Team Training Video (3 min.; HD): This promotional featurette from the far-flung future is aimed at prospective intergalactic colonists, recapping the search for an Earth-like planet and leading up to the launch of Elysian. It's the better of the two original shorts on this Blu-ray disc.

  • What Happened to Nadia's Team? (5 min.; HD): I kind of doubt anyone was sitting around and mulling over that question, but on the off-chance you were, this digital short delivers an answer. (Not surprisingly...? The pasty white mutants got 'em.) The short does touch on the importance of their mission on Tanis, but it doesn't expand much on the mythology of Pandorum and really doesn't dangle enough of a hook to be required viewing on its own.

  • Still Galleries: Pandorum showcases just over two hundred images throughout its four still galleries. "Models and Monsters" features physical models of the sets along with a slew of different creature concepts. "Designs and Drawings" offers up several dozen pieces of conceptual art, rough sketches, and CG renders of sets, props, and characters. "On Set" isn't the stack of production stills you'd probably expect, instead featuring more than fifty shots of the different sets used throughout the film. Finally, there are 68 storyboards from the climactic turbine pit sequence. I don't think there's a shot of a living, breathing human scattered around anywhere in here. The galleries are presented at a high resolution although the images themselves aren't expanded to fill the entirety of the screen.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): The last of the extras is a high-def theatrical trailer. HD plugs for other Anchor Bay releases are served up separately.
The second disc in the set is a digital copy, and the screened text says it's for Windows-based PCs only.

The Final Word
The first twenty minutes and change of Pandorum are intriguingly disorienting and bolstered by some truly spectacular set design. From there, though, the movie limps into Resident Evil-on-the-Nostromo, suffering from spastic quick-cutting, campy acting, and an almost unbearably plodding pace. If Pandorum could've maintained the momentum of its first act, you'd be tearing into a completely different review right now, but as it is...? Rent It.

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