Watching Pandorum feels a lot like playing a first-person shooter; fittingly enough, it’s produced by the guys that brought you the Resident Evil films. The effect is initially quite compelling. The viewer follows Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) through the dark depths of the spacecraft Elysium, the film’s lighting and pacing creating a disturbing atmosphere of confusion and paranoia that keeps both Bower and his audience on their toes.
As Bower explores the seemingly abandoned ship in an effort to discover what has become of its crew and its mission, we have little but Bower’s glowstick to lead the way. Shrouded in darkness, the brief glimpses of unidentifiable creatures – and perhaps more so, the very few glimpses – contribute to a disorienting, oddly engaging deferral of knowledge and action. Unfortunately, after the reveal and the action commence, Pandorum amounts to little more than a RPG dungeon crawl, lacking even the audience investment that a video game by its nature requires. It feels like no one is playing these 2D characters; they simply wander about the film aimlessly, trapped in a lackluster plot that has no real direction or reward.
The setup of Pandorum truly is promising, however. Flight crew member Bower wakes from hyper-sleep aboard the Elysium, disoriented and alone with no memory of who he is, why he’s there or where the ship is heading. His memories return to him in fits and starts throughout the film, placing us in the dark along with him right from the beginning. With much of the ship’s power out, Bower emerges from his cramped suspended animation chamber into stifling literal dark and stillness, and Pandorum effectively introduces an atmosphere of claustrophobia and anxiety, binding the audience to Bower and his unsettling surroundings.
Bower’s discovery of Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid), awoken shortly after the corporal and similarly at a loss, provides little illumination. Between the two of them, they very slowly piece together that they are aboard a sleeper ship from Earth sent on a 123-year journey to the planet Tanis in order to create a new human settlement. Not everyone should be asleep, however, and bodies are, in fact, missing from their hypersleep chambers. Teams are meant to awake in shifts; the team that Bower and Payton are assigned to relieve is nowhere to be found, and the two men are unable to enter or contact the bridge. Bower sets off to explore the ship in search of answers, only to find the Elysium is not as deserted as it first seemed.
The glimpses of the ship that Bower and thus the audience are allotted reveal a dark and gritty interior, more reminiscent of an abandoned steampunk factory than the state-of-the-art, antiseptic polish of, say, the Enterprise. The Elysium is neither teeming with life and activity nor a visual buffet of advanced technology. The entire craft is essentially a cargo ship, transporting 60,000 bodies in stasis – practically non-sentient cargo – to their destination. Cables, wires and dark metal beams run everywhere; everything is in shadow and the grime of disuse and abuse.
The stark economy of what the film actually allows us to see is, in fact, one of the more effective aspects of Pandorum, furthering Bower’s sense of overwhelming disquiet: What has happened? Where am I? What can’t I see? What might be hiding? What can see me? Bower journeys through air vents and cramped hallways, finding nothing, reporting back by radio to a Payton that is similarly coming up empty-handed. Bower’s unrevealing exploration of the ship may go on a bit longer than is necessary or entertaining, yet the initial deferral of any sort of discovery demands that we inhabit Bower’s psychological space, even as the itch to be free of it ceases to be central to the film’s mood and becomes simply aggravating. This setup is at once one of the more compelling elements of the film and the first symptom of its failings: it’s slow. There is little action or development, and what exists is predictable and unsatisfying.
Eventually the ship’s population introduces itself, but only in quick flashes of movement, enough to recognize the occupants as not human. Once again Bower’s glowstick serves the film well, simultaneously delivering bursts of adrenaline in the sudden, stuttering images of the creatures – a metallic spike here, a stretch of too-pallid skin there, the creatures themselves equipped with startling speed – as well as suspense in the denial of the full disclosure of their appearance. Though we see or know little of the creatures, we gather with Bower that they seem to have free reign of the ship.
The first human Bower spots is dangling from a pulley system, seemingly hanged, prey in a spiderweb of machinery that befits the metallic skittering of the creatures. The position is a ruse, however, Norman Reedus’s Shephard working to evade the enemy. Reedus’s appearance is perhaps the shortest and most stirring in the film. His unwillingness to actively aid Bower in favor of his own survival rings disturbingly true, and we and Bower realize the gravity of the situation and Shephard’s desperation as we watch him cover himself in what appears to be blood and bits of flesh from the creatures in order to disguise his scent; unfortunately, our first real look at the creatures serves to kill his character off all too soon.
The creatures in all of their glory are ruthless, devouring Shepard in a scene that will surely satisfy the gore fans in the audiences, though unfortunately it won’t satiate them for the rest of the film, as there is little other real action. Through radio conversations with Payton and the acquaintance of a few other surviving humans, Bower learns that the creatures are, in fact, human, or were once. The standard Aliens plot of being hunted on your own ship is subverted and resuscitated somewhat in this discovery.
Pandorum unfolds a sort of reverse origin story, revealing its namesake and the ship’s purpose almost three-fourths into the film (and perhaps a fourth too late). Earth, on the brink of destruction, had sent the Elysium to carry on the human race on the Earth-like planet Tanis. The bulk of the inhabitants were placed in hyper-sleep, a state of suspended animation allowing their bodies to survive the 123-year journey, with teams necessary to run the ship woken up in shifts.
