Anchor Bay // 2009 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // January 19th, 2010
Fear what happens next.
Pandorum was both a box-office flop and a critical whipping boy last September, it hit theatres one week and was almost completely gone the next. Audiences clearly didn't connect with its derivative trailers, and even in the preview stage the film looked suspiciously like an amalgamation of a dozen better films. The most obvious influence is Ridley Scott's Alien, but other movies are channeled too -- Event Horizon, The Descent, and Predator seem to have been playing on a loop inside director Christian Alvart's head also. So it should come as no surprise that the whole enterprise feels like a serious but overly familiar sci-fi cum horror snoozefest. It's an exceedingly well-shot movie and musters one or two tense sequences, but overall Pandorum feels like one rip-off too far.
Corporal Bower (Ben Foster, 30 Days of Night) has just awoken from a prolonged hyper-sleep and he can't remember a single thing. Along with Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid, Flight of the Phoenix) who is in the same foggy minded state, he has to try and work out what's going on and where the hell the spacecraft they're traveling in is headed. As Bower explores the ship, it quickly becomes clear things aren't as they should be, namely because out of the spacecraft's gloomy shadows, thousands of bloodthirsty mutants appear to be hiding. As Bower encounters two more mysterious survivors and is relayed information from Payton in the rebooting control room, he tries to deduce what has happened and how such a vast crew has been reduced to just four people.
I was aware that Pandorum had been critically scolded before I sat down to watch it and having seen the previews myself in theatres during the summer, I had already made my own mind up concerning its exceedingly conventional approach. Everything about the production looked looted and whilst the cast seemed amiable enough, I had a bad feeling about the film. Such a low level of expectation might on occasion serve a picture well but Pandorum was more than willing to prove me correct on my initial predictions, delivering a monotonous and lazy blend of grimy space travel and bland bloodletting. The fact the movie barely makes any sense by its conclusion is an irrelevant complaint, as audiences will have lost patience with Alvart's film long before its 108 minutes finally culminate.
The plot essentially amounts to a chase film with freaky looking monsters. If you haven't seen enough of these by now then you simply haven't seen very many movies. Pandorum attempts to ditch such a generic stigma by laying out a whole heap of batshit shenanigans at the finish, but up until that point this really is a case of watching people try to evade marauding beasties. Nothing about the screenplay tries to infuse much freshness into the proceedings, the characters and set-pieces are all achingly obvious and clichéd. Adding insult to injury is the fact that writer Travis Milloy has no apparent inclination as to how believable dialogue should be penned and relies on a crazy amount of exposition and clunky one liners to carry not only individual scenes but also obscene amounts of the picture itself. Pandorum is just one large narrative frustration, it's stale, poorly written, and has very little interest in character conception. I realize that for most of the time the characters aren't supposed to know who they are but the unforgivable thing is they stay that way until the very end, the writer applying a hackneyed and ill-conceived slap of back story to each person before the cumbersome finale. The storytelling aspects in Pandorum are consistently terrible and could easily be used to show up-and-coming scribes how not to construct their scripts.
The acting is fine but no amount of superb thesping could resuscitate Milloy's dramatically inert screenplay. Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid really should be making better movies (especially Foster, who after a great 2007 has fallen off the grid a little) but hey, with what they're given they do their best to keep a straight face and engage with the audience. The other folk have even less to do; you get a token hard edged and sexy survivor in Antje Traue, a sniveling and untrustworthy rat from Eddie Rouse, and a mysterious and slightly unnerving crew member via Twilight star Cam Gigandet. It's business as usual for this sort of flick and whilst nobody disgraces there isn't much excelling either; ordinary is a pretty suitable adjective for the cast in Pandorum.
As a horror film the movie revels more in spilling blood than cooking up tension, and the creature effects are average at best. The first encounter with the monsters is actually the finest the film offers and promises far more than Pandorum ever delivers. Alvart lacks the subtlety that mark out the best horror directors and whilst he's a technically accomplished helmer his action sequences appear like sloppy retreads of moments in other movies. There are many instances where the man-on-beast carnage felt suspiciously like something you might find in a Predator production, only less entertaining. The lack of originality is a big problem but it's only compounded by the need to have the camera move in an annoying herky jerky fashion every time a mutant pops up on the screen. I guess that's what Michael Bay's lasting legacy will be, to have fully infused this style of spasm-like shot construction into mainstream cinema. Certainly it appears that the Transformers and Armageddon auteur has heavily influenced Alvart's filmmaking methods.
The interior set design is claustrophobic and gritty, certainly a suitable environment for a scary movie. Still neither it nor Alvart's undeniable understanding of eerie visual polish can make-up for the outdated plot or generally messy execution. Pandorum may be a gorgeous looking nightmare but the old adage "you can't polish a turd" has rarely been so appropriate. Even diehard sci-fi nuts might want to give this thing a wide berth; it really isn't an impressive piece of work. The DVD looks great but the audio seems to have toned the dialogue down at the expense of musical score and sound effects, meaning that certain lines are far too faint and almost seem inaudible. In terms of bonus features you get a strong set of deleted and extended scenes but the three featurettes (running at about 18 minutes in total) are EPK styled material that simply go behind the scenes and explore the mythology in a purely promotional fashion. The inclusion of a stills gallery and trailers seems a bit anachronistic but redemption is sought thanks to a modestly listenable commentary from the director and one of his producers. Both the men seem very proud of their work and do their best to convey the filmmaking process; I probably enjoyed this facet more than the actual movie.
As I mentioned before this really is a visually well-composed feature. The cinematography is very solid and on the few occasions where the scares do work, the artistic panache is a neat bonus.
I would also like to point out that Pandorum is a great promoter of glow sticks. I'd love to know what glow stick retailer added their financial endorsement to the movie, because the little buggers are everywhere. Seriously, it could have been called Glow Sticks: The Movie and I wouldn't have thought it unusual after viewing.
An ineffective and recycled slice of sci-fi hokum, Pandorum just doesn't cut it as worthwhile entertainment.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted/Alternate Scenes
* Image Gallery