I went into Pandorum, a sci-fi movie set on a huge dark ship potentially filled with horrifying creatures, expecting, well, that. I was hoping for a movie akin to the original Alien. I also was excited to see the likes of Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma, 30 Days of Night) and Dennis Quaid (Frequency) manning the film’s bridge, so to speak. Here were two guys, with Foster in particular, who had impressed me with recent projects.
But Pandorum is not Alien. It’s like Alien, but it’s also like Predator. And a little like Resident Evil. But also like Event Horizon. Possibly a little like Sunshine. Oh, and Doom. AND Aliens. And Lost in Space.
You can probably see where this is going.
Since it takes influence (or downright steals) from so many other recent-era sci-fi movies, Pandorum quickly goes from sci-fi horror on a big dark ship (which looked interesting) to character wandering around big dark ship doing unlikely things (which is decidedly not). Many of the movies mentioned above are bad, and a couple are downright awful. The good ones did what Pandorum does, but way better. What’s worse is that as Pandorum is taking these movies’ ideas, it isn’t changing them. At all.
Even the bad ones.
Foster and Quaid wake up on the Elysium, a huge ship we’re told was sent by Earth to the only Earth-like planet ever discovered: Tanis. The big ship, packed with 60,000 people, is essentially an Earth ark, sent out to colonize the planet to save humanity from its own natural-resource-gobbling ways. In other words, if you’ve seen a space movie in the last 30 years, you’ve heard this.
But Foster and Quaid don’t remember anything. We come to realize they’re part of the flight crew, which means they run the ship. The crew is divided into three-man teams that run shifts of two years (the Elysium trip, we’re eventually told, is expected to take 128 years, or some such huge number, to complete), and since they’re team five, the pair figures they’ve been asleep eight years in cryogenic suspension. One aftereffect of cryogenics, it seems, that you wake up and can’t remember your own name. Sounds like an effective means of space travel.
So Foster and Quaid stumble around the ship, trying to figure out what’s going on. No one’s around, the doors are all locked, there are periodic power surges, and they can’t get to the bridge. So Quaid, the commanding officer, sends Foster through some air ducts to go open the door in a huge creepy ship with no one awake, where something is apparently wrong, and where the only assistance the young man’s got is through a radio attached to his collar.
That’s the movie I signed up for.
That’s not what Pandorum becomes. As quickly as Foster gets out of that first room, he comes across other people – first bodies, then a dirty tribal-looking woman who tries to steal his shoes, and then a real tribe of spiky (literally), noseless pale guys who carry blow torches and spears and seem to eat humans. Foster runs.
And runs for the rest of the movie, as more and more impractical things start to happen.
I’m as down with sci-fi as anybody, but Pandorum just asks for too many leaps. Huge empty ship. Years in the future. Trip to a whole new planet. Ship filled with hungry, possibly alien monsters. Oh, and don’t forget: the movie’s namesake, a version of space-madness called Pandorum that suggests early on that large portions of the movie might be a hallucination.
Even this tired device, the man-goes-crazy-in-space-it-was-all-a-dream-maybe-he-murdered-everyone space movie gimmick, is rendered completely unsatisfying by being jumbled together with too many other disparate, crazy elements. There are more, but I won’t mention them to avoid spoilers.
Pandorum even gets confused itself, it seems, abandoning the slow-burn narrative in which NOBODY REMEMBERS WHAT’S GOING ON at the two-thirds point, instead choosing to reveal all the twists in a neat little cave-painting story given by a random character stumbled upon for just such a purpose.
Oh, and the monsters.
They’re fast, twitchy, and apparently insatiable as far as hunger. They’ll just as soon eat a wounded or dead member of their own tribe as a hapless human (of which there seem to be far fewer than monsters), but they never stop coming.
They’re also apparently intelligent and interested in fairness and sport, given that one even chooses to toss a weapon to a human for the sake of a fair fight.
The rest of the time they just go careening around the ship, apparently too fast to allow for steady camera work, leaping impossibly high or descending from overhead compartments to snatch up, lasso, or otherwise stab anyone who is in the area. They aren’t scary. They aren’t menacing. They’re just loud and colorless.
I can’t really fault Foster or Quaid, who do all right with what they’ve got, though why the pair would sign onto a script like this is beyond me. Despite the movie’s trailers, it’s not creepy or intense, but Pandorum definitely wishes it was both those things.
What it ends up being is a convolution of common sci-fi themes and much more common sci-fi ideas, smashed together as inelegantly as possible – much like the massive metal sets this “story” populates. Nothing about either the script or the ship is practical. And little about either makes sense.