Alien Meets the Descent
Friday, September 25, 2009
It’s “Alien” meets “The Descent” in the new film “Pandorum” (opening September 25 throughout San Diego). It’s a case of been there, done that. But does “Pandorum” manage to do it better?
“Pandorum” opens well. A series of title cards informs us of earth’s burgeoning population, increased shortages of food and resources, and of course an impending apocalypse. Not wanting to disappear from the universe, humans send a giant craft, a kind of Noah’s Ark, out into the galaxy to find a new home for humankind. But what looks impressive from the outside proves to be dank, grim, and claustrophobic on the inside. Our first glimpse inside the spaceship is so dark we can barely see. A crewmember is abruptly woken from a hyper-sleep chamber and emerges unable to remember anything. He doesn’t know where he is, how long he has been asleep, or who the others on board are. He determines his name is Bower (Ben Foster) and he’s soon joined by Lt. Payton (Dennis Quaid), who is stricken by similar hyper-sleep amnesia.
The wake to find themselves in what is essentially a creepy haunted house in space – everything is dark, odd noises disrupt the silence, and there’s something evil lurking out in the blackness. This isn’t the pristine, hi tech deck of the Enterprise as seen in the recent “Star Trek” movie. This is a grungy, kick-it-to-make-it-work kind of ship. There’s a great moment when Bower ventures off into the bowels of the ship to try and find a way to open the door to the bridge. He gets so turned around in the ducts and tubing that he can’t tell which way is up and ends up crashing to the floor unexpectedly.
*** POSSIBLE SPOILER AHEAD***
This kind of confined sci-fi thriller is epitomized by films such as “Alien” and “Silent Running.” “Pandorum” adds an element of science gone wrong, as the creatures that threaten the crewmembers may be mutated humans. There’s only one quick suggestion of what they might be and it calls to mind the creatures in “The Descent,” which had evolved to adapt to their subterranean environment. There’s a twist to that evolutionary notion here involving science and drugs. “Pandorum’s” creatures do look and behave in a manner similar to those in “The Descent” but without the same level of creepiness.
Add to this some abnormal psychology and you have “Pandorum.” The title “Pandorum” refers to a psychological condition in which a person can no longer tell reality from the twisted paranoid fantasy in his head. So not only are there terrifying creatures out there wanted to devour you, there might also be a loony crewmember who wants to kill you as well.
Directed by Christian Alvart, “Pandorum” delivers a solid, no frills sci-fi thriller. Its cramped, low-tech look pays off well for this claustrophobic tale of survival. Unfortunately, Alvart and his director of photography Wedigo von Schultzendorff can’t resist copping out to the shakycam cliché in depicting the creatures. The scenes with the creatures are so shaky and cut so fast that you can’t see anything or figure out what’s going on. In theory that might sound good because you want to disorient the audience and place them in the midst of chaos just like the characters. The problem is that the stylistic approach remains the same through the entire movie and is so difficult to watch and decipher that it fails to build any tension or fear because we simply never know what we’re looking at. It’s too bad because Alvart and von Schultzendorff build a nice sense of tension and dread in the quieter opening scenes. “The Descent,” which was set in dark, underground caves, did a far better job of creating tension and building the sense of terror without showing us much. There were times while watching “The Descent” that I felt like I couldn’t breath, that’s how effectively the filmmakers conveyed the terror and the claustrophobic conditions.
“Pandorum” also uses sound well, especially in the beginning. In something of homage to “Alien’s” tagline of “in space no one can hear you scream,” “Pandorum” opens with Bower locked inside his hyper-sleep unit and screaming. But when the camera cuts to outside the unit, we see him screaming but hear absolutely nothing. That shot and use of no sound compellingly conveys how alone Bower is. The creaking and moaning of the ship in the opening scenes also builds the tension and unease of the setting. But as the film moves forward and increases the action, these subtler aspects of storytelling are left behind.
Unlike such recent horror films as “Sorority Row,” “Pandorum” at least boasts some solid actors. Foster, who is moving away from crazed supporting characters, is always fun to watch, and Quaid offer a mature acting presence. There are also appealing newcomers Antje Traue, who may have been cast more for her cup size than acting skill, and Cung Le, who was cast more for his kickboxing/martial arts skills than acting. But both do well in their supporting roles.
“Pandorum” (rated R for strong horror violence and language) is another US co-production with the German Company Constantin Films. Constantin Films has been splitting its time between B-genre films like the “Resident Evil” sequels and art house films such as “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” and “A Woman in Berlin.” With “Pandorum” they show that they are capable of producing solid genre filmmaking. “Pandorum” never kicks ass but then it never sucks either.
Companion viewing: “Alien,” “The Descent,” “Silent Running,” “Moon”