Friday, 13 June 2014

Film Reaction Retro: PANDORUM (2009)

 I've been staring at this poster for 15 minutes and
I still don't know what the hell it's showing me.

Blergh.  I hate leaving this blog to rot for any length of time now.  Unfortunately, I'm thumping my head against a brick wall trying to put together anything clever toy-related, and the last two movies I saw in the cinema, while okay for the most part, just...look, you want my reaction to Godzilla?  'Ehhhh'.  That's my reaction.  And X-Men Days of the Future Past that are also Past Futures to the Future Past Future had some lovely moments though it still feels like a bungled step after First Class.  Both those points have been made better elsewhere, and I got beaten to the punch on most of 'em since both films opened in the States before Europe (which seems to be the less likely option these days).  And I'm still trying to think up something good to rant about in the gaming world after that Resi post, so...hmmm...

...I guess I don't have to limit myself to new movies, do I?  Okay, so let's talk about a random sci-fi horror film that made basically no money.

 Poor Fred here thought that going with private-sector healthcare to
skirt the NHS waiting list was a good idea...once.

The Plot:  Some 100+ years from now, a man wakes up from cryo-sleep aboard a spaceship.  This man is Bower (Ben Foster) and he has no idea why he's there, at first.  After partnering up with a fellow crew member, Payton (Dennis Quaid), the details start to emerge from his amnesiac mind, although every one brings further questions.  If they're both crew, where are the others?  If the ship's reactor is damaged, why isn't anyone trying to fix it?  If they're alone aboard the ship, what are those things emerging from the shadows to hunt down Bower - and most troublingly, are the monsters even real, or just the mind playing tricks?

Eventually, the truth comes out, and Bower - along with a few allies he's scarcely able to trust - realizes there's a more insidious danger aboard than monsters or imminent atomic explosion...but will there be enough left of him to face this final horror?

 Yes, that lady is who you think it is.
I will get to her in a minute.

The Good:  First of all, ignore that 'makers of Resident Evil!' tag on the poster.  The only link between Pandorum and the continuing spiral of confusion and disappointment that is the RE movie series is on the producer level.  I'm assuming they played it up here because the setting might inspire memories of Event Horizon, a.k.a. that thing Paul W.S. Anderson did that actually made him look like a promising talent for a while.  Pandorum, on the other hand, is the work of German director Christian Alvart, who seems to have gotten his fingers burnt on this film's poor box office, having spent the years since doing TV work in his home country.  That's a damn shame too since the man shows some pretty great instincts with how he places his cameras and paces a scene; he really understands how a close-up works in a stressful moment, or how to disguise set re-use (another thing I'll come back to).  Anyway, yeah, Pandorum is quite a bit like Event Horizon, including not screwing around with the gore, so if you like that sort of thing, etc.

The screenplay, by Travis Milloy (from two very similar stories he and Alvart initially dreamt up separately), hits basically all the right buttons for me.  Characters economically fleshed out, dialogue that's snappy without being a total nudge-wink fest, enough of a handle on real science to make the not-real science seem convincing by proxy, and it's doing its best to engage with big, thematic ideas while still ticking off the necessary boxes of a visceral action/horror flick.  Bear in mind, for a film that's basically 'one and done' and doesn't end with the promise of a sequel, there's a hell of a lot of worldbuilding going on here, between explaining the descent of Earth to the many systems involved in the 'Elysium' spacecraft, and yet the film somehow maintains a sense of momentum instead of being dragged down.

"The Captain Kirk chair is nice but I have questions about
the 'indoor pool' listed on the specs, guys."

It also helps that Milloy's lines are being delivered by an odd but great cast.  Ben Foster is one of those guys who seems to have missed his window to gravitate into full-time leading man; he's photogenic and charismatic enough, but there's a look in his eye that always hints at something more twisted and uncontrollable lurking below the surface of his performance.  The joy of his playing Bower is getting to see the lid pulled off that darkness, and watch as he plummets into full-tilt desperation and lunacy over 90 minutes.  Spending much of the film on the other end of Bower's radio is Dennis Quaid, doing the same sort of wry-smirking no-nonsense army man performance he did in the first G.I. Joe start with.  As things unravel, Quaid transforms pretty drastically, and though there's more than a whiff of ham about some elements of his breakdown I personally love the fact that he went so far with it.  Not everyone loses their mind quietly, y'know?

