CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT – PANDORUM (2009)
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: a vast spaceship. Thousands of humans are in metallic coffin-like pods, in suspended animation. For the most part, the huge craft is silent and deserted. MICHAEL ARRUDA wakes, gasping, as his pod opens)
MA (gasping for breaths): What the hell? Where am I? Where is everybody else?
(L.L. SOARES enters the room, eating a giant meatball sandwich)
LS: I’m here. It’s about time you woke up!
MA: Who am I? Where are we? And where can I get one of those sandwiches?
LS: You don’t have time to eat. We’ve got a movie to review. (Takes a bite) Which is too bad. This sandwich sure is good.
MA: A movie? I feel disoriented. What a headache! I feel like I’ve been sleeping in deep space hibernation for years! (Belches).
LS: How many beers did you drink last night?
MA: Just a couple.
LS: Yeah, right. Are you ready for the review or what?
MA: Sure. Let me just get my wits about me. Why don’t you start?
LS: Yeah, yeah. This week our movie is PANDORUM from 2009. Somehow, we missed this one when it was released in theaters, but it’s come back on Comcast OnDemand (and DVD) to get the CKF treatment anyway.
It’s basically the story of a spaceship, called the Elysium, sent into space by a dying earth. Our planet is overpopulated and at the verge of destruction. The Elysium is the last chance for human kind as it surges toward the earth-like planet Tanis, in another galaxy, to give mankind its big second chance.
When ship’s engineer Bower (Ben Foster) wakes, he finds himself strangely alone in the recovery bay. Other pods stand silent around him, and there’s no sign of the previous shift of workers who he’s supposed to be replacing. It’s as if the ship computer just awakened him randomly. He doesn’t remember who he is, or where he is, at first, but it slowly dawns on him. He’s not sure what has happened, but it’s clear something is wrong.
Soon after, his superior officer, Lt. Payton (Dennis Quaid) is also revived, and has many of the same questions. They’re supposed to be revived in shifts during the long, intergalactic journey, but the men see no sign of previous activity on the craft. There’s also a power outage in some parts of the ship (although the sleepers seem to be unharmed by this).
MA (returns): I thought these early scenes were very creepy and enjoyable. There was a deep sense of mystery pervading them.
LS: Determined to find out what has happened, Bower and Payton try to find a way out of the recovery bay (with the power outage, the doors won’t work, and Bower has to squirm through a ventilation duct and out into the body of the ship), to find out what the problem is.
While exploring the ship, Bower finds lots of strange sights, including two humans who have reverted back to an almost animalistic/savage state, Nadia and Manh (Antje Traue and Cung Le), and strange, violent creatures who have become predators aboard the ship, hunting down human prey. Are they aliens, or have some of the sleeping human somehow mutated into these horrific things?
MA: The creatures reminded me of souped- up Nosferatus. Bat people from hell! Not that they were vampires, but they looked like NOSFERATU was their great, great, great, great granddaddy!
LS: They reminded me of the monsters from the spelunking horror film THE DESCENT (2005), except they wear body armor and wield spears. But they move and look a bit like THE DESCENT’s cave creatures. They’re cool monsters and work well enough as the major threat in this movie.
MA: I didn’t find them so cool, but more on that later.
(Cannibalistic CREATURE is suddenly breathing menacingly over MA’s shoulder.).
MA: On the other hand, the cannibalistic creatures had their moments.
(CREATURE growls, dripping drool)
LS: I don’t think you’re off the hook yet.
MA: Um, Nosferatu is a famous horror movie icon, and you reminded me of him. How’s that?
(CREATURE nods, pats MA on head, and exits).
LS: Meanwhile, Payton, still trapped in the room he woke up in, eventually finds another human in the ventilation duct named Gallo (Cam Gigandet), the lone survivor from the previous shift of security officers, who has some disturbing secrets of his own.
That sets up the storyline. From there, it’s just a matter of gradually finding out what is going on, and how to save the last hope of mankind from cannibalistic monsters.
MA: I thought the story was very good. There were actually several things going on at the same time that kept the story fresh. It wasn’t just about the strange, violent creatures on board. It was also about the characters fighting to remember what they were doing on that ship and what their mission was, as well as the issue of pandorum, or space madness, that sets in for people on long deep space missions.
