Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pandorum

Until some studio bigwig decides to give John Carpenter the money to do it right, Pandorum (2009) is the closest we've got to a live-action Dead Space movie. Pandorum bares a number of striking parallels to the popular video games. A science fiction horror movie set on a desolate spaceship of the future, it features crew members moving through dark corridors, trying to avoid getting killed a horde of rampaging monsters, and battling the effects of madness. Also, the main character in both is trying to find his wife/girlfriend.

Pandorum comes packed with intriguing sci-fi ideas. It gazes upon such concepts as madness in space, how generations of people survive on a spaceship, how humanity will try to colonize planets in the future and make them livable, and what it would mean to among the last of the human race still and what that knowledge would do to you. Unfortunately, despite the richness of the material, the movie's execution leaves much to be desired, getting bogged down in the tired run-and-hide-from-the monsters instead of exploring its ideas.

The spaceship Elysium is on a mission to colonize the planet to help ease the dangerous overcrowding and resource depletion on Earth when the crew receives a startling message from home: "You're all that's left of us. Good luck, God bless, and godspeed." And then, silence.

Sometime later, Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Lt. Payton (Dennis Quaid) are woken out of cryo-sleep to discover most of the power on the Elysium is down. Because of how long they were out, they're suffering some amnesia, unable to remember their mission and some other details. Bower, with Payton guiding him by radio, maneuvers through the ship to reach the reactor to get everything back up and running. But there's a problem; a tribe of cannibalistic humanoid hunters have infested the ship, and Bower also has to worry Pandorum, a space-induced form of insanity that can drive a person to panic, irrationality, and even violence.

When the film focuses on the horror of space, Pandorum is effective. Space is vast and claustrophobic, and the movie understands that. Out there, all alone, there's nothing else around for infinity, and it's a sobering thought. Yet, being on a spaceship, a relatively small, tight area, is confining and panic-inducing. This best demonstrated in a scene illustrating a previous space mission disaster. As Quaid narrates, we see an insane crew member of another ship launch thousands of escape pods into the vastness of space, and in a wonderful long shot of the the ship, we see thousands of little specks shoot out in all directions. One flies right at the camera, and we get a good, solid look at the panicked, screaming occupant of what is essentially a glass coffin. It's a chilling sight but also strangely beautiful.

The production design of the film is also splendidly realized: dark corridors, vast chambers, and murky waste pits, very lived in and in parts decrepit. The characters are filthy, often covered in blood, slime, and grime. Even the props are cool, such as the anti-riot gun Bower wears on his wrist (shades of Samus Arun), and the various methods more normal survivors have adapted to life on this derelict ship is interesting, especially the one who balances protecting biological specimens and her own survival, which means eating an occasional grasshopper.

The problem with the film is its monsters or at least how they're filmed. They look mean and nasty and do all sorts of ghastly things to people, but their favorite pastime is eating them and sometime their own. One poor bastard wakes up out of cryo-sleep to be met by a horde of them. Unfortunately, they're not scary in the way they're filmed. Instead leaving them in the shadows or suggesting their presence, director Christian Alvart brings them out in the open and obscures with overly sped-up film and scenes that are edited too rapidly to follow. It's distracting, and it negates the threat of the killers because instead of being immersed in the action, we become aware we're watching it, and the effect is hokey. It doesn't help that the design of these creatures isn't particularly original either, resembling the possessed miners from John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars in how they attack.

I didn't particularly care about any of the characters, although Foster is solid in a rare non-psycho role, but his characterization is limited to being the hero and convenient flashbacks. Other characters are limited to mostly espousing exposition or acting bug-eyed weird. My beef is with the amnesia business. For the record, I hate amnesia as a storytelling device because the amnesic always is able to remember exactly what he or she needs to whenever it's needed; it always feels contrived, and Pandorum is no exception.

The insanity angle feels contrived, too. The notion of a spaceship full of people going insane is an interesting concept for a story, especially because they realize they have no outside authority to answer to anymore, but like the amnesia, it's only apparent when it's convenient, and like the creature scenes, it's filmed in a glaringly distracting style, all rapid cuts, awkward closeups, and sped-up action to underline the point.

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