Film Review: Pandorum
Director: Christian Alvert (2009)
My Prometheus review can’t have been read by more than a couple of people, (hi Mum and Dad!), yet there was some unexpected feedback. For the first time ever in my life, I stand accused of being too generous to a film; ‘I understand your desire for intelligent sci-fi’, the emailer began, probably with a snicker, ‘but Prometheus was awful! I mean seriously awful; the plot holes, the bad acting, the poor incorporation of the Alien franchise, they all equal awful. It’s a film so awful it almost deserves the unfathomable misogynistic abuse that anyone not named Anita Sarkeesian can’t relate to, it’s just awful Sam, it’s Awful!’, (if you don’t get the reference, google Anita Sarkeesian and prepare to hate men), ‘Besides, there’s actually been some good, intelligent sci-fi in the last few years’.
‘Like what?’ I enquired……….handsomely.
‘Like Pandorum’ they trumpeted.
‘Never heard of it’ I responded………….handsomely
‘Oh man, it was this great little Sci-fi with Dennis Quaid, really good film, you should review it!’ The excitable person whose email I’m exaggerating to unprecedented levels, continued.
‘Nah, my next review is going to be Rise of the Footsoldier’ I explained…………. Even more handsomely
‘Rise of the Footsoldier, but that’s not even Sci-Fi…………..and a bit crap!’ The emailer sort of but didn’t really say.
‘I know, but I couldn’t help enjoying it and I reckon I need to do a review to understand why!’ I elucidated (Thank you word a day calendar)……………. Handsomely
‘What happened to you man? You used to be the most hate-filled, anti-generic-film reviewer whom no one reads, ever, but ever since you reviewed Battleship you’ve become just another one of those guys who likes bad films, you’ve become so cliché and uncool. In fact you know what, I hate you, I want you to know, I hate you, from now on, no matter what you do, I’m email guy, and I hate you’
‘I know man, I know’ I sorrowfully replied, hanging my head in shame………… and under the weight of my own handsome.
The next day I decided to copy all the cool people I know and join Netflix, which for the record, doesn’t have half the range it thinks it does, unless you live in America. I filled in one of those ‘what do you like’, ‘rate different genres out of five because interest is definitely something that can be expressed numerically’ things, and lo, the first film it recommended, Pandorum. ‘Aha’, thought I, ‘a chance to be cool’. Well you know what? I watched the damn thing, and if Pandorum is what’s cool, then once again it’s time for me to admit I’ve never been cool, you hear that email guy and to a further extent that world at large, I’ve never been cool.
Right, so Pandorum is a sci-fi ‘thriller’, starring Dennis Quaid (the thinking man’s Chuck Norris), and the guy who played the crazy dude in the jail cell in 30 Days of Night, Ben Foster, a sentence which should indicate; it’s plot summary time…………
It’s the future, and once again it’s a miserable future, somewhere in the dark dark recesses of dark dark space, flies a dark dark space spaceship called Elysium, whose dark dark mission is to populate a newly discovered dark dark planet named Tanis. On the dark dark spaceship Elysium is a dark dark room, in the dark dark room are some dark dark hypersleep capsules, and in the dark dark hypersleep capsules two crew members sleep………..
One of the crew members is Corporal Bower, (Ben Foster) who’s awoken by screeching alarms to discover he’s covered in goo and weird electrodes. Escaping the capsule, he finds he’s not alone, next door sleeps Lieutenant Payton (Quaid). Helpfully there’s a locker with his name on it, and there’s a tattoo on his arm with roughly a dozen numbers, the first number, is 5, which tells him he’s from crew 5, the other numbers are never explained, and don’t seem to mean a hell of a lot. Next Payton escapes from his own capsule, and discovers he too, has tattooed numbers and a locker.
It’s a good thing the lockers have their names on, because, and I’m not lying about this, hypersleep in Pandorum gives you long lasting amnesia, considering Elysium’s mission is something as delicate as populating a distant planet, that’s a pretty big design floor (you could at least leave a note, explaining things for people to wake upto!), almost as big as the control panel in the middle of the room. Said control panel contains just enough information to reveal the MacGuffin that the ships reactor needs repairing, but absolutely nothing else of consequence, it doesn’t, for instance, have the time or date on its display screen, which, considering the first people to use it will have amnesia, is pretty ill-thought-out. It does have a wheel that can be turned to power it up, which Foster had ‘forgotten about’ (a plot device that you don’t have to be a genius to realise is used a lot in Pandorum), but luckily Payton remembered and wound it up. It’s also a poor control panel, because it can’t even open the massive door in the room, so what exactly it controls is anyone’s guess. Since Payton was the one who remembered the control panel, or maybe just because of rank, Bower draws the short straw and has to crawl through some vents to find a way out of the room and fix the damaged generator.
