Oily enough to warrant wiping a gigantic Stridex pad across the screen, Pandorum’s sci-fi horror has a glistening putridity that’s not without its scuzzy visual appeal.
If a sewer were a spaceship, it might be the Elysium; in one scene, two heroes are forced to submerge themselves in a sludge of blood, bone and waste.
Too bad Pandorum’s ping-ponging story is just as murky and toxic — covered in a film of superfluous science-fiction subplots (few of which connect strongly) en route to a reasonably rousing conclusion.
Pandorum opens with an epigram stating that Earth is a goner by the year 2174, with a population explosion forcing humankind to hightail it to an outer-space colony on the planet Tanis.
Enter the Elysium — a startup vessel populated with the best Earth has to offer in hopes of jumpstarting a similarly fruitful society among the stars.
When Corporal Bower (Ben Foster of 3:10 to Yuma), a technical engineer, awakens from hyper-sleep, it’s literally a toe-curling experience for him. (Props to co-writer Travis Milloy and director / co-writer Christian Alvart for concocting the goopy body prophylactic that serves as a protective coating for skin during hyper-sleep.)
Thrashing about, Foster isn’t content to settle for his traditional bug-eyed bluster. Just when it seems he’ll play to a point of pulmonary thrombosis, he settles down. Still, Foster’s intensely over-enunciated whispering grows increasingly tiresome.
Soon, Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid, face drawn down in strict check-cashing mode) also emerges from hyper-sleep. Neither man’s memory is sharp — a slumber side effect — but they soon remember Elysium’s mission, just not its floorplan.
Bower goes tumbling through its bowels while Payton attempts to reach the sealed-off bridge of command. Soon, Bower is beset both by capoeira-fighting agricultural specialists and slimy spike-backed creatures (a cross between The Lord of the Rings’ Orcs, The Descent’s cave dwellers and Fantastic Planet’s Draags).
With those creatures slowly picking off all those left in hyper-sleep chambers, it’s a race against time for Bower to power up the ship and Payton to access the bridge. But an even bigger foe awaits them both — severe paranoia and hallucinations (which the movie dubs “pandorum”) — as well as the snaky, mysterious Corporal Gallo (Cam Gigandet of Twilight).
If Pandorum sounds a lot like Event Horizon (despite few storyline similarities), that’s because it’s produced by Paul W.S. Anderson, director of that film and Resident Evil. This plays like a mash-up of both, along with an Alien fetish so strong one suspects Alvart and Milloy might have had a mobile designed by H.R. Giger.
Pandorum is wisely lit only with glow sticks and flashlights for awhile, but after 45 minutes of spatial incoherence, it would be nice to see a bit more production design. (Also, there hasn’t been a lead since Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick to take as much of a beating as Foster. He’s constantly clanging his head in booby hatches and traps.)
During its first act, Pandorum generates a good amount of narrative disorientation. Yet, as much as it wants to be a tumble down the rabbit hole, the film starts tipping its hat once one character starts to let his vigilance wane.
Neither, given its title, does it delve much into the true dangers or possibilities of a mental collapse. That would require a sharper focus than just a grab-bag of sci-fi clichés, which the movie only shakes off during its final minutes.
As much stylized muster as it’s occasionally able to work up, Pandorum still feels like a Christopher Lambert film that would have gone straight to VHS about 15 years ago.