"I'll just get my gear."

Pandorum

I remember the sci-fi/horror movie PANDORUM coming out – I thought it was more recent than 2009, but that’s how it goes – and I don’t think I heard anything good about it. It was not something that was on my list to see until I found out Cung Le was in it, and then it still took me years to get to it. But now I can report that, though certainly not perfect, this is a very interesting space movie with lots of cool ideas. It’s in English with a decent budget and stars Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid, but director Christian Alvart is the German guy who did the serial killer movie ANTIBODIES. So it’s gonna be a little more off-kilter than most movies produced by Paul W.S.Anderson.

It has some overlap with what I call the Space Loneliness movies, because it’s about some people waking up from hypersleep during a 123 year interstellar trip. It’s different, though, because they’re not just the small crew of one ship like DARK STAR, ALIEN, BLOOD MACHINES, etc. The Elysium is built to carry much of the earth’s population to a new home on the planet Tanis, so it’s enormous, and when they run into other people they’ve never met them before.

The events kick off when Bower (Ben Foster, who had done 3:10 TO YUMA and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and was about to do THE MECHANIC) wakes up. A cut from inside the chamber, where he’s screaming and jerking around like a maniac, to just outside the window, where we can’t hear him at all, quickly illustrates his helplessness. He manages to get out, only to find that he’s still locked within a few rooms. He tries to smash through the doors and can’t be heard outside of those either.

To his relief, his Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid between G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA and LEGION, before FOOTLOOSE) soon wakes up. Together they try to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing here. They piece together things from the names on their uniforms, team names on tattoos, fragments of memories. Bower is thrilled and amazed when Payton remembers how to power up the computer. I really like the gimmick that hypersleep is known to make you forget things and it takes a while to readjust. So there’s this noir-ish amnesia mystery built into a sci-fi premise. There’s also the titular space disorder to worry about – if their hands start shaking they might get delusional soon. Some high-ranking asshole apparently got it, snapped under the pressure, ejected most of the ship’s population out into space! Went totally SUNSHINE on ‘em but did ‘em in without having to run around the ship naked and all that. It’s fucked up!

Anyway there are power surges and they decide Bower needs to crawl through the vents to find the nuclear reactor that needs fixing. But he finds dead bodies and then falls and loses communication with Payton.

Wandering the ship, Bower gets into confrontations and scuffles with a woman named Nadia (Antje Traue, a German actress who later was cool as Faora-Ul in MAN OF STEEL and was in the underrated Kevin Costner action/sci-fi thing CRIMINAL) and a badass dude named Manh (Cung Le, who relinquished his Strikeforce Middleweight Championship belt to do this, FIGHTING and BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS all in one year), who only speaks Vietnamese. It takes some doing, but Bower convinces them they should work together to find the reactor as well as fight off the savage GHOSTS OF MARS type space-barbarians that are trying to kill them all (Stan Winston Studios, represent).

“The Aristocrats!”

They also run into a guy named Shepard (Norman Reedus the year before The Walking Dead started), but he’s not in it that much. Back at the control board, Payton finds a naked cowering guy called Gallo (Cam Gigandet, NEVER BACK DOWN, TWILIGHT). But the most interesting character is Leland, played by Eddie Rouse. If you’ve seen him in movies like GEORGE WASHINGTON, DRAGON EYES or PUNCTURE WOUNDS (oh shit, he and Cung Le did lots of movies together) you know he’s good at playing crazed weirdos, and it’s cool to see that sort of character transported to space, where his behavior is an understandable reaction to the pressures of space disaster. He offers them food that he warns tastes mostly like the motor oil it was cooked in.

The movie really clicked for me when I realized it was basically a post-apocalypse movie on a giant, failing spaceship instead of in a wasteland. I don’t know if you could exactly say civilization has collapsed – it’s had to pack up for another planet – but unexpected catastrophes have caused that evacuation plan to collapse. Various factions find ways to survive on the ship, including the savage tribe of mutants who, it’s revealed (SPOILER), were fed an enzyme to help them adapt to the new planet that instead made them adapt to the ship itself. Nadia eats crickets. Leland cooks human meat and carves hieroglyphics in the metal walls, telling the story of what happened on the ship like the kids telling the story of Captain Walker in BEYOND THUNDERDOME.

And the mutants have been awake long enough that there’s a new generation coming along. There’s a little kid with creepy black eyes, like he was born for the ship.

I had this idea, while watching this, that there should be a space travel movie where everybody skateboards on the ship. Lots of long rounded tunnels. Not designed for it, but a perfect use for it. Just throwing that out there. Into the cosmos.

Since Le was the thing that got me to watch the movie, I should say that his character is pretty cool, an okay early appearance, even if he doesn’t get English dialogue and obviously doesn’t get to do as much fighting as in a martial arts movie. The violence is pretty brutal at times, often involving repeated stabbings. They all team up and go Julius Caesar on one of these guys. Because it takes some extra doing. And Le has a cool moment where a mutant comes after him and he raises his fists. Apparently having a code of honor, the mutant throws him a spear – but then immediately knocks it out of his hands!

I don’t think the movie requires a twist at the end, but ENDING SPOILERS there’s a pretty cool one anyway – they realize they’re actually underwater on Tanis. They must’ve made it a long time ago. So it was an easier fix than going after that reactor. It’s cool to see all the pods ejecting and popping up to the surface.

