“This is pandorum!”

Looking around for a good movie to watch, I stumbled onto this interesting sci-fi flick which sounds right up my alley. The short review gives it two stars of five, and tells me it’s some kind of psychological horror flick set aboard a vessel in the depths of space, where deep space mental illnesses play havoc on the crew. Why the hell haven’t I heard about this Pandorum movie before? Screw the rating, people hate a lot of good sf psychodrama films. Like Solaris. And Moon. Yeah. Moon. It sounds like a great horror setup, with some strong hard sf elements, so I wait it out and watch.

Boy, that review was kind of misleading. Not entirely, but enough.

Yes, the film is about people going crazy in deep space. Yes, the film has a lot of horror elements, including a good derelict space hulk vibe. Yes, the film has a good sf feel to it and the corresponding impressive visuals. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Payton: “Three years into their shift, one of their officers had a psychological breakdown. The doctors referred to it as ODS symptom. The privates, we call it… Pandorum. It drove him insane. He became convinced that the flight was cursed. Evil.”

As promised, the movie takes place on a spaceship: a generation ship, with its passengers and crew in cryogenic sleep, travelling to the first last and only Earth-like planet known to man. Earth itself was destroyed due to some war-like catastrophe, so this is the great white hope of humanity. Onboard are several thousand passengers, in cyro-sleep, all the animals and plants needed to repopulate the earth (yes, it’s a space ark), and a lot of fairly advanced science fiction stuff.

Somewhere in this journey, things went horribly wrong, sometime before Bower (Ben Foster) comes out of cyro-sleep. You see, hyper-sleep gives you amnesia that wears off slowly, so he doesn’t understand why nobody else is around, why the ship is falling apart, and why the door to the bridge is locked. Soon after, his commanding officer, Payton (a scraggy Dennis Quaid), wakes up. With Payton operating the computer’s hand-crank (I shit you not) to keep the reserve battery powered, Bower sets off through the cable-strewn air ducts to get to the other side of the door. [Quest Acquired: Open Door.]

This is the claustrophobic space hulk I was hoping for: cramped compartments, long, empty corridors, flickering lights, everything in disarray. Bower is shocked to find the ship has fallen to such depths, and wants to find out what’s going on. Payton also relates, over a headset, the basics of pandorum: deep space mental illness, essentially an overload of stress and a psychological, homicidal breakdown which occurs in spacefarers. Joy. The only people Bower runs into are feral humans setting up snares in order to catch people (e.g., Bower) and steal their shoes, or random Redshirt NPCs who get about five minutes of screentime before they’re devoured by The Monster(s).

The Monster(s) are actually feral mutant humans who are best described as Reavers, and if you don’t get that reference you’d better turn in your sf badge. They have spiky metal things everywhere, and spiky metal piercings, and these odd blue halogen flashlights, and carry around these small flamethrowers that they never use. I guess they could be weird acetylene torches, to weld those all-important bits of random spiky shit to everything, inanimate and otherwise, but… yeah, I got nothing. They’re also ridiculously tough, as it takes two feral scientist-ninjas and Bower about ten minutes to beat/stab/hack one to death, and they run really fast, and you only get a few quick glimpses of them until you see about fifty of them at once.

This new turn in direction follows the action-horror of film series like Aliens Versus Predator, Resident Evil, and Underworld. And this is not a compliment. As much as I like those movies, they’re still pretty trashy action movies, popcorn flicks and all that. AVP and ResEvil are both grounded by existing franchises, even as the films stray away enough to irritate fanboys, which is something Pandorum lacks. In a way, Pandorum’s originality hurts the film: people watch AVP because it’s vaguely related to the Alien and Predator lines, not because it’s a trashy action film. (This doesn’t explain Underworld, proving once again that goth vampires and werewolves trumps science fiction.)

Back to the plot, which jumps tracks yet again, and again, and again. Getting to the other side of the door is laid aside when Bower realizes the ship probably has the crew’s family on board, and is desperate to reunite with his wife, whom he has amnesia flashbacks of. The subplot of Bower’s wife is promptly dropped and forgotten, save for a couple “hey, look, we totally haven’t forgotten about this!” scenes which add nothing but remind you that the subplot was dropped, in a crude attempt to close it. Similarly, the feral boot-thief turns out to be a feral scientist operating the ship’s bio-dome, who survives by eating locusts, and despite being feral has kept the ark of plants and animals in stasis. But her motivation to save the last 70% or whatever of the ark is brief, and also forgotten about. This is probably good, because I was afraid I’d see a Sky Captain-esque ending where the animals safely parachute down to (New) Earth. Pandorum just can’t find a good motivation for its characters to stick with. The movie isn’t just about mental illnesses; it has one.

Instead, the plot demands a crisis of some sort, and so Payton guides Bower to find the core of the ship and restart the nuclear reactor, because otherwise it will go critical and everyone will die. Of course, it’s deep within Reaver country; the reactor itself is surrounded by their nesting zones, which probably accounts for some of the weird genetic mutations. (Don’t forget, in media, radiation = mutations; besides, any kid born in a nuclear reactor is bound to pick up some mutant traits.) Payton, meanwhile, finds a crew member by the name of Gallo who is none too trustworthy, claiming he killed his fellow crewmembers when they showed symptoms of pandorum. This implies Gallo’s suffering from pandorum, creating more tension as he’s locked in the same opening room with Payton, waiting for the door to open. (Technically, the door part is still around, but opening the damn door is slightly less important than the near-critical nuclear reactor, and as chance would have it, rebooting the reactor would open up all the doors. Or just this door. Or something.)

