Ridley Scott’s Alien remains a horror masterpiece, but the grungy industrial look of its spaceship — innovative at the time — has been a lingering dreary influence on science-fiction interior design. The latest grubby-ductwork sci-fi thriller is Pandorum, set entirely aboard a spacecraft whose exterior has been imaginatively rendered but whose interiors must have been entrusted to three crew members who went yardsaling and browsed through abandoned fishing vessels. The movie looks unpleasant, is usually shot through blue filters, and was apparently edited by three other crew members with meat cleavers.
If a movie is going to be ridiculous, shouldn’t we at least have fun watching it? As it is, Pandorum clenches its teeth grimly as it blunders through its overstuffed plot, in which a spaceship contains thousands of Earthlings en route to a more hospitable planet. When we come in, lots of years have passed and not many of the passengers are left alive — at least not in the expected state. Two flight-crew members, Bower (Ben Foster) and Payton (Dennis Quaid), emerge from extended hypersleep and spend a long while trying to figure out what happened. “You’re disoriented,” Bower tells Payton upon the latter’s awakening. The audience nods in empathy — we don’t know what’s going on either. Nor, for the most part, will we.
There are cannibalistic mutants on board, and a couple of random crew members who have somehow become expert fighters. One of them, Nadia (Antje Traue), is this year’s attempted Milla Jovovich reincarnation, a babe who kicks ass despite looking as though the last thing she attacked with any success was a salad. Our heroes crawl around the grimy, disgusting ship, running from the mutants and trying to reach the ship’s reactor, while Payton stays behind and contends with someone who may have “Pandorum,” a particular deep-space delirium dreaded by everyone in the movie. “Pandorum” apparently makes you paranoid, makes you see stuff that isn’t there, and makes you hire Norman Reedus, possibly the most annoying actor in the history of cinema, for a small role.
Norman Reedus disappears almost as quickly as he shows up, which is nice, but the movie keeps going, which is not so nice. The mutant-attack scenes are unscannable gibberish, and I really hope not to read some article detailing how much training Antje Traue had to endure to play her fight scenes, because the way they’re shot and edited it might be her or it might be Lily Tomlin, for all we can tell. Dennis Quaid gets his voice up in a few scenes, but the role keeps him pinched and sour throughout, as if he were either suffering from gastrointestinal distress or grooming himself as the next Harrison Ford. It’s hard to believe this is the same man Pauline Kael used to love for the freewheeling humor he often brought to his game. Then again, he’s trapped in the same anti-actor muck as the rest of the cast; Ben Foster has been no slouch elsewhere, and Antje Traue might, for all we know, be a major actress in her native Germany. In terms of calling our attention to great, unknown-to-us foreign actors and writing zesty roles for them, director Christian Alvart and scripter Travis Milloy are no Quentin Tarantino.
There are, of course, several twists at the end, the default mode for lazy screenwriting. Pandorum was cheap ($40 million) but not cheap enough; this sort of junk works better when the sets are cardboard, the monsters are obvious latex, and the whole affair doesn’t take itself so deadly damn seriously. (Number of intentional laughs: zero.) The movies Pandorum steals from did it all with more style and panache — Alien, of course, and also Event Horizon and Neil Marshall’s two effective potboilers The Descent and Doomsday. In fact, I hope there’s a big juicy check in the mail to Neil Marshall from this film’s producers.