I watched Pandorum (2009) a while back and took detailed notes in preparation for this article. So here it goes. To quote my wife, "this movie blew." Ha. I agree but also I loved Pandorum despite all of its defects. What it lacks in special effects and acting, it makes up for in storyline and awesomeness. Part of me wants to love it but the other half just can't take it seriously. At first I thought the aliens were cheesy, just humans with some spiky outfits, but then it comes out that they are in fact twisted mutant humans in space. Good save.
For a bad(ish) movie I actually had quite a bit of fun watching this one and analyzing its (lack of) deeper meaning. I think that it could have used better aliens. But overall, cool concept and a really cool spaceship set, of which we only get to see the inside of until the very end of the film. As for the screenplay, there were only a handful of ridiculous lines.
I would describe Pandorum as a free for all death match in an ancient-future civilization-like spaceship. The ship of course has blood thirsty mutant alien/human cannibals among other inhabitants. Of all the characters I think Manh is my favorite as the stoic stealth warrior, who buddies up with the protagonist, Bower. As they make their way to the reactor the two encounter bizarre characters and savage fallout creatures. I think that the twist at the end makes the film worth it overall. Without the twist I would have been sorely disappointed.
I wouldn't call Pandorum a deep film, but it does have a few metaphorical moments that we can read into. Humans are on a deep space exploration in an attempt save humanity, leaving a dying planet behind. This portion of the narrative can be seen as a political statement about our current rate of resource consumption. At the beginning of the film we find out that all life on earth is gone and the ship, Elysium, is humanities' only hope. Elysium is equipped with sixty thousand frozen humans and DNA samples of every species from earth. The ship is designed to adapt to support life on any planet. The preservation of life mission makes it a perfect biblical reference to Noah's Arc. Unfortunately the Arc plan backfires and the ship starts to adapt to life in the empty expanses of space, instead of on a habitable planet. I think my favorite concept in this film is the evolution of life to survive in space. As the ship floats for over 900 years, its inhabitants acclimate to nearly zero light and a steady diet of frozen astronaut. Further analysis positions Bower and Nadia's undernourished affection as the story of Adam and Eve. Although they don't even kiss, their body language and companionship does suggest an undercurrent of sexual tension. That's going to be needed of course to kickstart the human race once they reach their destination.
The themes in the film are great. "Space madness" is the primary motif and is depicted in both the primitive humans – who have reverted back to primal violence – as well as the space commander Payton's hallucinogenic episodes, where he fights Gallo, mentally and physically. We see flashbacks of Gallo contracting pandorum on Elysium, centuries ago. The pandorum sickness is a powerful space insanity, paranoia, and claustrophobia, that some individuals experience on long space voyages. Gallo's story is about a mad space corporal, lost in space, facing a failed mission. In his madness he awakens his sleeping passengers letting our species rapidly evolve into a broken race of mutated human cannibals. It could be extracted that Gallo's creation of this new race can be seen as a God metaphor, which he takes out literally on the inhabitants of the ship. As we find out that Gallo and Payton are both one and the same, we see Payton battling his inner demon, Gallo, the pandorum sick corporal. In the flashback he doomed his ship by ejecting escape pods with frozen humans, who have a zero percent chance of survival. The two personalities are like the two sides of a coin, representing God and Devil, good and evil. The good represented by the Payton half of the corporal who genuinely cares for the ship and its people. This is dramatized when Payton locks Gallo into a cryogen chamber. And the evil side is Gallo, the executioner who seeks only to destroy. But Gallo's character sees it differently. Not as a God metaphor but as a return to nature. He says, "God? You think God survived? He's dead. All gone with the rest of humanity. No law, no order, no good or evil, just us."
Overall this is a fast paced thrill ride for those of us that love outer space horror stories. Other than that it doesn't contain a ton of intellectual meat. Several sequences, and especially the Leland character, reminded me of bad consume design from an 80's apocalypse movie and bothered me with exaggerated B quality acting. I think this film could have been a lot better, but that said it could have been a lot worse. As I mentioned before, the irony and twist at the end give it a good comeback. Don't expect anything too amazing and the 108 minutes shouldn't be super painful. You may even like it as much as I did.
The Cinematography keeps things dynamic in Pandorum. There are lots of dark spooky shots. Very cool! Plus some creative camera angles and framing. The audience gets some good detailed closeups, but what we don't get is any wide open spaces. The sets and camerawork capture the characters mostly in small rooms and tight spaces, giving the movie a strong feeling of claustrophobia. If anything the cinematography does a good job in this respect – the audience feels like they are trapped on a spaceship throughout the film. Because of this I was relieved when I saw the final scene. Finally the characters get a breath of fresh air as we see the open skyline and partially submerged spaceship. This beginning of the final scene I think is my favorite visually. Great computer graphics on the spaceship, water, and coastline, but really, what's with that silly looking waterfall at the end. I've photoshopped better. I guess they were running really low on budget for the last 10 seconds of the film. Not too much more to blab about here except that I thought it was up to par for the film's requirements and did a good job complimenting the story and sets.
