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Movie Review: Pandorum

Pandorum poster
If you've seen the previews or commercials for Pandorum, the latest film from producer Paul W.S. Anderson, you know what to expect. On the surface, the film looks like a hybrid between Alien, The Descent, and Event Horizon, and for the most part, that's exactly what this movie is. So if that's all you want in your sci-fi/horror film, then this is the movie for you and you will no doubt enjoy the experience. Be warned, however, that compared to the three movies I just mentioned, Pandorum is ultimately forgettable.

There is some originality in the film, most of which comes in the form of small details. For instance, in the opening sequence, the main character of the film, Corporal Bower, awakens from an extended period of hypersleep. This is something you can find in several dozen science-fiction movies, but there is an extra touch in that Bower is covered in a thick (and kinda gross) layer of dead skin. It's a unique idea, but one that makes immediate logical sense. It's also a perfect example of what this movie is, a little bit of ingenius originality thrown into a movie you've seen many times.

The plot of the movie deals with Bower (Ben Foster) and his commanding officer, Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid), as they awaken with temporary memory loss and a ship suffering from severe power malfunctions and downed communication lines. The two are locked in a tiny part of the ship, but Bower quickly starts crawling through the airducts to find a way out. Once out, he discovers that the ship is inhabited by horrifying creatures and seemingly insane survivors, and that if he doesn't make his way to the main reactor, the entire ship will be lost.

Screenshot
The actors do an exceptional job carrying the film through its rough patches
This set-up has a lot of promise, though the creatures are incredibly generic (more on them later) and one of the main plot devices, pandorum, is ultimately just space madness. The first half of the movie relies far too heavily on sudden shocks with loud bursts of music designed to make the audience jump. One or two of these every once in a while is fun, but there are so many of them within the first twenty-five minutes that they become tiresome and annoying. There is a lot of room in the story for a deeper, more psychological horror, but the writer/director (relative newcomer Christian Alvert) made the unfortunate decision to have a more in-your-face horror movie. But hey, if you want to take a girl to a movie that'll have her curl up in your armpit in sheer terror, this is a good choice (though she's likely to hold the experience against you for quite some time).

Still, the characters come across as surprisingly genuine with dialogue that never feels cheesy or forced. Each character (with one exception I won't spoil) has an underlying motivation that makes sense and is layered with more complexity than would be necessary in your average horror flick. Still, the characters are ultimately driven by fear and the need to survive, and any deeper exploration of them is lost in the fast pace of events. This may or may not be a good thing.

Without spoiling too much, I will mention that the story's weakest bits are during the film's climax and conclusion. The final act is a little too neat and convenient--though not nearly as bad as it could be--and one or two moments are laughably silly. There's also a minor twist that seems completely unnecessary. But aside from these complaints, the story holds together under scrutiny, with narry a major plot hole to be found.

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Dennis Quaid is awesome, but not utilized that well in Pandorum
The main thing to keep in mind here is that the storytelling is sincere. Alvert and screenwriter Travis Milloy never insult the audience's intelligence, and more importantly, it feels like this is a movie they wanted to make. While the film does get caught in a few blatant genre cliches, the final product doesn't feel as amateurish as it probably should. It is, ultimately, a well-made movie.

The strongest thing about it is the ship itself. The Elysium is absolutely gigantic, and the many pieces of its interior are designed with an eye for the grandiose. Everything has a dusty sheen of wear and age, but it is easy to imagine what the ship would have looked like when it was new, fully-lit, and bustling with human activity. Every part of the ship is constructed with a practical mind-set, from a large living space filled with cargo containers to the utility closets full of lockers and cleaning supplies. There is a sense of the automation lying just beneath the surface, and aside from the unnecessarily dangerous reactor chamber, there are no rooms full of, for instance, inexplicable chompers and flames.

***MAJOR SPOILER WARNING!!!***

My biggest complaint with the movie, though, is the science. About halfway through the film, the bombshell is dropped that the creatures on board are actually people who have evolved to compete for resources on the ship. One character says, with a straight face, that there was a drug given to the entire crew of the ship that would help them adapt to a new environment and vastly accelerate the evolutionary process, but even if you accept that, the end-result of this ludicrously quick evolution doesn't make any sense.

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Also, there's a hot chick
Evolution is not the process where one species turns into another. During evolution, a single species can split into hundreds of other species, and the change is completely and utterly random. A minor change that proves beneficial is likely to continue through the generations, but a minor change that proves to be inconvenient will likely lead to the death of the individual before reproduction takes place. If the people on board the ship went through the thousands of generations required to truly evolve (no small feat given only a few years), there would be several different species of new creatures on the ship, and they would all differ from humanity in different ways; they wouldn't have all forsaken intelligence to become brutal killing machines with stupid spikes on their back.

Don't get me wrong; the idea of life evolving to live specifically on board an interstellar vessel is a cool science-fiction idea. But it needs to make sense and be true to the science, not just used as a lame excuse to have monsters everywhere.

***END OF SPOILERS***

Pandorum is what it needs to be to fulfill the requirements of the genre. It's fun and exciting with some good scares that are likely to send the popcorn flying. But don't go in with high expectations unless you want to be disappointed. Go see this movie for the entertainment value, not because you want it to blow your mind or because you expect it to revolutionize modern science-fiction.

FINAL SCORE:

Contains some originality, good dialogue, and excellent ship designs, interspersed between bouts of derivative guilty pleasures and an over-reliance on genre cliches.



-e. magill 10/06/2009








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