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Pandorum
Tonight's Feature Presentation

PANDORUM (2009)

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue, Cung Le

Written By: Travis Milloy (also story), Christian Alvart (story)

Directed By: Christian Alvart

The Short Version

Pandorum should be better, but it could also be a whole lot worse.

There are some genuinely creepy elements here.

There are also some major “giving away the store” problems.

You can build the right set and point the camera where it ought to be pointed, but filmmaking is called an art for a reason.

Consider Pandorum as “stuck on the couch” viewing material.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PARMESEAN (UNGRATED).

Put this stuff in the freezer and it’ll last forever.  Probably. Might taste funny after a while, though.


Pairs Well With...

SPATEN.

Surprisingly mediocre German beer that I would expect to be better than it is.

“You just had to remind me of the biggest fucking catastrophe in space travel; the flight cautionary tale from Hell.”


Pandorum should be so much better than it really is.  It’s one of those movies that I keep hoping will be each time I come back to it.  It’s been three now, and each time, when it was all over, I’ve said to myself, slowly and after considerable thought, “Well, that’s wasn’t bad.

And Pandorum is not bad, really.  Sort of.  It does enough things right to be worthwhile, anyway.  If you can pick it up for cheap, which at this point you generally can.

Of course, there’s a reason that you can generally pick it up for cheap now, and that reason is that Pandorum isn’t exactly good, either.  It’s just kind of there. 

But let’s have a look at the story now, shall we?  I’ll let the text placards that open the film set up the universe for you:


1969: Man lands on moon.  World population = 3.6 billion.

2009: Kepler telescope is launched to search for Earth-like planets.  World population = 6.76 billion.

2153: Paleo-17 Space Probe lands on planet Tanis.  World population = 24.34 billion.  Food and water shortages are commonplace.

2174: The battle for Earth's limited resources reaches its boiling point.  Spacecraft Elysium is launched.


These lines of text are the first major mistake of the movie.

We move on to a very nice establishing shot of an extremely large spaceship, the aforementioned Elysium, which the camera speedily moves down the length of until reaching the bridge, at which point, the all-seeing eye passes through the window so we can see what we can reasonably assume is the command crew.  Text on their holographic image equipment (it’s the future, after all) indicates that they are listening to a transmission from Earth.  A voice on the other end says:


“You are all that is left of us.  God bless, and godspeed.”


This is the second major mistake of the movie.

The camera then focuses on someone who would otherwise be an anonymous looking guy on the bridge.

This is the third major mistake of the movie.

Now we get to the point where Pandorum should have started, but didn’t.  The movie’s title comes up, and then we find ourselves focused on a man (Ben Foster, The Mechanic) waking up from what anyone who has seen more than three science fiction framed movies will recognize as a hibernation chamber.  The man is alone.  He also has amnesia; he doesn’t know what his name is or what his past is.  He’s been rigorously trained to perform a mission, and he remembers his own part of the mission, but can’t recall the big picture. The tattoo on his arm gives him an idea of his standing as part of a crew, and the name etched into the glass of the chamber he just stepped out of leads his to conclude that his name is Bower.  Beyond that, all he knows for sure is that something is definitely wrong...

So there we have our first few minutes.  As a viewer, you really have to hope you missed the first minute and a half, because, as noted, in those few seconds, the editors blow it three times.  How, you ask?  The explanation for the first two mistakes is simple; explaining the third is equally so, but I’m not going to, because that would just compound the error.  When you watch the movie, you’ll see it, and at the point you do, you’ll want to throw rotten veggies at the Director and his editors.

As mentioned, after the movie proper begins, we see Ben Foster’s character emerge from a hibernation chamber with a bad case of amnesia.  Who is he? Where is he?  What’s going on?  Amnesia is often used as a plot device in movies and books and so on, but with extremely rare exceptions, it only works if you don’t know what the character doesn’t know.  Thanks to those opening lines of text and that transmission you were allowed to listen in on, you already know more than the character on the screen does, and more than those that will follow for the first two acts.  In fact, you know most of the important things that Mr. Bower has forgotten and is going to take quite a bit of screen time finding out.  Where’s the suspense in that?  If we as the audience are going to being going along for the ride on Mr. Bower’s voyage of personal discovery anyway, why tell us in advance?  That’s like knowing everything that’s going to be under the Christmas tree.  Where’s the thrill?

It’s supposed to be in the stuff that Bower never knew, of course, and by all rights, it should have been.  The tools are there.  In fact, before you start to think that Pandorum is a complete waste, let’s have a look at some of those tools.