LS: Hey, I was getting to that! Some people traveling long distances in spaceships just seem to go insane over time. Not everyone, but like a lot of other illnesses, it’s unpredictable where and when it will strike, which just adds another layer of tension to the proceedings. Which characters are struggling to stay alive, and which are losing their minds due to PANDORUMMMMMMM?
(The word “PANDORUM” echoes throughout the spaceship)
LS: Hey, that’s cool!
There’s definitely an ALIEN (1979) vibe going on here. Like that film, we have a handful of humans going up against strange, murderous creatures in the body of a huge spaceship. But this movie, while interesting and well-acted, is nowhere near the same league as Ridley Scott’s classic.
MA: No, it’s not. Visually, it’s nowhere near as impressive as ALIEN, and the creatures themselves are nowhere near as memorable as the acid-bleeding Alien.
LS: True enough. Ben Foster, as Bower, turns in a good performance. He’s a young actor who has been getting a lot of buzz lately, and this movie is more proof that he’s more than capable of handling a lead role. I still think he looks a lot like Screech from SAVED BY THE BELL, but despite that, he’s got good acting chops and his career will just continue to grow. He got a lot of recognition recently for his role in the more “mainstream” film THE MESSENGER (about soldiers whose job it is to tell families their loved ones have died in war), but he has had previous genre roles like the crazy prisoner in the jail cell in 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007) and The Angel in X-MEN 3: THE LAST STAND (2006).
MA: And don’t forget my favorite performance turned in so far by Foster, the crazed gun-slinging villain in the Russell Crowe/Christian Bale western, 3:10 TO YUMA (2007).
LS: Another good one! Dennis Quaid is good as Lt. Payton as well, although he’s played a lot of similar crusty superior officer-type characters before. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for him. But he sure has been in a lot of genre movies lately (most recently, LEGION, which we reviewed in January). He can be relied upon to put in a decent acting job, but he never really seems to hit the ball out of the park. Maybe because many of his characters are so much alike.
MA: I would agree with that assessment. I actually liked Quaid better in LEGION, which I thought contained one of his best performances in a while. He was really good in that one.
LS: Relative newscomers Cung Le and Antje Traue (who are Vietnamese and German, respectively) are good in their roles, and the fact that English is their second language probably adds to the feeling of distance/confusion their characters exude so well. We also saw Cam Gigandet in some recent genre fair like THE UNBORN (2009) and TWILIGHT (2008).
(A blood-curdling horrifying shriek rings out).
MA: Shh! Don’t say that word so loud.
LS: What? Twilight?
(Another bone-chilling scream.)
MA: You know what that word does to our audience.
LS: Hey, wait a minute, that was YOU doing all the screaming.
MA: What can I say? The contagion is growing. And to think, the third installment of that series is on its way to theaters later this year.
MA: That time it was YOU.
LS: Okay, okay.
MA: Anyway, back to PANDORUM. I was less impressed by these supporting actors. I thought they were just okay and didn’t do anything to make their characters all that memorable.
LS: There’s also an interesting turn by Eddie Rause as Leland, a loner survivor who is locked away in his own part of the ship, and who perhaps has gone a little mad, being alone for so long with those creatures outside, trying to get in. He reminded me of an emaciated Benecio del Toro, and he’s an interesting addition to the mix.
MA: He didn’t do much for me either. While I thought Foster and Quaid were fine, the rest of the cast didn’t wow me.
LS: Like I said, I thought Rause’s character was interesting. But yeah, he didn’t knock my socks off or anything. And yeah, I’d probably say the same for Le and Traue. Nobody gives an awful performance that ruins the movie, at least.
Overall, I liked PANDORUM. It was better than I was expecting, and the acting was good. I found it pleasant enough for a movie I ordered on cable, but I’m glad I didn’t pay the price of a ticket to see it in a theater.
MA: I was definitely on the fence with PANDORUM, and I went back and forth as to how I felt about it.
I thought the story was excellent. I liked it from start to finish. I thought the opening with Bower and Payton waking from their deep slumber with little or no memory, confused, disoriented, and finding themselves in a dark, barely functioning spaceship, which is a behemoth of a ship by the way, was creepy and a very compelling way to get the audience interested in the story within the film’s first few minutes.
LS: The ship wasn’t anything new. We’ve seen this kind of scenario before. But yeah, it works well enough here.
MA: I also liked the idea that they knew their full memories would return later, but that it would take a while, which opened the door for gradual revelations throughout the movie. Again, this was a good plot device. It helped move the story along.
