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March 2010


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

director: Christian Alvart

104 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Icon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont


A group of humans on a spaceship are lost amidst the yawning desolation of a largely lifeless universe. Suddenly, something strange happens. Maybe they find something and, before too long, this 'otherness' starts to consume the crew. The survivors realise that they are all alone with no hope of outside help and yet the strangeness keeps coming. They must defend themselves or die.

You would think it would be easy to turn this basic idea into a decent film. Ridley Scott managed it with Alien (1979) but, despite an initial premise filled with existential themes and bleak imagery, the hit rate of the deep-space horror subgenre has been surprisingly low. So low in fact that despite being over 30 years old, Alien remains the only truly unimpeachable film in the genre's canon. Sure we could speak of Cameron's Aliens (1986), Anderson's Event Horizon (1997), or Boyle's Sunshine as successful examples of the genre but it is interesting to note that all of these films felt obliged to mess with the basic premise. Cameron produced an action film rather than a horror film, Anderson introduced fantastical elements, and Boyle tried to combine elements of slasher and disaster genres that only managed to undermine and distract from the perfect cinematic (if not narrative) expression of the subgenre's basic theme: the universe is a cold and terrible place. Humanity should be terrified by its vastness and its savagery.

Christian Alvart's Pandorum is a film that continues in the grand old tradition of the genre. It takes a great basic premise and then it throws the kitchen sink at it resulting only in a farcical mess. Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) wakes up to find himself seemingly alone on a giant spaceship. He remembers nothing of his past but he remembers his training. His training tells him to wake the nearest officer, Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid).

However, Payton's memory is just as bad as Bower's. What ship are they on? Where are they going? Where is everyone else? Why won't the lights come on? Why are they locked into their room? Working together, the pair realise that something terrible has happened to the ship and that the main reactor needs fixing, if only in order to reboot the ship's damaged systems and allow the men to contact the bridge. Bower crawls out through a ventilation duct and finds not a sleeping ship, but a ship that is very much awake and filled with strange creatures feeding off the bodies of the newly awakened humans while a few lucky survivors eek out an existence using their wits and the ship's dwindling supplies.

Bower hooks up with sexy former biologist Nadia (Antje Traue) and ninja gardener Manh (Cung Le) and sets off on an epic quest through the bowels of the ship. A quest that has him fighting monsters, fleeing human cannibals and remembering what the ship was doing and why he was on it. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Lieutenant Payton is fighting a battle of wits with the apparently psychotic Gallo (Cam Gigandet) who is not all that he appears to be.

Pandorum's main problem is that it is way too busy, narratively speaking. Things begin well with the two men trying to find out where they are and what they are doing (a premise that also appears in successful genre films like Cube and the original Saw) but, as their memories begin to return - a neat if heavy-handed story-telling technique - the plot quickly becomes bogged down in way too many ideas. We have questionable memories, madness-inducing space diseases, the truth about the mission, monsters, feral humans and the struggle between Gallo and Payton. All of these plot strands compete frantically for our attentions only adding to a bloated running time that also has to find space for the mandatory action sequences. Oh, the action sequences...

By and large, Alvart's direction is competent. He has a nice line on darkness and claustrophobia and the film's reported budget of $40 million did allow for some neat if rarely original set design, but the man simply cannot direct action. The film's monsters are a bit like the crawlers from Marshall's The Descent only with bits of armour and elaborately over-designed spears and knives, and a tendency to click and roar like the Predator aliens. The creatures are supposed to be super-humanly fast and so Alvart films them through a haze of machine-gun editing that makes it look like they are moving in stop-motion.

When we first see the creatures, their strange movements are quite neatly alien but Alvart never quite manages to solve the problem of integrating shots of humans that last several seconds into a scene with shots of the monsters that last only a fraction of a second. Initially, Alvert tries to get around the problem by never having the humans and the creatures on screen at the same time and so we might see Bower looking worried or running down a corridor before switching to the auto-fire of twitchy monsters.

Eventually, Alvert realises that this makes it look like those old Hollywood films in which actors would cower and run from stock footage of lions and crocodiles and so he tries to film fight scenes using the rapid-fire editing techniques associated with the monsters. This results only in a visually nauseating mess that is frankly impossible to follow. Seemingly having learned the error of his ways, Alvart then gives up on the stutter-stop movements of the creatures but his action choreography and set-piece design is so uninspired and confused that the remaining fights and chases are never less than grindingly dull.

As if weak direction and a bloated plot were not impediment enough, Pandorum is also filled with terrible creative decisions that destroy any suspension of disbelief and make the film look utterly ridiculous. For example, why go to the trouble of establishing a hard-SF setting with no faster-than-light travel and lots of gritty realism only to have monsters turn up? Where did the monsters get their weapons from? Even assuming that the monsters were the result of accelerated evolutionary adaptation to the environment of the ship, are non-sentient feudal warriors really the best possible adaptation for life on a spaceship? Why is the guy from the agriculture department a ninja? Why doesn't he speak English despite it being the lingua-franca of the ship? Why isn't he working for ship's security? What happened to ship's security?

Pandorum is a catalogue of schoolboy errors. It has a weak script, a weak director, weak ideas and a weak execution. The only powerful thing about it is its surprisingly large budget and that is mostly wasted on cavernous but poorly lit sets. Indeed, Pandorum's budget is what ultimately damns it. How else might that $40 million have been spent? Which scripts were passed over so that Travis Milloy's car crash of a script could find its way to the budget DVD rack? How likely is it that Pandorum's investors will take the plunge with another SF film after this disastrous flop? Pandorum is not only a weak film, it is the kind of film that contrives to deprive us of more well-conceived and well-executed independent SF films like Jones' Moon (2009), Natali's Cube (1997), and Aronofsky's Pi.

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