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).
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