The fact that Bower and Payton are separated from each other almost immediately adds to the suspense. Right off the bat, you’ve got just two characters on board this crippled mammoth ship, and then within minutes, they’re separated from each other, so now they don’t even have each other to rely on. You’ve got two solo characters dealing with their own fears alone, only able to communicate with each other through electronic means. I thought this also was very effective.
Now, the strange violent creatures on board the ship that Bower discovers, at first, I found scary and cool, but it was the case where the more I saw of these things, the less I liked them. And that really is the problem with PANDORUM, and a huge reason why it doesn’t measure up to a movie like ALIEN. The visuals and the special effects to me were fair at best, and were nowhere near as well done as the story itself.
I thought the creatures, once you got a good look at them, were rather fake-looking, and not all that impressive.
LS: I didn’t think they were that bad, for the most part. Y’know, I actually thought the child monsters were scarier than the adults. They looked weirder.
MA: I don’t know. The child monsters reminded me of those pictures of “Bat Boy” which show up every few years or so on the cover of supermarket tabloids. You know, the kid with the oversized bald head and big bat ears, under the headline “Half boy, half bat, all monstrous!”
LS: That’s not just any supermarket tabloid. That’s from THE WEEKLY WORLD NEWS, the King of Tabloids.
MA: There were also lots of dark scenes that I found difficult to see. I would imagine that these scenes would have looked better on the big screen, but in my living room on DVD, they were dark, which made many of the action sequences hard to see.
LS: Yeah, I’ll agree with that. Usually, this kind of thing is done when someone doesn’t have the budget to do special effects as well as they’d like to. The darkness hides the shortcomings. I’m sure that was the intention here.
MA: But I really liked the story, and I think screenwriter Travis Milloy should be commended for writing an intricate and compelling screenplay. I’d give lower marks to director Christian Alvart. While the visual aspects of PANDORUM are okay, they didn’t impress me all that much. I thought the special effects and the visuals, like the ship itself, were fake-looking and reminded me of the Sci Fi Channel’s Movie of the Week.
LS: The visuals and effects aren’t groundbreaking, but they work for the story. I think you’re exaggerating a bit to compare this to Sci-Fi Channel movie. It’s not THAT bad. Besides, it’s called the SyFy Channel now.
MA: You would have to point that out. SyFy. It looks like somebody texting SuperFly. SyFy instead of Sci-Fi is like the New Coke. Remember that? Nobody does, because it wasn’t good! Here’s hoping Sci-Fi returns one day.
LS: Here’s hoping their movies get better.
MA: So while the story is excellent, in that it presents a very compelling mystery, it’s the technical aspects that hurt PANDORUMMMMMMMMM.
(The word PANDORUM echoes throughout the ship again)
LS: I still say that’s cool.
MA: In a nutshell, PANDORUM is an intriguing story hampered by so-so production values. You certainly could do a lot worse, but a movie with a good story like this, had it had better special effects and a set of threatening creatures that looked more authentic, it could have been a really good movie. As it stands now, it’s only okay.
But overall, I’d have to say I liked PANDORUM, and for me, what finally sold me on this movie was that I liked its ending. I thought the ending had a sense of wonder and awe that’s needed in a science fiction thriller like this. So often, the ending of the movie is a major disappointment for me. Not so with PANDORUM, and as a result, it won me over. Was the ending groundbreaking? Was it amazing? Certainly not, but it was solid, and it didn’t screw up all that came before it.
LS: It was okay. It worked. I’ve seen a lot worse movies.
MA: So, I’m going to recommend PANDORUM, but just barely. While visually it’s not all that exciting, I liked its story enough to overlook this flaw.
LS: I can live with that. It’s an entertaining movie, but nothing spectacular. I think you liked the movie more than I did, in some ways. But I think I liked the monsters more than you.
MA: There you have it. Okay, we’re done with the review. Can I have one of those meatball sandwiches now? I feel like I’ve been asleep for decades.
LS: Sorry, this was the last one. There’s no more food.
(CREATURES chuckle in the background)
CREATURE: That’s what you think!
MA: Um, are you referring to us?
(A bunch of CREATURES emerge from the darkness, drooling and licking their lips)
MA: I think it’s time we say so long and get out of here quick.
LS (Finishing last bite of sandwich): I hate to eat and run, but if we don’t (points to creatures) they will. Until next time, folks.
(MA and LS flee with CANNIBALISTIC CREATURES in pursuit)
© Copyright 2010 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares