Directed by: Christian Alvart || Produced by: Robert Kulzer, Jeremy Bolt, Paul W. S. Anderson
Screenplay by: Travis Milloy || Starring: Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse, Norman Reeus, Wotan Wilke Mohring, Niels-Bruno Schmidt
Music by: Michl Britsch || Cinematography: Wedigo von Schultzenedorff || Edited by: Philipp Stahl, Yvonne Valdez || Country: Germany, United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 108 minutes
I love Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien classic, but I also have a major problem with it: Nearly every horror film set in space that has come after it gets written off as a derivative clone with no merit, often for no reasons other than their premises’ similarities to Alien. Ridley Scott’s landmark film has achieved such a reputation that it harms the growth of similar films. It’s as if critics are so snobbish or mainstream audiences too dumb to accept more than one quality science-fiction thriller set aboard a spaceship.
I’m drowning in cynicism over this for a good reason; compared to something like Star Wars (1977), whose clones of its fantasy-space opera, western mishmash style are largely given a pass for their plagiarism, most attempts to pay homage to the definitive sci-fi horror film of all time are doomed to lackluster reception before they even hit theatres. You don’t see people scoffing at how Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was derivative of Star Wars (which it was), but pick most any scary movie set in space, and most critical or fan reviews mention numerous times how, “It’s no Alien, so therefore… eh!”
While most copycats of successful films are just that, copies, many are creative, well executed homages to their forebears with plenty of artistic merit and innovation in their own right. One of the best descendants of Alien is the 2009 film, Pandorum, a violent and claustrophobic sci-fi thriller set in the distant future where humanity sails across the stars in search of a new planet. The interstellar ark on which most of the story takes place, Elysium, boasts excellent low-key lighting, a diverse color scheme (which also illustrates the story’s thematic content), and maintains a foreboding tone to die for. This creative setting and its terrific set design are the film’s biggest selling points.
Much of the fun of Pandorum is how the main characters explore this setting. We follow a small cast of heroes (and one villain) composed of Ben Foster, Dennis Quaid, Antje Traue, and Cung Le, who gradually spread throughout the vast, sprawling maze that is Elysium. With the help of some convenient yet well executed plot devices (e.g. temporary character amnesia from prolonged hyper-sleep, spaceship malfunctions, etc.), we only learn about our setting and the true destination of our heroes as they do. Pandorum’s plot progression resembles Snowpiercer‘s (2014) in this way, and that helps each act of the movie feel new and fresh.
Speaking of that plot, Pandorum’s use of mysterious space-monsters and extreme violence to advance its story is none too original (re: the Alien influences), but the film’s setting and pacing are what make them stand on their own. The manner in which our heroes fight, flee from, and uncover the origins about these antagonists is one of the most fun aspects of the movie. The way the film’s plot evolves with its characters is captivating. Pandorum is the rare science-fiction film whose mysteries and plot revelations are completely explained by its story’s conclusion, and they all pay off. This is neither a Prometheus (2011), whose story raised more questions than it answered, nor is it a Matrix Revolutions (2003), whose answers we realized we never wanted to know in the first place, but somehow the perfect medium in between. In fact, Pandorum’s final twist is one of the most satisfying aspects of its story.
Much like other films whose box office under-performance misrepresents their high quality, such as Dredd (2012) and Tremors (1990), Pandorum was and largely remains a misunderstood, underappreciated gem. It’s one of the finest original science-fiction films of the past twenty years, and it deserves to be seen by all who have an appreciation for the genre and good filmmaking. The film is blessed with a wonderful horror tone, great lighting, a competent cast, and terrific action-scenes. As a film-lover and a film critic, I always prefer recommending an overlooked or forgotten picture that deserves more than audiences or critics gave it, than I do tearing down what I believe to be an overrated or overblown one. Pandorum is a perfect example of the former.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Pandorum is a quality sci-fi flick, which has themes and a story that are complex, action and scares that are thrilling, and set designs that are, in all fairness, Academy Award-worthy. It’s not only tonally and thematically true science-fiction, what with its intelligent speculative science and sociopolitical commentary, but it also endlessly entertains with great visuals and exhausting suspense.
Much like last year’s surprise hit, Krampus (2015, thankfully a box office success), Pandorum is the complete cinematic package that only “failed” because it lacked big stars, brand recognition, or a massive marketing campaign. In other words, the film was a disappointment because it lacked corporate financial muscle, not artistic merit.
? Speaking of Krampus, that movie also deserved Oscars for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing.