Pandorum is frustratingly close to being a decent sci-fi action movie except for one minor little detail: the screenplay. Directed by German helmer Christian Alvert, who’s got a string of psychological thrillers to his name, and written by Travis Milloy (the two share story credit), the film strangles, bludgeons, and ultimately kills its own premise, draining the life from a concept already close to flatlining and ruining what could have been a solid B picture with a repetitive, disjointed script that tries to stitch together too many ungainly ideas. Genre fiction tends to recycle a lot of ideas — in Pandorum’s case, a deep-space mission to colonize a new planet after ours runs out of room — and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. A big idea like that can have the meat stripped from the bone in dozens of ways. But Pandorum just takes bits and pieces from other sci-fi thrillers and cobbles them together, and the two main ideas that are supposed to provide narrative thrust and identity don’t even connect or need to inhabit the same story. There was so much potential in the first few minutes, but the film gave it all away.
After a familiar but welcoming prologue that spells out the perils of future Earth and the launch of the ship Elysium in 2174 to colonize the hospitable planet Tanis, the action cuts to the claustrophobic sleep chamber of Corporal Bower (Ben Foster), who’s been living in suspended animation and has now been painfully awakened by the ship’s computer systems. It’s a tense, disorienting scene, and cinematographer Wedigo von Schultzendorff does a good job capturing the grime of the lived-in ship, bathed in low emergency lights and pocket neon glowsticks. Bower’s mind has been glazed over by the hibernation, and he doesn’t remember much more than his name by the time he wakes up Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) in an adjoining capsule. These early moments are the film’s best, when the story is still working under the genuine suspense of the unknown, but already Alvert’s relying too heavily on Michl Britch’s constant score (this is their fourth film together) and the erratic editing of Philipp Stahl and Yvonne Valdez. Alvert’s problem is that he almost never bothers to establish basic geography within a scene, so characters can arrive at doors or climb up into air ducts with no prompting and no way for the viewer to have followed the action. This is damaging from the start, since the tight dimensions of the sleeping quarters and adjoining computer room don’t need a lot of fancy tricks to be felt, but it’s going to be an even bigger problem later on, when chase and fight scenes become almost dazzlingly hard to follow and, worse, boring. Communicating spaces in a movie like this one is how viewers get involved or terrified or riveted, but too often Pandorum relies on cuts and jump-scares.
Finding most of the ship’s power offline, including the doors, Bower and Payton are trapped inside the prep room, so Bower shimmies out an air duct and eventually makes his way to an external deck. Everything’s dark and deserted, and Bower has no idea what happened to the passengers and crew or how long they’ve been traveling. From there, his hope — and, briefly, mine — is to make it to the reactor bay to fix the ship’s decaying system and save the day. Hero A, meet Goal B, and commence journey. The problem is that the narrative then splinters into two threads that never meet up. On one hand, Bower and Payton are on the lookout for signs of pandorum, a kind of deep-space sickness marked by paranoia and homicidal tendencies that can be triggered by severe emotional trauma. On the other, Bower isn’t out in the ship two minutes when he sees a group of monsters run past, big, ugly humanoid things with elongated skulls and pale skin who hunt in vicious packs and carry blue lights and torches for no reason except so they can be easily identified by the viewer from a distance. This isn’t a spoiler: The monsters are humans who’ve inexplicably mutated thanks to an injection that was supposed to help them adapt to life on Tanis but went pretty horribly awry. Why/how/when? Not answered. More importantly, the random monsterism and the random space-madness are not at all related. Either one would have worked just fine as an engine of conflict and danger: Bower must watch out for super mutants while avoiding his own mental breakdown; or Bower must contend with potentially succumbing to pandorum while fighting off those killers who already have. But Alvart and Milloy’s story wants to wed these two disparate plots in an unholy marriage of style over substance, and the resulting choppy film feels disconnected from itself.
From there to the end, the film divides its energies between Bower’s journey through the ship with a couple other survivors he meets along the way and Payton’s attempts to help and monitor things while stuck in the control room. Quaid is in gruff commanding officer mode and could do a movie like this in his sleep, but Foster is a watchable and interesting performer, and he carries the film as far as it will go. Unfortunately, Pandorum doesn’t know what to do with itself, and when it isn’t blindly pretending like its two subplots are connected, it’s cribbing from every other space thriller, from Alien to Serenity to the execrable Event Horizon. (It makes sense that the latter was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, one of Pandorum’s producers.) Worst of all, there are a couple of legitimately well-executed twists at the end, and you can’t help but wonder what the film would have been like if the creative focus had been on gut-shots like those instead of polishing a bad product. We’ll never know.