Pandorum (2009)
By: Mr Intolerance on November 19, 2010  | 
Icon | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 5.1 | 103 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Christian Alvart
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse
Screenplay: Travis Milloy
Country: US/Germany
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"1969: Man lands on the Moon. World population - 3.6 billion.

2009: Kepler telescope is launched to search for Earth-like planets. World population - 6.26 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."

So we are told at the beginning of Pandorum, a German sci-fi/horror flick co-produced by Paul W.S. Anderson, and at times possessing more than a little passing reference to Anderson's own under-rated deep space chiller Event Horizon, as well as other cinematic nods to Alien, The Descent and a whole raft of eco-horror films from days of yore. But while Pandorum does tip its hat to a range of other films, it still possesses a personality of its own, if not a particularly strong one.

The Elysium is a deep space ark, basically, bearing sixty thousand people in cryogenic sleep who've been specially selected to give the human race a second chance on the recently discovered planet Tanis. The catch of course is that to reach Tanis, you need to spend more than a hundred years asleep, and this can have side effects such as "pandorum" – an illness whereby the victim becomes increasingly paranoid, hallucinates especially vividly and loses their grasp on reality so acutely that they become potentially homicidal; we're told of a previous ship, the Eden, where one member of the flight crew was badly affected with the malady, believed the ship to be cursed, and so ejected 5000 innocent sleepers into space, to die alone among the stars. Bad juju.

Astronaut Bower (Ben Foster) wakes up in what seems to be a deserted Elysium. What's worse is that he has no idea of who he is, nor of why he's been woken. The ship's power is fluctuating at best, dead in some instances. Understandably unnerved, he wakes up his superior, Payton (Dennis Quaid) to try and find out what gives. But the disorientation they feel after such a long hypersleep (and it's a lot longer than they think it was) provides more questions than it does answers. Trapped in either their quarters or the largely non-functioning adjacent control room, Bower, as the smaller of the two, goes into the service ducts (linked with Payton via a headset) in order to find some of these answers – primary to both men is: where are the rest of the crew?

Bower's little sojourn in the ducts pretty effectively begins the claustrophobia that the director quite effectively maintains for much of the film. Being trapped in the dark is one thing, but it gets worse when Bower realises that he and Payton are not alone, and finding a number of hanging corpses in various stages of decay hasn't made that realisation any easier to take, either. There are two kinds of people living in the ship, Bower soon realises – folks like you and me who operate alone, living off what they can for survival, and others, descended from the deep-frozen colonists, who were given a hormone to help them adapt quickly to their new world – but as things have gone wrong, what we find is that they instead adapted to the ship itself as their new homeworld, and so what successive generations of breeding have produced is a race of quick-moving, agile, super-strong, degenerate, subhuman man-eaters, who, if they're hungry, only really need to crack open a cryogenically frozen colonist and chow down.

Now you might think that's a neat idea, but it's hardly original, and nor is the way it's presented to us. The creatures basically look and sound exactly like the "crawlers" from Neil Marshall's The Descent, just with a kind of Post-Apocalyptic chic taken directly from the 80s Italo-exploitation industry – or bad 80s music videos, and they even have the same diet as the crawlers. The effects, courtesy of the Stan Winston Studio, are certainly quite good, but lacking in originality. Still, it's nice to see a lot of prosthetic and appliance make-up, and a lack of CG, which simply never has the "oomph" of on-screen effects. It's worth mentioning that an "unrated" version of the film apparently exists (presumably with even more violence), but at this point, there are no plans to release it.

Bower starts to have memories of his life before the Elysium, and more of a sense of who he really is. At the same time, he is trying to make his way to the reactor, having realised that he actually has the tech skills to make it start working again. On his way he meets Shepard, who is part of the flight crew who should have relieved Bower's – and this is when the panic starts to edge its way into the crew's minds: exactly how long have they been out there?

Unfortunately, Shepard doesn't get to find out an answer to that, as the pair are surprised by the mutants and Shepard is caught, immediately strung up and eaten alive, in a scene kind of reminiscent of another Neil Marshall film, Doomsday. Bower is luckier, having managed a hair's breadth escape, aided and assisted by Manh, one of the agricultural crew, who now ekes out a living trying to keep one step ahead of the mutants, and his rival Nadia, an arse-kicking dynamo we've already seen in action, albeit briefly.

