Now in theaters
Directed by Christian Alvart
Prior to seeing Pandorum I was all set to spend at least a portion of my review bitching about its ad campaign. Regardless of whether the movie would prove to be good or bad, it irked me to see a movie being sold so ineptly. I mean, to make a sci-fi movie generally means a decent amount of money was spent â€“ even if Pandorum isn’t in the budget stratosphere of Avatar, we know this is no Paranormal Activity we’re talking about here (actual price tag: $40 million). So when a studio sinks a sizable amount of cash into making a film, you’d think they’d be looking to potentially recoup that money by, you know, getting people excited to see it. And yet the posters for Pandorum are the dreariest, most unappealing one-sheets I think I’ve ever seen. You’ve got a male figure shrouded in darkness peeling off layers of their skin with the tagline “Fear What Happens Next.” Fear what happens next? Jeez, you know I might â€“ if I weren’t so confused about what I’m looking at right now! Seriously, what is going on there that’s supposed to make anyone say, “Yeah, I’m totally sold on seeing that movie!”? And the trailers and TV spots are scarcely more appealing; giving little info on what Pandorum is actually about. And yet, now that I’ve seen Pandorum, I have to concede that I’m completely at a loss as to how it could’ve been marketed any better â€“ and I say this having really liked the movie!
The biggest problem in promoting (or reviewing) Pandorum is that almost anything that you can say or show about this movie â€“ outside of saying that it involves people waking up on a spaceship on which the crew and passengers are largely M.I.A. â€“ is to venture into spoiler territory. To discuss Pandorum with anyone who hasn’t seen it is to have to watch your words carefully. Basically, Pandorum is the kind of movie that has been all but given up on â€“ a serious, big-budget sci-fi movie (the 2002 Steven Soderbergh remake of Solaris and Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 mind-bender The Fountain are the most recent examples that come to mind â€“ and those were aberrations themselves, recalling the ambitious genre projects of the ’60s and early ’70s). While James Cameron’s Avatar will surely stand as another instance of elevating the genre later in the year, Pandorum is kind of an anti-Transformers. It’s a film with a big budget that contains plenty of scares, suspense and action but in comparison to the sensory orgy of Bay’s film, Pandorum feels like it was made for the art house circuit. But that says more about the ADD-style of moviemaking that has dominated the market for decades and how that approach has stunted the sensibilities of modern audiences. Thirty years ago or so, Pandorum would’ve been considered an adrenaline rush.
Director Christian Alvart (Antibodies and the still-unreleased Case 39), who created Pandorum‘s story along with screenwriter Travis Milloy, is making a popcorn movie here but it’s a popcorn movie that doesn’t mind being a little difficult. It has gripping fight scenes and many moments of unsettling weirdness but along with the main characters’ own disorientation and lack of information, there’s also an unavoidable sense of confusion during a good part of the film where we don’t know what the big picture is (one of the effects of prolonged hypersleep we’re told is that it takes some time for memories to return). It’s understood that answers will surely be coming (this is a pragmatic tale, not an esoeritc one) but until they do, the audience has to either be involved in the moment or shut off their interest. Thanks to Alvart’s dynamic direction, strong performances by its cast and the confounding mysteries at hand, Pandorum is easy to stay locked into. It’s just a shame that this movie is going to prove to be an uphill battle to get the word out on.
After a string of excellent performances in the likes of TThe Punisher, 3:10 To Yuma, and 30 Days of Night, Ben Foster gets his first big lead role here and he keeps Pandorum nicely centered as Corporal Bower, a man given the unenviable task of making his way through the ship past a series of hostile opponents to the reactor room in order to reboot the reactor before it explodes and takes everything with it. Dennis Quaid plays Lt. Payton, a man who, like Bower, is coping with the confusion of waking up after years in hypersleep and with the fact that nothing on the ship is as it should be. Quaid is an old hand at genre pics (Dreamscape, Enemy Mine, Innerspace) and while his talents at first seem to be wasted here â€“ in a role that limits him to sitting in a room communicating with Bower as he acts as a remote guide to the Corporal’s journey through the ship â€“ by the later half of the film, Payton becomes a more important player in Pandorum‘s action.
Along his way to the reactor, Bower encounters several people who have been out of hypersleep for a far longer than he and Payton have and who have been surviving in the ship under harsh conditions. The most important of these characters is Antje Traue as Nadia, a woman who proves difficult for Bower to recruit as an ally. Ass-kicking women have become a sci-fi standard since Trinity in The Matrix and it’s easy to see echoes of that character â€“ along with Alice from the Resident Evil series â€“ in Nadia. But Traue brings a sense of reality to Nadia. Her fighting prowness has been forged out of real hardship â€“ she isn’t some stock action heroine. And no matter how resilient Nadia and the others may be, thanks to Alvart taking a page from the Ridley Scott Alien playbook and casting virtual unknowns and character actors (at this point in his career Quaid arguably falls more comfortably into the character actor category more than that of lead actor), the fate of everyone in Pandorum always seems in question.
It’s been a clichÃ© for decades now in sci-fi films to have space ships that look grimy and gritty but production designer Richard Bridgland and cinemtographer Wedio von Schultz have created a truly stunning, readily convincing environment with Pandorum. And along with the verismillitude Bridgland and von Schultz bring to the movie, Alvart responds in kind by severely limiting the amount of CG. I can’t think of a big budget effects movie in recent years that has seemed so devoid of CG work as Pandorum does. It’s present in a handful of scenes that couldn’t be accomplished without it but it’s never applied gratuitously. For the most part, we’re always looking at real sets (no green screen sets here that I noted) and real people in prosthetic make-up (the beings that hunt the surviving crew members look as if the cave-dwellers of The Descent were given Ghosts of Mars make-overs). To see so much reliance on practical methods is bracing reminder of how movies always work better when they stick to what the eye instantly perceives as real.
But for all of Pandorum‘s quality, I suspect this is going to end up being a DVD or cable discovery for most audiences. Ironically, this was produced by director Paul W.S. Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt, who, with the duo’s Event Horizon (1997), have prior experience in space-set horror films and â€“ for both good and bad â€“ Pandorum looks likely to repeat that film’s disappointing commercial fate (and eventual cult status). I’m hope I’m wrong about it’s chances at the box office and that Pandorum will be a sleeper hit right off the bat but to the eighty-seven people that are likely to see Pandorum this weekend, I think you’ll be glad that you supported a film that gives the audience some credit and that tried to shoot for the stars.