With free Starz for the month and the GF out of town last weekend, I went on a bit of a movie binge. I was majorly disappointed by The Book of Eli, got exactly what I expected from Ninja Assassin and Predators, and was pleasantly surprised by Pandorum.
I avoided Pandorum when it came out because the advertising made it look like just another schlocky survival horror film dressed up with science fiction bits. In actuality, Pandorum is a potentially great science fiction movie dragged down by some tacked-on survival horror bits.
True, there’s nothing really original in the “good” part of the story. Mankind’s last survivors riding an arc into the unknown; madness caused by extended time in deep space; the subsequent power-hungry madman who decides to free himself from morality; I’ve read or watched these stories before. But if we really valued complete originality, we wouldn’t read Shakespeare. I’m prepared to accept that new ideas are hard to come by.
Pandorum takes these old ideas and breathes a little life into them with a solid cast and some really fantastic set-design. I’ll get to the actors in a second, but I really want to stress how great the set-design is. After the craptacular crap-filled crap fest that was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I began to give up hope that I would ever see another REAL set. CG is cheaper. Shittier, but cheaper. The sets of Pandorum hearken back to The Fifth Element and Blade Runner. Sure, not quite at the same level, but it’s clear that a lot of love and attention went in these sets.
The film itself seems aware that the sets were the real stars, as the closing credits are projected over close-up shots of the different sets. I watched every second of the credits, and it wasn’t to see who played who. Think about that for a second: how many movies in the last decade have had sets that are worth looking at closely…let alone sets that would even stand up to a close inspection?
A close second to the sets in making this movie worth watching are the actors. Ben Foster teeters convincingly between heroic and broken, Cam Gigandet is delightfully creepy and dangerous feeling, and Dennis Quaid gets to show a little range. Cung Le is sort of random as the Asian-dude-with-a-low-level-job-who-happens-to-be-a-martial-arts-expert, but I appreciated the fact that the Vietnamese actor was allowed to be a Vietnamese badass instead of, say, Chinese or Japanese (the usual suspects for Random Eastern Badasses – cough, cough, Predators, cough). Antje Traue is competent as the female lead, but this movie is such a boy’s club that she never really gets a chance to shine.
The biggest problems with the performances wasn’t any fault of the actors, but rather the big elephant-in-the-room Problem (yes, that’s a capital P) with the movie.
I can’t help but think that if this movie had been made thirty years ago, it wouldn’t have had the Problem. Thirty years ago a movie about the final survivors of mankind trying to rescue their dying ship while struggling with memory loss, madness, and an insane leader would have been enough. But Pandorum came out at the tail end of a long cinematic resurgence of interest in zombies. So Pandorum has inarticulate mutants that like to eat people. Inarticulate mutants who suck up a good deal of screen time forcing the cast to run and hide and watch people get eaten in, really, the most banal and uninspiring ways possible.
The Problem is that these survival-horror bits steal time from the movie. As long as they’re running, the actors don’t really get to act, and the story doesn’t really get to progress. To get all of the story out to the audience, two blatant expository scenes are shoehorned in with all the grace and smoothness of an inarticulate mutant reciting Shakespeare with a mouthful of human flesh. There are plenty of moments where all the material covered in these info-dumps could have been artfully unfolded in the action of the film, but that would have taken more time, and thanks to the mutant not-zombies there was no more time.
The advertising for Pandorum made it seem like a horror flick. In truth, Pandorum could have been a great science fiction flick if it hadn’t been burdened with the need to try and include some overt horror elements. In fact, there’s more and better horror going on inside the characters’ minds than there is in all of the grayish skin and pointy teeth of a million man-eating mutants. It’s a crying shame the latter had to overshadow the former.