Pandorum, directed by Christian Alvart, is the latest telling of a sci-fi soap-opera. Two sole men wake up aboard an enormous spacecraft with no recollection of their mission, and even littler knowledge as to where the rest of the crew went. As it plays out, Pandorum feels more like a video game than a film, as it provides exhilarating action sequences and skilled camera work, but lacks on character development and dialogue.
The film starts with a timeline of humankind’s landmarks in space exploration with the corresponding population of the earth. The last date is 2174, the year our protagonists’ ship is sent out into space; earth’s population is more than 20 billion.
In this early scene, space is humankind’s refuge, our chance to start anew. Space, despite its ominous presence, is a lifeline. Throughout the rest of the film, Alvart and screenwriter Travis Milloy upend this ideology, proving to a horrific measure how unforgiving space can be and how much we should cherish the place we are.
Pandorum exhibits a plethora of innate human fears, each of which space and the spacecraft, which serves as the film’s only physical setting for nearly the entirety, prey upon throughout the film.
Viewers are tossed quickly into the nightmarish fray, as Bower (Ben Foster), our protagonist, violently wakes out of cryo-sleep half-covered in ice. He screams wildly in vein as the camera pulls away from his frozen pod to reveal only darkness.
This is an early example of Alvart’s ability to relay a feeling of terror; he does not back us into the experience, he plunges in.
A key component to horror film making is setting a tone, and Pandorum does this well. The combination of freezing temperatures, still darkness and silence warn audiences of one thing: lifelessness.
Viewers are not called upon to simply watch these opening events take place, but we are forced to live them. The camera’s sporadic movement inside the pod as Bower struggles to escape lends to a sense of panic, a subjectivity that will remain throughout the film.
Soon Bower is released and helps one more crew member, Payton (Dennis Quaid), Bower’s commanding officer, wake up. The rest of the film follows Bower as he journeys through the ship in search of the engine room, where the ship’s reactor must be manually reset in order to avoid certain death.
Along with isolation, Alvart introduces claustrophobia in an early scene in which Bower crawls through the ship’s vents. This incremental introduction of challenges and terrors is simple, but effective.
As the vent becomes tighter and tighter, darker and darker, Bower begins to panic once more. His claustrophobia becomes the audience’s, as the camera is pushed in on by piping and darkness.
With only the threat of a cold room and a tight squeeze, these two opening sequences illustrate how simple it is to instill a sense of horror through film making; this opening is a refreshing reminder that film can create horror as long an ideology of fear is present.
The rest of the film, I’m disappointed to say, does not continue along the same path as it starts. Following the two opening sequences, much of the horror comes from freakish, humanoid monsters that hunt Bower.
Adding monsters to an already frightening experience only dulls the suspense the film works to achieve in the first place. As Bower and company run away from and do battle with the beasties, it felt strange to not be holding a controller in my hand.
One particular scene near the end of the film is laughable in how close it resembles a video game in pacing and composition.
Developed as the leader of the monsters, the strongest creature corners one of Bower’s friends who finds himself unarmed. In the classic “boss battle” format, the two square off head-to-head from opposite sides of the shot (think Mortal Kombat) … but not before the monster throws his foe a weapon, as a true gentleman should.
The overall story arc is underdeveloped and poorly delivered, but remains to hold on to viewers’ attentions to the very end—an end that is halfway unique and halfway predictable, but, oddly, wholly satisfying.
Pandorum will not be the sleeper hit of the year that it very well could have been, given a less central reliance on cliché sci-fi monsters and more character background and development. However, for those seeking cheap thrills with an attempted backbone, you can’t go wrong.