The aliens in Pandorum are much like, and a bit less scary than, the Lord of the Rings orcs (thought not so masterfully designed and implemented). The first few shots of bits and pieces of the aliens are pretty good and enticing. But then they give away the whole creature too soon and I was a little disappointed. Most of the character costumes are hit or miss, a few goods ones and a few cheesy ones. Other than that there are some cool epic fight scenes and some very cool sets. The labyrinth of space ship corridors and immense rooms is certainly my favorite part of the special effects. Elysium's interior is adequately detailed and well lit, featuring overwhelming dark spaces with dim blues and greens – contrasted by intense scenes of overwhelming white or red filtered light. The body Payton finds in the conduits (the body of Gallo) is especially gruesome. I did like the phosphorescent sea creatures at the end though. The special effects in this film aren't the only thing it has got going for it, but they do make up for some of its other short comings. I give them a solid C+ for effort.
The performances are up and down. I think Dennis Quaid does a very good job as Payton, especially in the end when he is struggling with his inner demon Gallo, played by Cam Giganet. Their character interaction is mind bending, and rightly so. Ben Foster does a solid job as Bower, keeping a consistent character throughout. Not much of note here otherwise. Cung Le is fun as Manh, probably because his character doesn't have to say anything. Antje Traue holds it down as Nadia, the amazon space warrior woman. As Nadia guides Bower through the wicked space biosphere we get to see some character development as she changes from seeing Bower as a handicap to helping him and becoming companions. The character traits are original but sometimes too over exaggerated. I thought Eddie Rouse's character Leland was a little weak. This is not completely due to his acting but from the character design overall; costume, personality, role, etc… All in all the acting was ok, not a gem but a fun ride.
Music is above satisfactory in the sense that it is super minimal. A splice between outer space sound design and subtle tension building horror tones. Michl Britsch does a good job keeping your attention away from the music, allowing it to fill your subconscious with background noise and ominous suspension. I think it does a great job of complimenting the film's environment because let's face it, space is quiet and scary.
Narrative Summary & Analysis
I'll try to be brief. Earth is out of resources. Everyone back home is dead and there is only one ship left to preserve humanity. The ship, Elysium, is in route to the planet Tanis to save humanity. Protagonist Bower awakens from cryogenic freezing, disoriented and confused. Payton wakes up and meets Bower equally confused as their "shift" doesn't start for years. They are unable to contact any of the ship and discovering a reactor problem that Bower somehow knows how to fix – though strangely he can't remember anything else. Bower seeks help, keeping in radio contact with Payton. Then Bower encounters crazy space cannibals living on the ship before getting blindsided by space ninja warrior Nadia. She threatens him but ultimately saves him from the cannibals. They wander through the ship a bit. Bower has a deep meaningful childhood flashback. Then Payton similarly has a deep meaningful space flashback about the pandorum sickness and how the insane corporal launched his passengers into oblivion to their deaths. Next up, meet Manh, the brutal warrior survivalist who saves Bower (man Bower needs a lot of help). Payton starts to go crazy. Bower and Nadia duke it out. They make up and then make a plan to try to fix the dying reactor. Nadia has a secret laboratory room where she is growing plants and frogs for food. Yum! Everyone has a nice meal. Payton discovers Gallo, a sticky shit covered mess of a man, in some conduit tubing (he is really going crazy by now). Bower, Nadia, and Manh battle the alien zombies only to be captured by Leland, who plans to eat them slowly, one at a time. But then they make friends and Leland tells them an epic legend about the original corporal, who we find out later is Gallo, and their neverending drift through endless space. Payton battles Gallo while the rest of the cast travels through cannibal infested territory trying to get to the reactor. After a narrow escape through an alien zombie nest they restart the reactor and make a quick getaway. Payton defeats Gallo in ruthless hand to hand combat but then the audience finds out that the two characters are one in the same. Bower gets his memory back and discovers that Payton is Gallo, the pandorum sick corporal that doomed the ship and the mission. Then the twist comes out and we discover from Payton/Gallo that the ship landed on Tanis years ago and has been sitting at the bottom of the ocean, dwelling in its own ruthless ecosystem with endless cycles of life feeding on life. Of curse this makes Gallo think he is a God but Bower fixes that by kicking his ass. Then the hull breaches and water floods in everywhere, Payton goes down with his ship, as any good captain (corporal) should, and Bower and Nadia shoot the the surface in an escape pod. Other escape pods can be seen landing in the water on a beautiful lush world. A new beginning, a clean slate, and a whole new world to F up. The end.