Saturday, August 14, 2010
By Phil Elmore

What a remarkable surprise of a film this is. I think Pandorum suffered from its promotion as a horror film — simply because, while it does contain a horror ement, I would classify it more as a science-fiction thriller than a horror picture. The movie’s promotion — what there was of it — was inscrutable. When I watched the film, I thought I would be mildly entertained by a monster-of-the-week-trapped-in-a-shuttle sort of cast-elimination movie.

What Pandorum is, instead, is an intriguing survival-horror drama set in a post-fall techological environment. Characters must cope with a world that has collapsed, in this case the interior of a very large ship bearing all that is left of humanity. The ship is also populated by mutated creatures who are the result of the passage of time applied to generations of passengers bearing an enzyme in their blood (intended to “jump start evolution” when they reach their destination). 

In the decay around the characters, we see the shadow of the world they’ve left behind. This helps increase the sense of hopelessness these characters must fight, and encourages us to root for them — even as we understand how high are the stakes for which they play.

Fine perfomances are turned in all around, although I found Dennis Quaid less than compelling.  (He’s been “phoning it in” for a few years now as his career winds down.)  The star of this picture is, without doubt, the superb Ben Foster, who is excellent in every role he plays.  He has a depth of emotion to him that is at once resilient and vulnerable; these are the perfect notes for the protagonist of a survival-horror film.

German-born Antje Traue is exotic and captivating despite the layers of grime under which she must perform.  Cung Le is convincing and heroic in a role that is really a glorified stunt man’s part, but then, Cung Le is a competitive mixed martial artist and kickboxer, not really an actor.  (The script, wisely, grants him no English lines.)  Eddie Rouse (who played a thug in Pineapple Express) is creepy, while Cam Gigandet and misplaced Boondock Saint Norman Reedus are barely present (and not missed when absent).

The movie is visually striking and, I have to admit, has an ending that took me by surprise.  The “is it real or is it a mental delusion” angle is there but not overused (always a danger with material of this type; if it gets too confusing the audience stops caring if the movie’s events are an illusion).  It’s also reasonably well paced, and the film’s creature-villains are real enough to be truly scary. 

If I have any quibbles it is that there is no explanation given for why Cung Le and Antje Traue are such accomplished fighters.  Yes, they have awakened in a world that requires them to fight for survival… but are kung fu skills spontaneously visited on you under this kind of stress? There would seem to be plenty of training opportunities… but no margin for error when to lose means to be killed and eaten, not necessarily in that order.

A movie I did not expect to enjoy as much as I did is therefore a better film than it has any reason for being.  I enjoyed Pandorum; fans of science fiction and of survival horror will enjoy it too.

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