Take away the pre-title mistakes, and the premise we’re left with of the amnesiac waking up to what seems to be an empty ship with very little idea of what’s going on is solid.  After a few more minutes, the audience is introduced to the next positive tool that Pandorum has to work with, in the form of Dennis Quaid (GI Joe: the Rise of COBRA), as rock solid of an actor as anyone could ask for here.  Later on, we meet Antje Traue (currently working on Man of Steel), whose name you probably hadn’t heard before outside of Germany, but who delivers the movie’s most solid performance as Nadia, who in turn is the movie’s most interesting character.  Roaming throughout the ship, there are also some monsters to contend with, some of which – the child in particular – are genuinely creepy, especially when seen en masse as the movie approaches its climax.  There’s also the ship itself, which is the perfect combination of space and complete claustrophobia, and which the production designers did an absolutely fantastic job of putting together.  So yes, the tools are there.

Give all of these things to someone like Ridley Scott, and Pandorum would probably have made more than its budget back while it was in theatres, even with its other deficiencies.  Unfortunately, the movie was left in the hands of Christian Alvart instead.

Technically speaking, Alvart does all the right things with the camera.  He knows where it’s supposed to go, and he knows what the math is on all the shots.  However, there’s a reason that filmmaking in the end is considered an art and not a science.  Alvart may know what the picture should look like, but there’s no real magic to his brushstroke.  It’s apparent that he’s seen all of the right movies before, but he’s missed what made them work.  Even when the musical score (which in and of itself is pretty par for the course) comes in to do its job, the scenes just don’t “pop.”  The end result has about as much suspense to it as a dropped piece of paper; more specifically, a slow one that takes forever to get where you already knew it was going.

Speaking of paper, the script isn’t done with us yet, either.  I find this to be unfortunate, because as mentioned before, the story has potential.  What’s more, it’s also pretty obvious that it’s been put together by people who love what they’re doing and really believe in what they’ve written.  But they try too hard, and sell past the close.  An excellent example is the quote I opened the review with; even without context, you can probably recognize it as a red alert signal that the writer wanted you to know that what’s being talked about is really, really important and will absolutely come into play in a major way.  (That, by the way, is rarely a good idea to advertise so loudly in a suspense horror flick.)  Since what follows is a description of Pandorum – this story’s name for paranoid space sickness – and that also happens to be the title of the movie (maybe someone should have reconsidered that), you know for certain that someone important is going to have it.  Your choices are Ben Foster (clearly the hero), Dennis Quaid as an officer who ends up apart from the main group and ends up arguing constantly with another guy no one else ever talks to, Antje Traue as the most completely grounded person in the film, and Cung Le (Tekken) as an Inuit hunter type guy (don’t ask) who doesn’t speak a word of English.  Suspense?  The screenplay isn’t giving the audience enough intelligence credit, methinks.

I could further get into the remarkable trail of convenience that Ben Foster’s Bower follows throughout the movie, but I think we’ve already established enough of a breadcrumb pattern here, haven’t we?

It also doesn’t help that Dennis Quaid is a far stronger actor than Ben Foster, and yet Foster has been cast in what’s supposed to be the more compelling role.  While Quaid spends the majority of the movie sitting in one spot playing “I know you are, but what am I?” games, Foster is expected to carry the primary load of the film, and he can’t.  Ben Foster’s acting just isn’t that interesting.  He’s not bad, and he does what he’s supposed to do with decent technical proficiency, but as with the Director here, his work just doesn’t “pop.”  However much anyone might want him to be, Ben Foster simply is not a leading man, especially not in a horror movie.

And yet… for everything that Pandorum does wrong, I still can’t bring myself to call it a bad movie.  It does enough things right to keep it from being actively boring even after most of the mystery has been taken away, and at that point, for people who like their horror put inside a science fiction frame, Pandorum is just serviceable enough.  Though certainly designed as a movie that was supposed to make the audience think at least a little bit, it actually plays as the sort you can watch and enjoy without giving any real thought to at all.  True, this hardly makes it a destination movie, so to speak, but there is nevertheless a place for such things.  Specifically, I’m thinking as something to watch while one is sick on the couch.  Even if you’re cloudy on decongestants and subject to random napping while the movie plays, you’ll still be able to follow it.

Bottom line, Pandorum has the potential to be a really good science fiction-framed suspense horror piece, but it does so much to give away the story that the suspense never really happens.  Flat direction and an unexciting lead don’t help matters, but the production design is pretty interesting, what’s left is just good enough to be worth checking out for genre fans who find Pandorum on the cheap, especially if you’re looking for something that it’s all right to be distracted from every once in a while.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011

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