Tuesday, June 15, 2010

[Film Review] Pandorum

With a name like Pandorum, you can't help but wonder what the title refers to even before the movie begins. It's probably name of the ship, right? No, the ship is named Elysium, as the opening blocks of text inform the audience. Okay, well, there are obviously going to be monstrous baddies prowling the shadows, so maybe that's the name of their species? No, the creatures aren't ever given a name. A mysterious cargo of some kind? A computer virus that infected the ship's computers and caused them to fail? The corporation that funded the ship and probably isn't acting in the protagonists' best interests? Nope, nope and nope, respectively. We aren't forced to wait long to find out what exactly pandorum is, but it's so hard to believe once it's revealed, through a clumsy as-you-know-bob conversational infodump, that it seems like it must be the setup for a twist. Pandorum, you see, is Space Madness. It is, in fact, the very purest form of space madness, a potent blend of hallucinations and paranoia that inevitably leads its sufferers to murder their friends, all without any kind of cause or explanation. I was expecting one of the characters to begin gnawing on a bar of soap at any moment.

The story follows a pair of crew members who wake up from their hypersleep pods suffering from intense amnesia, unable to remember much more than their names and their training. The plot of the film consists of these two characters exploring the decaying confines of the ship, dredging up their memories of where they are and what they're supposed to be doing, and realizing just how hazardous the situation in which they've found themselves is. Aside from the amnesia, a reasonably clever device which allows the film to present information to the audience in a somewhat more palatable form than is often the case in sci-fi film, this is all stuff you've seen before if you're bothering to watch this movie. Where Pandorum manages to succeed is in using these well-worn elements to create a foundational springboard from which to launch its own ideas, which are new enough (in filmic form, anyway) to carry their own weight. Even the monsters on the ship are eventually given a better reason to exist than those in Alien ("make a guess, because we're not going to tell you") or Event Horizon ("magic!"), the two most obvious precursors to what's on offer here.

The creatures here are look a lot like the genestealer hybrids from the Warhammer 40,000verse, with a light sprinkling of some elements from Giger's designs for the xenomorph in Alien. They look rather silly once they're shown fully illuminated, but the film is smart enough to keep them out of plain sight for as long as possible, presenting them instead as disturbingly off-kilter silhouettes moving through shadow and half-light. In spite of their somewhat unimpressive looks, there's a definite sense of visceral menace to them, a deadliness made all the more potent by the tight confines and poorly lit environments in which they and their prey are trapped.

The scenes of the monsters chasing our protagonists are effective in building a sense of tension and danger, but ultimately the creatures' deadliness creates some issues of believability. Without venturing too deeply into spoiler territory, there are other survivors hiding in the depths of the ship (which shouldn't come as much surprise since there are always other survivors hiding in the depths of the ship in this kind of story). What's problematic is that the creatures hunting those survivors are so lethal and outnumber the humans so greatly, and the survivors are so poorly equipped to deal with them, that it's difficult to believe that these people could have survived for any appreciable length of time.

These and a few other niggling concerns regarding the worldbuilding are just nitpicks, though, as the explanations behind what's actually going on in the ship, why the monsters are there and where they've come from, and why all the major characters are afflicted with omnipresent amnesia are surprisingly solid. The final act of the film is the strongest, as multiple revelations follow each other in quick succession, upping the stakes for the characters involved and broadening the scope from the standard question of who will survive and what will be left of them into something more profound. Pandorum even manages to pull off the difficult trick of using the obvious reveal of what seems to be at stake, which is given away during the first scene, to obfuscate the most important piece of information, which the film keeps squirreled away until its climax.

The score of Pandorum is well-composed, if mostly uninspired and generic. There are bits of it which sound a lot like the faux-metal of Clint Mansell's compositions for the Doom film score, and other cues which tend toward the abstract electronic minor-key soundscapes found in a lot of recent horror films. What's funny about the score isn't the music itself, which holds up well enough outside the context of the movie, but the way it's used in the film. It almost seems as though whoever edited the score into the movie wasn't paying any attention to what was happening onscreen at any given time, as there are quite a few loud action cues which play during moments of sneaky exploration and quiet conversation. As early as the camera crawl over the exterior of the ship which opens the film, the music begins pounding away in spite of a lack of any exciting action onscreen. It's probable that the editors were attempting to add a sense of urgency to the more restrained sequences of the film, but these moments of disconnect between image and sound come across as the filmmakers trying just a bit too hard.

That sums up the film quite well, actually: it's better than it has any right to be, and mostly succeeds in spite of hewing slightly too closely to its influences and being a bit impaired by too much earnestness, though it doesn't quite manage to achieve the genius of its forebears. I've got high hopes that the folks behind this movie will hone their craft with a bit of time, though, and will definitely be keeping an eye on any future projects they're involved in.

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