There was a bit I liked in the opening involving a third capsule with a name on it, some scratches on the massive door in the room, like someone had already woken up and tried to get out. I was ready for an interesting introduction of a third crew member, but the film revealed the crew member had died falling down a massive vent shaft. This was revealed by having Bower fall down the same shaft, (he falls over a lot in this film, making a weird open mouthed expression whenever he does, an expression that’s somewhere between shock and orgasm). Bower easily escapes the shaft however, despite landing on his face, so the third crew member, whom I’ve decided to name Private Fragment Eight, because a) he or she is never mentioned again, and b) he or she should have a name as useless as their contribution as a crew member was, died in a situation Bower easily escaped from. So far, I’m not impressed with recruitment criteria in the future, that or maybe hypersleep morphs you into a sort of amnesic chuckle brother.
What follows is the first of a recurring motif in Pandorum, I’ll call it the ‘Payton sits quietly,,,,,,,,,,,,, and now back to Bower` motif. Bower escapes the shaft and finds himself in a boot locker, Payton decides a footlocker escape is the perfect time to declare ‘there is no rescue’, which is a hell of an assumption to make, considering he doesn’t even know how long he was in hypersleep. Falling out the boot locker (and onto his face), Bower makes his way through the ship using a glowing blue rave stick for light. He finds a guy strung up by his legs and a bedraggled woman later revealed to be named Nadia (Antje Traue, who speaks English a hell of a lot better than I speak German). Nadia has a big knife and poor social skills, that’s about everything you’ll ever find out about her of consequence, so sorry if that should be a spoiler alert. Suddenly, a rumbling begins, an odd growl echoes around the corridor and the body in the rope trap is hoisted up into the heavens. In it’s place appear things that, for want of a better description, I’m naming future versions of the deformed dude in 300, except these have spikes on their back. The 300 offspring chase Bower back into the boot locker. Bravely hiding until the monsters flee, Bower escapes the boot locker, again (back onto his face), and suddenly remembers that back on earth he had a wife.
Bower joins Payton in the game of assumptions, by declaring his wife is alive and he needs to find her, ‘before these animals do’, which I have to admit, makes a nice, if slightly nonsensical new MacGuffin. Then he changes his mind and goes back to fixing the reactor, announcing that the reactor only has a few hours before it explodes, which itself is a nice assumption, because it gives Payton something to fret about during the scenes where he sits there doing nothing. Also, Bower finds a ‘none-lethal’ energy firing glove that basically does nothing, but occasionally gets used during actions scene for a nice blue orb effect, I’ll call it the Payton glove.
What follows can only really be described as a two-way game of ‘who can be the biggest moron’; in the blue corner is Payton, who doesn’t question anything Bower tells him, such as how the ship became infested by spikey, deformed, dude from 300 offspring, doesn’t blink an eye-lid at a wounded soldier, Corporal Gallo (Cam Gigadent) suddenly crawling out the vents into the supposedly sealed off room, ignores the fact Corporal Gallo has gone insane, converses with Gallo even after Gallo admits he killed his crewmates because ‘they were insane’, and allows Gallo to stand behind him, mocking him, while he sits trying to do nothing. He does this, despite Gallo showing every established symptom of a condition called Pandorum, which I’ll demystify later.
In the red corner is Bower; he gets things off to a flying start by wilfully allowing another crew member caught in a 300 offspring trap to die. He then, after being saved by a very capable fighter named Manh (UFC’s Cung Le), insists the capable fighter with the sword ‘stay’s here’, while he explores, despite Manh apparently knowing his shit, and Bower having zero knowledge of what’s going on. Following up, Bower declares ‘we have to get these doors unlocked’, despite it being fairly clear behind said doors are a unidentifiable number of 300 offspring. Also, and this isn’t really an assumption, but not once does he look for a better weapon than his ineffectual ‘Payton glove’. The competition ends in a draw, when the film it-self runs down to the ring and hits both competitors over the head with a steel chair, then, as they lay there, hits itself in the head, several times.
I really liked the beginning of Pandorum, it was tight, slow and claustrophobic, very little was revealed, and the amnesia plot line, while slightly lazy, meant that everything could be revealed at a good pace, maybe with a twist at the end, (more on that later). About the time Bower fell out the boot-locker, everything went a bit 28 Days later, but it looked good (they filmed using a RED ONE camera, which is to a cameraperson what Angelina Jolie is to a porn addict). There was a weird moment where they had a guy cover himself in mud ala Predator, then get killed quickly, but apart from that, it still seemed ok. Then the fighting team of Bower, Manh and Nadia became the order of the day and everything went a bit Alien resurrection (NEVER a good thing). From that point there was pretty much nothing to do but wait for one of them to die and watch every scene following the formula; run, stab something, occasionally that thing dies, occasionally it doesn’t, either way run again and stab the next thing.