One of the crew members on shift, a Lieutenant Gallo, began to exhibit signs of Pandorum, a psychological condition acquired from extended periods of space travel and hyper-sleep, resulting in paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, and homicidal tendencies. Upon news that Earth had been obliterated and the occupants of the Elysium were the only remaining hope for humanity, he snapped, killed his bridge crewmates, and released many of the hyper-sleep pods into space.
In an attempt at regaining control, amusing himself, and playing God, Gallo awoke other passengers suddenly from hyper-sleep to torture as he pleased, putting himself back into suspended animation when he grew bored while leaving the survivors to roam the ship without guidance. All of the passengers had been injected with a chemical intended to help them quickly adapt to some of the differences on their new planet; waking unexpectedly on the ship and remaining in that environment, however, caused some of the inhabitants to instead adapt to the ship, creating the creatures Bower encountered.
In a rather inventive development, their bodies adapted to the mechanical environment around them, acquiring superior speed and strength and adopting armor and weapons from the very materials of the ship itself, trapping their victims in hook and pulley systems. The feeding tubes and chemicals of the hyper-sleep pods abandoned, the creatures were left with the human passengers to hunt, turning the ship into a savage wilderness.
Unfortunately, this does not account for the heavy-handed characterization of the passengers Bower meets. The remaining humans have become warriors, likewise adapting the ship to their defense and survival, but they function primarily as racial and gendered stereotypes: Vietnamese Manh (Cung Le) speaks no English, serving only as Bower’s muscle. Nadia (Antje Trau), who had been a part of the science crew whereas Manh had been a member of agriculture, is allowed to speak, balancing her physical strength with a heavy accent seemingly existing only for sex appeal.
The two serve as little more than Bower’s party members in a standard RPG – which, in fact, much of the movie’s progression (or lackthereof) comes to resemble: fighting, predictable plot reveals, fighting, relentless searching through the labyrinth of the ship in order to complete the final quest (in this case, reset the reactor before the ship explodes – here the film veers away from some original premises and begins to feel all too familiar. The plot reveals – the nature of the creatures, the identity of Lt. Gallo – are delivered by a witch doctor-esque character named Leland, a human survivor and cannibal that speaks in riddles and produces the equivalent of cave drawings on the ship’s walls in order to record the Elysium’s history.
One of the major problems with the film is that the two leads barely interact, and when they do, there is no chemistry – Bower and Payton’s developing antagonism isn’t developed, but is stilted and forced, demanding no emotional involvement or investment from the audience. Payton’s discovery of another crew member, played by Twilight’s Cam Gigandet, leads to some highly lackluster performances from both actors, with the great reveal regarding their relationship to each other coming as little surprise and even less concern, as their characters have been secluded from the bulk of the film’s plot and action, seemingly having no relevance and providing no real connection to the audience.
Quaid in particular disappoints; he seems as puzzled and reluctant to be in the film as his character. Foster’s performance has its moments, his stoic acceptance of his situation at turns believable and boring; the emotional resonance and life of the film is as barren as the ship’s makeup – the characters function, like the cargo, to move the plot along, though it seems more as though the plot moves them along – the comparison to a video game is all too apt, though the action is less exciting. The self-destruction of Earth from centuries of abuse and the Elysium’s mission to create a new Eden on Tanis reek of a heavy-handed environmentalist agenda, the bulk of the characters are two dimensional, and the climax of the film is the kind of plot-twist that has felt like a cheat ever since The Sixth Sense.
The special features are, in fact, more interesting than many moments of the movie itself. While the deleted and alternate scenes add very little to the experience, the behind-the-scenes featurette, “The World of Elysium” provides commentary on the film’s premise and goals that highlight its initial display of originality; ultimately, though, it serves to highlight the disjuncture between Pandorum’s potential and what it actually achieves. The featurette examines in detail the creation of the set and the creatures, built primarily by hand with little CGI. Though the adapted humans bear a striking resemblance to the creatures from The Descent, the choreography behind their movements and the effort put into their creation are worth viewing.
There are two video tie-ins to the film – “What Happened to Nadia’s Team” and the “Flight Team Training Video”, both of which provide further insight into the world of the Elysium. The former is a video diary conducted by the members of Nadia’s science team, chronicling the first experiences with the creatures in their early adaptation, ending in their deaths and Nadia’s survivalist lifestyle. The acting is stilted, much like a made-for-TV special, but the background itself does prove interesting.
More enjoyable is the training video, created for the likes of Payton, Gallo, and Bower to view before embarking on the mission. It delivers a history of space travel, including clips of Buzz Aldrin’s spacewalk as well as fictionalized future milestones, including satellite exploration of the planet Tanis. In both videos there is an emphasis upon the human-inflicted deterioration of Earth, with the science crew placing the preserving of the plantlife transported to Tanis over their own lives and the space history emphasizing a future requiring offworld colonization. Again, the message is heavy-handed, but the flight video in particular is an enjoyable viewing experience.
Event Horizon. The Descent. Pitch Black. If you’ve seen them, you’ve seen Pandorum. If you’ve seen Alien, you’ve seen all four of them. In its totality, Pandorum is little more than a compilation of similarly derivative sci-fi horror films. In this genre, that’s not automatically a death sentence, and Pandorum does, in fact, offer a few unique spins on the standard terror-in-space, creepy mysterious creatures plot. Unfortunately, they’re only passing ideas that are never fully executed, overwhelmed by a string of clichés and some rather inexplicable, inadequate character and narrative choices. The film trades an initially compelling disorientation and disquiet for cheap jumps and noises in a similarly jumpy, overdone plot.