Further down the cast list, Cung Le - an MMA star you might remember as Marshall Law in Tekken 2010 - plays a Vietnamese farmer turned warrior, and while it's mostly a showcase for his skills with a pikestaff, Le does a solid job with the character, who never speaks English and so has a slightly awkward relationship to Bower even while he's helping the guy.  Cam Gigandet, who I'm sure I've seen before but can't remember where, appears at the midway point as a long-isolated survivor on the verge of total breakdown, and goes up and down the ladder between mad, gibbering violence and coldly sinister intent with skill I would never expect from such a bland model-looking kinda guy.  Props to him.  But of course, a not-inconsiderable chunk of my fondness for the film (and reason why I've been rewatching it recently) is Faora herself, Antje Traue, here playing Nadia, a biologist who's been dealing with the ship's horrors long enough to be largely inured to them.  If you've already seen Man of Steel you know full well what an arresting presence Traue has on-screen, and despite lacking superpowers she kicks a whole lot of ass here too.  That said, it's the quiet, tender side of herself that slips out from behind those finely-cut features that sticks with you, and makes Nadia feel like more than just the 'token cool girl' we get in these sorts of movies.

On the more technical side of things, the production design is something of a triumph; I mentioned set re-use before but it's really not at all obvious (the special features on the blu were an eye-opener in this regard) and every part of the Elysium looks lived-in and sparsely functional, like it belongs.  When I first saw this back in the day, my immediate reaction was "hey, somebody made a Dead Space movie and didn't tell EA", and that's still fair, right down to the oddly sub-optimal lighting aboard the ship never being commented on.  The various nasties that stalk the ship's halls were the work of Legacy Effects (formerly Stan Winston Studios) and while they're not quite up there with the studio's legendary Terminator/Predator/Aliens designs, they're smartly made creations that look properly horrifying, have easily-recognisable silhouettes, and are weird enough to be plausibly alien.  They're 100% practical too, and the performers beneath the prosthetics do a fantastic job with their creepy, animalistic body language.  Lastly, Michl Britsch provides a minimalist but haunting industrial-influenced score that supports every scene perfectly, aided by some pretty great sound design.


The Bad:  While I love and respect Pandorum for trying to be more than just sci-fi/horror schlock, its thematic leanings aren't totally successful, or at least, they don't make the film quite as smart as it thinks it is.  Mostly the story boils down to a question of how far are you willing to go, and how much of yourself are you willing to cast off, for survival, with Bower (the hero) leaning very firmly towards the extreme of civilization; while every other character goes off the reservation to one degree or another, Bower keeps his thoughts focused on his job and the hope that everything'll work out if his wary travelling partners can be friends.  Meanwhile, we see the opposite extreme most obviously in Eddie Rouse's Leland, who's given up on rescue and simply lurks in his little cavern, trapping anyone who blunders in and indulging in a little cannibalism.  It works well enough...right up until the end, where the titular 'pandorum' (orbital dysfunction syndrome, i.e. going nuts from deep space isolation) overtakes Bower and drives him to hallucinatory episodes which...actually kinda save the day?  Wouldn't it make more sense for Bower to succeed by denying the visions and maintaining his sanity outright?  Also, the 'hunters' don't really seem to fit this metaphor too well, as their behaviour is something forced upon them unwillingly; they didn't choose to stalk humans through the bowels of the ship, they're just sort of built that way.  Maybe the film would've been better off ditching the monsters in favour of just a group of roaming human savages.