It’s alot of concepts smooshed into one movie, which is explained by reading about its history – original writer Travis Milloy’s script was about a prison ship called Pandorum whose inmates devolved into cannibals. When producers Anderson and Jeremy Bolt showed it to Alvart he combined it with a script he’d been working on called NO WHERE. According to Fangoria at the time, the scripts both dealt with waking up on a ship with memory loss, and had basically the same beginning and ending. Alvart was worried at first that he wouldn’t get the job and would have to abandon his script, because it was too similar.

There was talk of a prequel and sequel, had there been total PANDORUMmonium at the box office, but it wasn’t in the cards. It got mostly negative reviews (28% on Rotten Tomatoes) and lost money, contributing to the bankruptcy of its American distributor, Overture Films. I’m not sure who to blame, but I definitely think that non-explanatory-without-being-intriguing movie poster design didn’t help.

Alvart’s only other movie made for English-speaking audiences, the ghost movie CASE 39, was filmed in 2006 and starred Renee Zellweger, Ian McShane and Bradley Cooper, but didn’t get a release in the U.S. until a year after PANDORUM, in 2010. No wonder he stayed in Germany, where he has been prolific in both films and television ever since. IMDb lists him as being in pre-production on DJANGO LIVES!, the official DJANGO sequel that’s supposed to star Franco Nero, with a script by John Sayles. That’s been on there for years, though, so I don’t expect it to really happen. That’s okay. After the showers the sun will be shining

This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 1st, 2020 at 11:07 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

7 Responses to “Pandorum”

  1. Oh man, this is one of my favorites in the bad-things-happen-in-outer-space genre. I remember seeing this in an empty theater at the Oak Tree on Aurora in Seattle (is that still there?) and that was the first sign there was to be no Pandorumonium. Quaid and Foster are good in this and the action is cool, if very dark (maybe that was just the projector).

  2. I pretty much hated this one. It starts out cool but the cinematography and production design are so hideous and monotonous that I was practically begging it to end by the hour mark. My entire memory of the thing is just an endlessly repetitive fever-dream blur of gray blobs and screaming, like when you fall asleep watching an early 00’s horror movie and the menu screen invades your dreams all night. A truly unpleasant movie-watching experience.

  3. I remember really liking this one when I saw it opening day. I’m a sucker for spaceship movies, and even though Ben Foster annoys me, I liked him in it.

    It hit the same chords that Doomsday did the previous year, in that yeah, ita a pastiche of other better movies and ideas, but I still had enough fun with it that I wasnt sitting there wishing I was watching better movies. Plus, i like the twist end!

    I guess I have a review copy of the DVD but I don’t believe I’ve ever watched it, so its entirely possible its horrible. Maybe I’ll tale a gander this evening…

  4. Ben Foster, always game for some screaming and some jerking around. (If not a good deal more than some.) There’s an old Simpsons gag where James Woods recites a list of roles he’s played and they all begin “A tightly wound ___”; I imagine Ben Foster’s list would read “A hotheaded ___”. Even the disabled kid he played on Freaks And Geeks was conspicuously hotheaded, if memory serves. I guess some talent just can’t be suppressed.

    Also, I wonder if this movie’s reputation/shelf life was hampered by the amnesia plot device? Memory recovery as an expository trope for character development never bothered me, but I think 2009 may have coincided with the advent of some audiences’ fatigue with it.

  5. This one is heavily flawed, but leans more into the positive. I’m not claustrophobic, but that scene where that one guy has to squeeze through all those tubes and cables and shit gives me breathing problems just by thinking about it 10 years later!

    Alvart really became a high profile TV director here. (Maybe the only one this country has!) Slightly “controversial” were his entries for TATORT, a long running, but super square crime show. His episodes (starring Til Schweiger) plus the theatrical spin-off movie were way more action focused than the show (or most things on German public broadcast TV) usually are, so of course critics hated them and audiences ridiculed them for being well made action movies on a TV budget. Because that’s how German audiences roll. “Waaah, we want something more action, like that stuff from the US that we love so much! Oh, someone made that? Nah, we hate it because it’s German.”

    He also made a reunion movie for the 90s crime show WOLFFS REVIER, which impressed me with one long take during a chase scene, in which a protagonist climbs from a moving ship onto a bridge, while the camera follows him all the way in parking-garage-chase-in-DEATH SENTENCE style.

    Also he put Norman Reedus in his movies, before it was cool, so that makes him the German Guillermo del Toro, I guess?

  6. I remember seeing this, and I think I liked it, but not much else. There may have been beer involved.

    Alvart is directing Franco Nero’s new DJANGO movie, which I’m looking forward to. Perhaps not so much as Castellari’s KEOMA RISES, but still…

  7. I am with Majestyk on this one, I found it depressingly dark and dreary. Very tired of people waking up with amnesia. I lost interest halfway through and couldn’t remember if the mutants were all a dream or there was some other twist, because it really seemed like they were headed in that direction for a while.

    I watched a slightly similar movie, also German I think, called ANIARA. Except it was brightly lit, had no amnesia, and it is relentlessly bleak without resorting to “slimy dark corridors” to set the mood. I liked it a lot.

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