Sci-fi horror is a genre that really gets my inner geek salivating. This probably stems from watching Aliens on VHS when I was 12 years old (which still ranks as the defining moment of my movie-watching life), and produces an instinctive gut reaction that draws me, moth like, to any film that promises some variation on the ‘creepy spaceship with lurking beasties’ paradigm. Get ‘em while they’re young and you have ‘em hooked for life, as any two-bit marketing shyster will tell you, so to speak.
Unsurprisingly then, my interest was well and truly piqued by the techno-gothic imagery of Pandorum‘s billposters, still galleries and trailers, full of Giger-esque masochism and sinister futurism – hinting at a hallucinatory space odyssey through the delusions and psychosis of the mind as much as the further recesses of the galaxy.
The film stars Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster (who you may remember from supporting slots in films like X-Men 3 and 30 Days Of Night) as two astronauts suddenly awaken from a long hypersleep, disorientated and with no memory of who they are, let alone their mission. As the fog of amnesia starts to clear, and the two manage to reboot a communications station, Payton (Quaid) acts as a guide for Bower (Foster) as he ventures deep into the belly of the seemingly deserted space transport Elysium to restart the main reactor and turn the power back on, in effect. However, while it seems certain that some terrible catastrophe has befallen the ship, it’s also just as certain that the two are not alone – and that whatever stalks the labyrinthine corridors of the Elysium now probably isn’t human.
A sort of bastardised offspring of what preceded it, Pandorum is a sci-fi/horror/action/thriller akin to Event Horizon meets Resident Evil by way of The Descent. The perceptive ones amongst you may have spotted a name that links the first two parts of this chain together, one Paul W.S. Anderson, who receives an executive producer credit here, and in retrospect, Anderson’s stylistic influence is pretty obvious.
If all this sounds just a spot too over-derivative, relax, because while Pandorum doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve or boldly pinned to its breast like a medal of honour, the film is as slick and, most importantly, entertaining as a lot of the output from this rather secular cinematic sub-genre.
The plot is an intriguing take on the getting-a-little-bit-hoary-now amnesia chestnut. It gets a tad bloated in places, probably the result of one too many script revisions, but the ‘world’ built by writers Travis Milloy and Christian Alvart, who also directed the film, does emit the warmth and complexity of a fully realised one, complete with untold back story and personal mythology.
Pandorum‘s atmosphere is also spot-on, with every scene drenched in ominous paranoia and claustrophobic dread. Visually the film is very cool, too, in that post-Matrix Manga homage style.
Fittingly for a film part funded by a German studio, Pandorum‘s central theme is one of nihilism and Nietzschen ideas of clarity through madness, survival of the fittest, the different levels of reality and their perception. Will Bower succumb to the pandorum (a sort of deep space cabin fever) and release his animalistic side, or will he retain his humanity, though perhaps dooming himself in the process?
It gets a little messy sometimes, particularly in some of the more frenetic action sequences where some over-paced editing combines with the near-constant darkness to create confusion, and the feeling of plot holes being quickly skipped over. But for the main part, Pandorum‘s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. In fact, this lack of Hollywood polish actually works in its favour, and probably ensures the film will achieve a semi-cult status when released on DVD.
What is for certain, though, is that the plight of the Elysium and its crew will keep you guessing right up until the final reveal, which leaves a big enough mark to mask some of the previous narrative inadequacies. And leaves plenty of blanks to fill in should any sequel get commissioned (whether that’s a good thing or not is also moot).
Forget some of the more disparaging verdicts by stuffy old reviewers who dislike this kind of thing for not being Alien, because Pandorum is a fun night out at the movies. And fans of sci-fi horror in particular should leave the theatre more than happy.