After some expository dialogue from Nadia about her fears for the survival of the specimens she's in charge of, and her fears of how long they actually may have been asleep for, our gang of three set off for the reactor, while back in the control room, Payton has been visited by Gallo, another panicky survivor who had to kill the other members of his flight crew, all of whom had pandorum. However, it's on the way to the reactor that we get to see exactly what our group are being pitted against (after another scene half-inched from The Descent) – one mutant versus three humans presents a fight that is more than a little one-sided, in favour of the mutant. Another hair's breadth escape after another vicious set-piece, and we're back in quiet claustrophobia territory. Now, this is one of the film's flaws. The pacing is either idling in neutral, or sucking nitrous oxide – there is no real middle ground. The director seems to be a little unsure as to what movie he's making, and with the main characters not knowing very much about themselves, it makes it extremely difficult to fix a point of audience sympathy. I guess Bower is it, but he's not exactly well fleshed-out as a character, a few flashbacks with the wife he left behind notwithstanding.

Having escaped from the mutants for the time being, Bower, Manh and Nadia inadvertently hole up in the digs of Leland, ship's cook and another survivor, although a more expedient one shall we say, who goes on to provide more expository dialogue about what the actual story is about the Earth, the Elysium and what's happening right now – intercut with Gallo explaining the same things to Payton in a slightly less histrionic fashion. Leland gasses our band of heroes, with the express purpose of wanting to eat them, but Bower manages to talk him out of it by impressing upon him the need to reset the reactor, or the ship will shutdown and they'll die – exonerating Leland's deplorable actions through some pretty effective fast-talking.

Pandorum moves from here into its final act, which is where this synopsis ends – and as time is running out, we get a race to the finish line ending with some neat action scenes, some vicious violence, more hair's breadth escapes and a couple of genuine surprises that I can tell you don't work on a repeat viewing – there are a number of clues given during the course of the film that you'd pick up on more astutely having seen the film before. Still, it's reasonably tense, if not exactly living up to the promise of the earlier sequences of the film.

So I guess the question is: do I watch Pandorum? My answer would be "yes", even though a seasoned fan of genre films would recognise a lot of the intertextual references I mentioned before, a thing I know frustrated a lot of viewers of Doomsday, a film equally reliant on other films of a similar ilk that had gone before it. Pastiche can work if it's done subtly, and here it isn't done with that requisite light touch. That said, the verve that the director brings to the film is kind of impressive, it's just that it doesn't quite hit it's beats as well as it should – after the taut first act, it kind of sags a bit and is held up mainly by the action set pieces. Tension is a difficult thing to maintain in any film, and while Alvart struggles manfully with it, I think he's ultimately defeated by the film's duration, which is too long to maintain the atmosphere he's trying to evoke. Snipped by about ten minutes, possibly a fraction more, I reckon that Pandorum would have been that little bit more successful in what it set out to do.
Umm…it's rather dark. I realise that this is kind of an aid to establishing atmosphere, but at times it's a little difficult to make out what's going on. That said, the picture is sharp and clear, presented anamorphically in its cinemascope OAR. The colour palette is suitably muted with rich deep blacks, and works with the highly impressive set design to create an impressively menacing world for our characters to interact with. This is a good-looking film, when we can see it…
The sound design is also quite good, and the film makes the most of the Dolby 5.1 track available here to up the scare factor substantially. Nicely done.
Extra Features
A pretty standard package of Extras – good, but nothing to write home about. You get a an interesting feature length commentary with director Alvert and producer Jeremy Bolt, "The World Of Elysium", a behind the scenes featurette, stills galleries (Models and Monsters, Designs and Drawings, On Set and a storyboard for the Turbine Pit sequence), as well as some deleted and alternate scenes. Certainly a better effort than Icon's normal usual bare-bones approach to genre film fare.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
A swing and a miss, Pandorum doesn't quite make it. Despite getting off to a fine start, it kind of plateaus in the second act and never really cranks up the action in the final act. Director Alvart knows how to create a sense of claustrophobia and dread and certainly shows some promise as a genre director (that's praise, by the way), but the film ultimately overstays its welcome, and some scenes just hang on for that little bit too long, robbing them of the punch I think he was aiming for. But certainly I'd encourage any science fiction fan to have a look at Pandorum; despite its shortcomings, there's a lot to like about it.

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