‘Ok, it’s become a massive big dumb sci-fi cliché, but there’s still the Payton/Gallo thing’ thought I, ‘they’re clearly building up to something, and besides, at least they avoided being so clichéd as to have a token black g…………….oh’.
See, just as I thought that, guess what appeared from over the hills and faraway, that’s right, the one black guy in this movie, tricky Leland (Eddie Rouse). Oh that reminds me, can you add ‘willingly accepts and unquestioningly drinks a drink from the obviously crazy cannibal’ to Bower’s list of stupid things he’s done. The entire section with Leland is weird, because from design, to execution, to events, it’s a microcosm for the story of Benny in Total Recall (Good version, not the new unnecessary one, replace that with old version, not the new awesome one if hell freezes over and the Recall make-up inexplicably ends up being good, I’m not bothering with it), except instead of Arnie yelling screw you, it’s the film, and it’s yelling it to the audience. (Leland’s death does involve a screw-though, which is a nice if obvious touch). Finally there’s the massive plot-hole; when the trio do reach the reactor; turns out that’s where the deformed dude from 300 offspring have made their nest there, which would make sense, if we hadn’t been told how inaccessible the reactor was. I could live with it being infested, but Pandorum made every effort to show how locked down the reactor was and how impossible it was to reach. But that’s exactly what it wants me to believe the deformed dude from 300 offspring did, so the only explanation that could possibly fly, is that there were two, separate colonies of mutants, one which got locked in with the reactor, and then just lay around, not eating or killing each other for food until Bower got there for an unnecessary (a word that one should associate with Pandorum a lot) scene.
Right, plot summary kind of ends there, so there are two things left to do, the first is to explain Pandorum, the second is a brief rant about the incorporation of twists.
Pandorum (that’s the film) makes this big thing about a condition called Pandorum, I’m guessing because that way, the film’s makers had an excuse to name their film Pandorum and not Elysium (You can’t have deformed dude from 300 offspring and stabbing in a film called Elysium). The idea’s that in space, there’s a risk you’ll go crazy and start thinking everyone else is crazy and trying to kill them. It’s basically cabin fever, there, that’s as much depth as the film ever allows the topic it named itself after to have, I guess with all the deformed dude from 300 stabbing and Payton sitting in one place fretting, there just wasn’t time.
And now onto twists, forgive me, because this bit might get a little theoretical (and none existent god help you, has this been a long review). A twist is a brilliant device; I love films that have big twists at the end, as long as the twist makes sense (see Fight club, Sixth Sense etc). The problem is, twists, especially end plot twists, take a hell of a lot to incorporate into a story, they require build in prior scenes, time to develop, and they need to fit the story. They’re a hard thing to get right, and over recent years, have become so expected, that films will run around and try everything to convince the audience they’ve had a twist, because ‘that’s what you like’ (See the SAW films; which haven’t had a proper twist since the second film, and a good one since the first). The incorporation of so many ‘twists’, in so many films, have left an audiences much less trusting, and much more able to see a twist coming. Some films have exploited this, creating fake hints, in order to confuse an audience, and ensure that twists still have impact (Shutter Island, pretty much every season of Breaking Bad, which isn’t a film, but is awesome!).
Pandorum is a good example of film-makers who don’t really understand any of that, from about half an hour in, they basically say there’s going to be a plot twist, and then spend as much dialogue as they can (while keeping room for the whole stabbing, run, stab again routine), to remind you there’s going to be a twist. Then at the end, well there’re three twists, two don’t make any real sense, and the one does that does you’ll see coming a mile off. It’s a poor attempt, and ends up being wasted time, which is something Pandorum is good at. I’m not going to spoil the twist(s), but I am going to post a quote from one of my favourite Futurama episodes.
Leela: ”Five thousand feet!”
Farnsworth: ”Dear Lord! That’s over one hundred and fifty athmospheres of pressure.”
Fry: ”How many athmospheres can the ship withstand?”
Farnsworth: ”Well, it’s a space ship. So I’d say anywhere between zero and one.”
Conclusion time; and this has gone on epically, so I’ll be brief, Prometheus was a floored film that tried to tell a clever story, it got the characterisation wrong, but it’s themes right. Pandorum is as equally floored a film, but instead of trying to be clever, it assumes it is, and ends up being incredibly dumb, with very little effort. If they were people, Prometheus would be a floored genius, Pandorum is a dumb guy who thinks he’s smart because he has a word a day calendar and a website where he writes long-winded, self-indulgent, unedited film reviews………… take that email guy!
Written by Sam ‘Often wakes up covered in goo and electrodes with no memory of how this came to be’ McKinstrie
Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP
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