The action scenes increase near the end dealing with the feral mutants, and there are some surprisingly unsurprising reveals and fake-outs. This is a film about pandorum; needless to say, the Reavers aren’t the only ones who get it; throughout, there’s plenty to make the viewer speculate who’s got it and who might get it, and it keeps an air of perverse paranoia. Giving some of the few characters pandorum isn’t a shock surprise, it’s part of the damn title. To be fair, there are several nice surprises which I hadn’t expected, but a lot of the ending’s drama was a bit predictable. Also a bit predictable was that all unnecessary characters die off in horribly violent ways; it’s a staple of the genre after all, but as each character is acquired, you can easily guess if they’ll live or die.

The acting is quite good, good enough to prove this isn’t a bad movie at heart. The two main characters are a good duo, despite some flaws, and give both barrels to their performances. Quaid pulls off a nicely layered performance, despite the fact he’s stuck in the same one room for 85% of the film. Foster is a solid performer, rolling with the changing motivations, and is an acceptable protagonist-hero to follow. Antje Traue is the aforementioned feral scientist-ninja boot thief, and does a damn good job as the Mila Jovovich equivalent hot action skank, and her German accent is an exotic touch. (Trvia: the film was shot in Potsdam, and the German government funded $6 million.) Cam Gigandet is solid as Gallo, edging between “crazy oddness” and “totally losing his shit from pandorum.” The rest of the cast includes Vietnamese feral ninja agricultural worker Manh (Cung Le) who only speaks Vietnamese and Badass, and Captain Exposition, the fairly crazy Leland (Eddie Rouse), who tells the backstory of how the ship’s gotten into its current hellhole state before trying to eat the protagonists.

Visually, the movie is amazing; it’s got a lot of excellent special effects. The mutant feral wunderkind are a bit of a letdown, since they’re just using the makeup and clothing and spiky shit departments. The hand-cranked battery computer is pretty awesome in a dopey way; it’s taking the concept of the hand-crank flashlight and applying it a hundred some years from now. Bower’s fairly ineffective but pretty cool weapon is a riot gun, essentially a power glove, which needs to be powered/recharged by vigorous squeezing of the handgrip… again, it’s dopey as heck, but it’s a realistic vision of the Green Energy future. (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle your Reavers.) The ship itself is full of amazing sets, and the CGI used in the last scenes was worth every penny.

This is the U.S. version of the poster. This has almost nothing to do with the movie.

Payton: Maybe this is a bad time to tell you, but the door is open.
Bower: Are you fucking kidding me?
Payton: Yeah, I’m kidding you.

Pandorum isn’t a bad film; it certainly doesn’t deserve two stars out of five. I’ve certainly seen worse, though they’re not coming to mind at the moment. (Edit: Oh, wait, got one. Ghosts of Mars.) Instead, Pandorum is a good example of flawed mediocrity. The plot holes, the shifting plots, the random things that make no sense, the wasted possibilities… all hold back a movie which could have been, and should have been, a far superior product. Pandorum is awash in good ideas and could-have-beens, but the movie’s lack of focus—or perhaps, too many different points of focus—hold it back. This isn’t a maneuver to keep the viewers in the dark, or befuddling things to add confusion and tension. In sum: the movie doesn’t know what the hell it wants to be, so it tries to do everything.

It’s indicative when the film was to begin a movie series that never launched. Given the length of time since it came out, and its abysmal box-office reception (some $20 million earned worldwide, with a $40 million cost), my guess is that’s dead in the water. What further baffles me is where exactly they’d go with a sequel, though I can come up with a few options:

  • “Oh, look… there happened to be another generation ship that we forgot to mention, even though this was the only one, and the same thing happened… only different!”
  • “We’re going to follow from the original film’s ending, thus tacking the Pandorum name on project only vaguely related to Pandorum since it won’t deal with the titular mental illness!”
  • “We have to get back on the ship, to save all those animals we forgot about and left behind! Or perhaps my wife! Who gives a shit, we left some plots behind, let’s go get ’em!”

Like the film, sequels are a good idea, flawed by the fact that apparently nobody stopped and thought about it. Which is a damn shame, because even if the sequels were as flawed as Pandorum, they’d still be worth watching.

4 thoughts on ““This is pandorum!”

    1. I donno, personally I consider Bower’s wife being replaced as a plot point “dropped.” Not quite so much a red herring as a dead end; just because she wasn’t on the ship didn’t mean that her importance to Bower immediately ended, since she was the driving force that got him to go out to open the door after all. Similarly with the Ark, brilliant metaphor especially with the great flood visuals at the end, but a plot-point left buried at the bottom of the ocean. I’ll buy it since it’s a neat inversion of the Ark theme.

      The plot holes I was specifically referring to—I think, it’s only been what, three years since I watched and reviewed it?—were the fact those two plot points were set up as driving character motivations only to subsequently be written out of the movie and forgotten about: Bower’s wife ceased to matter, and whatshername’s animals that she’d been keeping alive and studying for so long were flooded out. Even the critical “open the door” plotline was only saved by the tension between Payton and Gallo, locked in the same room. The immediacy of the reactor took their place, then the control room, and then the movie’s over. Transitioning the plot is a bit ham-handed and could have been smoother.

      1. I don’t think it was forgotten at all. Emotional stress from the truth was probably the the driving force which caused him to develop Pandorum. Its apart of the Lovecraftian horror theme that humans can’t handle the unable to mentally cope with the extraordinary truths they witness or hear.

        I guess the filmmakers left the DNA chamber down there because they wanted a bitter sweet ending rather than a complete happy one.

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