Where would we be without Alien?
We see the imprint of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece on nearly every sci-fi film made after it: the lived-in space trawlers, the dank interiors, the miles and miles of pipe-lined corridors that empty out into football stadium-sized hangers festooned with chains and dripping gallons of black water. Alien took the clean design of 2001 and Star Wars and gave us the industrial version; literally junking things up and making them feel that much more real. It was the perfect habitat for this stowaway monster and shifted science fiction into the realm of horror like no one had before.
Pandorum follows Scott’s Alien blueprint to a T but turns things up to 11. We have the dark corridors, but here they’re tight, claustrophobic. We have the empty hangers, but here they crawl with an army of pale-skinned creatures. Rather than charting the course of space ‘truckers’ and their humdrum day-to-day existence, Pandorum assumes (rightly) that we already know how dreary it would be on a giant spaceship drifting through eternity. Instead, the emphasis is on the horror of being trapped in a can (however gigantic) with no way out.
The film opens with a literal bang. Corporal Bower (Ben Foster, 30 Days of Night) crashes out of his ‘hypersleep’ chamber to find himself locked in a room aboard a nightmarish spaceship. The power’s off, the ship is shaking itself apart. Worst of all, Bower has no idea where he is or why he’s there. After waking his Lieutenant, Payton (Dennis Quaid), Bower climbs into a ventilation shaft to find an exit and in doing so stumbles into a surreal scene: He and Payton aren’t alone, there are other survivors, and the ship is crawling with monsters. The pieces of the puzzle come together slowly, just as Bower’s memory returns in fits and starts: They’re on the future equivalent of Noah’s Ark with all of humanity sleeping in the hold, Bower and Payton are the flight crew, and something went horribly awry. Either the monsters got on board or, well, if you’ve read enough H. P. Lovecraft you can figure it out.
While the film’s central conceit is nothing short of outrageous, almost laughably daring, the execution is top notch. Director Christian Alvart (Antibodies) rarely lets the intensity flag, every corner hides some new, twitching threat; it isn’t enough that the ship’s been overrun, but the reactor’s going to blow as well. Bower is a no-nonsense man of action, barreling through roadblocks, squeezing through pipes, enduring bites, stabs, slashes, flames, and wading through grease, muck, and gore. Take the battle scenes from Braveheart, place them aboard the Nostromo (Alien), dress it in Dawn of the Dead-styled violence, and voila.
Headliner Dennis Quaid, bearded and haggard, spends nearly the whole film stuck in one room before emerging in a neat finale. Ben Foster sets his teeth to grind and tackles his role the way a linebacker would: Don’t talk, just smash. The cinematography by DP Wedigo von Schultzendorff (Igby Goes Down) brilliantly captures the environment. The blacks are darker than the spaces between stars, and when there are colors, they startle in their neon brightness. Where the film is hobbled is in the dialogue. Co-scripted by Travis Milloy and Alvart, there is a heavy reliance on dropping the f-bomb to ratchet up the tension and it’s simply ineffective. Bower and Payton speak like 20th century beat cops, not 22nd century pilots. Then again, Milloy did write a film titled Thugs.
Though similar to the low-budget Eden Log, Pandorum is fiercely loyal to its outrageous plot twist. Information is held back to almost ridiculous extremes. And when the final revelation is spelled out it’s not so much of an a-ha moment as it is a brief respite from the adrenalin rush of chaos.
The DVD includes making-of featurettes and deleted scenes.
Get up, Bower.