Also, since I mentioned him, Leland is...a bit silly.  His presence in the film is fine; he fits the theme better than some others do, and the double-headed exposition dump between him and Gigandet's Corporal Gallo is very slick, but there's just something a little off about how Rouse plays the part.  He's aiming for a frightening kind of deranged but he skews a little too far into comedy territory, not helped by his armoured-hobo dress sense and pronounced peg-leg limp.  At least he's not in it too much.

I don't like being mean to this film.
Putting a gored-up Antje pic in to cheer me up.

The Verdict:  Pandorum is not perfect, and it's perhaps something that's easy to overrate for me because 'spaceship horror action' is a very specific niche dear to my heart.  But, I think Pandorum is largely the reason why that niche is my favourite; thanks to some odd scew-ups in my formative years I missed the Alien series, 2001 and other such genre favourites.  This film came into my life unheralded and opened my eyes, and even now - after having watched these other 'better' movies - it still holds up as a character piece and an action flick.

9 out of 10, easily.  Pandorum is super cheap on Blu or DVD, and it's on Netflix, so experiencing it for yourself is almost painless.  Do yourself a favour.

And they all lived happily ever after on their giant...sea...wheel?


  1. heheh...I missed this movie in the theater because I had no idea what it was really about. Then saw it a few years later and was like "where the hell did this come from?!" =)
    Pure gem, with it's many quirks. I just LOVE the altered humans, the hunters you think should just be a group of people. You missed the part where they WERE once people and after 700 years, the workings of an enzyme they were being fed to help them adapt on a new world, being trapped underwater on a crashed ship the majority of that time and the craftings of a crazed crew member created the cannibalistic hunters I love so much. If the movie Gods were good, they would allow for parts 2 & 3, a prequel and sequel, to occur and grace our lives, crafted and put together by the same group who gave us the first movie.

    1. First off, thanks for the comment, I don't get much of 'em. :)

      Second, I did/do remember the explanation of the hunters' origins r.e. the 'adaption enzyme', but for the sake of readers who may not have seen the film I refrained from mentioning it since it's kind of a plot twist and I didn't want to spoil it for them. That said, I stand by my view here: the hunters are designed very well and genuinely frightening, but because they didn't choose to sacrifice their humanity (instead being forced into a savage state because of a machine error, basically) they don't gel with the film's themes as well as they perhaps could.

      And while I wish the film had reached a larger audience, I don't really feel like it needs follow-ups. With Bower, Nadia and the remaining humans still asleep in their pods free of the Elysium, a sequel would just be the shaky steps of the brave new world being assembled; potentially interesting but it wouldn't feel anything at all like Pandorum. And I'm not sure what else we need to see of the ruined Earth besides what's apparent in this one film, unless someone was really super-keen on making a Mad Max homage...

  2. Ha, every time you mentioned Faora in the past I thought of this movie and still I somehow forgot to recommend it to you. So you had already seen it before MoS?
    I saw this in the theater when it came out. I remember liking it (grew up on the Alien movies) but not much else. Now that I see the picture of the space craft in the water, it's all coming back. Will watch it tonight.

    1. Yeah, I'd seen Pandorum first, fell in love with miss Traue there, then kinda forgot about her for a few years before the MoS casting came up and I was like, "Oooohhhh!" Then spent much of the pre-release period waiting for more stuff about her. Subsequently the crush is back in full force; it's at the point where I'm buying old films I'd otherwise ignore just because she's in them. Might have to do a review post for 5 Days of War's a fairly weird beast.

    2. Yes, do it! Since I have no crush on Miss Traue, I need some convincing to watch the movie, ..or not, I will basically watch anything.
      There's also this Trish Hefner lady, isn't there.. You'll need to rate your crushes, sooner or later. Whoever comes out on top will receive all your attention exclusively while the rest must be totally forgotten about. Wait, no, you'll just become a copy of me and start a fan blog which will be better written and more regularly updated than mine.

    3. ...'Trish Hefner'? Seriously? >_<

      And I'm a bit suspicious of my own ability to talk about women without coming off as creepy, so maybe I don't wanna spend like 2,000 words gushing about how prominent cheekbones are my ultimate turn-on or somesuch.