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Pandorum Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jan 21, 2010

    Pandorum Review
    The trouble with trying to make a quality sci-fi horror - set in space and featuring some sort of aliens - is that there are always going to be comparisons to the benchmark standard set by the Alien franchise. The trademark 'alien' in Aliens is the definitive incarnation of a space-borne alien threat, and nothing since has really come close. Pitch Black worked wonders with a low budget, but achieved much from the tension set up during the first half (which did not feature much of the creatures, and was instead focussed on the potentially psychotic criminal in the group's midst). Event Horizon did psychological sci-fi action-horror well - and is an engaging guilty pleasure for many fans. And the relatively recent Sunshine, a vastly underrated soon-to-be classic of the genre, only really suffered when it started to go down the mutant serial killer route in the final act, largely succeeding as an out-and-out disaster movie. Most recently, the extremely low budget (not that you'd notice) Moon was a breakthrough hit - and received many well-deserved accolades - playing on a clever plot twist and tremendous character development to create thrills. Pandorum was originally written as the first part of a straight-to-dvd trilogy, a clever, interesting sci-fi horror that suffers from one basically problem - it has all been done before, and better.
    Corporal Bowers has just woken up from several years in deep space hyper-sleep. The side-effects from such a prolonged stint in stasis include memory loss, so he is bewildered as to where he is, or what he is doing there. Soon after his awakening, his senior officer, Lieutenant Payton also comes out of his chamber with similar problems remembering where they are and what they are doing. Between the two of them they figure out that they are onboard a vast cargo ship - the Elysium - transporting thousands of human couples in stasis; the mission: a one-way trip to populate a new planet, after Earth reached its saturation point.
    With no contact from any other survivors, and no access to the bridge, they forge a plan to gain control of the ship, with Bower working his way through the causeways and engineering shafts, and Payton guiding him from a workstation. Bower soon finds out, however, that he is not alone - and encounters various unusual individuals during his journey, who - as different as they all may be - seem to all be fighting the same common foe: strange, humanoid creatures who have somehow gotten onto the ship and seemingly have only one thing on their mind - eating anybody they come across. To make matters worse, a further side-effect from prolonged periods in hyper-sleep is something called Pandorum - a form of dementia that makes the victim paranoid, delusional and potentially psychotic. And some of the survivors may just be suffering from it...
    Have you seen Aliens? Pitch Black? Event Horizon? Sunshine? The Descent? Cube? If you've seen most or all of the above then you have basically seen everything in Pandorum - and all of it done better. The basic premise is decent enough - the concept of problems on Earth because of over-population, and having to find a new planet to re-populate. And the idea of the crew-members who were stuck in hyper-sleep suffering from amnesia and possibly becoming psychotic (kind of like getting 'the bends' when you de-pressurise too quickly) was also quite clever. Unfortunately it all bares too much of a similarity to the movies in my comparison list: the purpose of the long voyage - to save mankind - is very Sunshine, the amnesia angle has been played to better effect in Resident Evil, and the twist of psychosis is also from Sunshine, but featured more prominently in Event Horizon. And the 'monsters'. Well they're straight out of the Descent (and in more ways than one), even though they've kind of been 'augmented' with features from the 'Aliens' - most notably big shafts protruding out of their backs. The motley crew of people with varying skills - who all don't know each other but have to work together to navigate a futuristic locale plagued by traps? That sounds like Cube to me.
    So, after sitting through an hour and a half of mish-mashed, re-hashed ideas do we get a twenty-minute final act of thrills and revelations? Well, no, they just rush to round things off, drill a dozen plot-holes into the story along the way, and leave it ending in a silly way that paves the path for the intended sequels. It is disappointing, to say the least, and distinctly contrived.
    The poor cast suffer as well. Ben Foster (30 Days of Night, Hostage, Punisher) has never really shown much heroic lead potential in his performances. That's not to say that he has not given us some interesting characters, but they have all been villainous sideshow freak extended cameos. Here he does nothing to prove himself as a lead, let alone a heroic one, his brief act of courageousness towards the end taken straight out of Pitch Black, only done worse. He neither inspires, nor enlightens, and you find yourself wondering when the true lead character will appear, and so rooting for his survival is quite hard, other than in default to their being nobody else to really root for. Relative newcomers Antje Traue (a Tomb Raider-esque German kick-ass hottie) and Cung Le both do the best they can with extremely one-dimensional caricatures to work with, merely two fearless warriors who have somehow come into existence aboard the ship.
    But it is Dennis Quaid who I feel most sorry for. Perhaps it is because I still remember watching Innerspace when I was a child (amidst other enjoyable 80s flicks of his) but I always categorised him as a better actor than his filmography would - at least these days - be evidence of. He does appear to be a better actor than many of the characters he takes on deserve, restrained by hackneyed ideas and one-dimensional development. But it's been so long since I've seen him in anything really good that I am beginning to wonder whether he has any ability to discern a good script. Vantage Point was average, at best - a lacklustre rip-off of 24, crossed with a twinge of Rashomon. The Horsemen? Well I'm not even sure that was ever released, and it certainly never made it to the cinemas in the UK. And G.I. Joe? Well, aside from the fact that he had little more than a cameo in it, it really was a pretty lame movie - although an unintentionally funny, and thus entertaining one at that. Here he brings little of any depth or significance to the role of Lieutenant Payton, locked away behind his computer for the majority of the movie, before popping up at the end for the unsatisfactory denouement. It's disappointing, to say the least.
    Pandorum has good intentions, a few interesting concepts, some nice effects and an oppressive setting, but with clichéd characters, a Swiss cheese plot and elements borrowed from a stupid number of 'classic' movies in the same genre, the result is an unsatisfactory mess that reeks of déjà vu. If you've been in a coma for the last few decades of sci-fi horror genius, you may enjoy this as an 'original' enterprise, but most viewers will probably find that this is a bit of a piecemeal effort that was not really worth their time. It ranks up there with the abysmal Doomsday on the missed opportunities and thorough disappointment level, even if it is at least more entertaining than that particular debacle. Easy viewing for a night in, but really nothing you haven't seen before.