Thursday, April 23, 2020

Space Adaptation Syndrome

Film: Pandorum
Format: DVD from personal collection on basement television.

Pandorum is one of those movies where I don’t exactly know where to start on breaking down the plot. It goes in a lot of directions initially, and it doesn’t always make a great deal of sense in the big picture. That said, I rather enjoyed this movie more than I expected to. In my head, I think I got this mixed up with Primer for some reason, and I wasn’t really that excited about watching another time travel movie after seeing both Looper and Triangle recently.

Anyway, Pandorum is a grimy outer space science fiction movie with a deep horror streak. We start with Bower (Ben Foster) waking up from long-term stasis and freeing himself. It takes him a little time to realize who he is and what is going on. Evidently, in the world of Pandorum being in hypersleep means temporary amnesia for any number of things, including name, location, and purpose. Eventually, Bower figures out that he is a part of the flight crew of a ship called Elysium and that things aren’t going well.

What we learn through the course of the film is that Elysium is an interstellar ark, a ship loaded with colonists and DNA samples of earth creatures that can be used to further terraform a planet called Tanis. We’ll forget for now that Tanis is a mere 123-year journey from Earth (which means the ship would need to be traveling at more than 22 million miles per hour just to reach Alpha Centauri) and stick with the story we have. Honestly, the speed of the ship, the length of the journey, and the possibility of hyperspace isn’t that important to the plot.

Shortly after Bower awakens, another crew member, a lieutenant named Payton (Dennis Quaid) is awoken as well. Bower and Payton soon realize that things are not right. There are unexplained power surges rushing through the ship, which indicates a serious problem with the reactor. Bower heads off to see if he can reach the reactor while Payton stays behind to try to get onto the bridge.

What Bower discovers along the way is that there are humanoid creatures on the ship that appear to be cannibalistic. He also encounters some other members of the expedition. He first meets Shepard (Norman Reedus), who rather painfully and permanently demonstrates the cannibalistic nature of the things on the ship. He also meets a Vietnamese farmer named Manh (Cung Le) and Nadia (Antje Traue), who seems to have substantial knowledge of what is going on around the ship, including the fact that it is in fact an ark to be used for populating and terraforming the alien world.

We slowly start getting some exposition on what is going on both in terms of the ship itself as well as the mission. Much of this comes from Leland (Eddie Rouse), another survivor who has been awake on the ship for years, surviving on an algae as well as some cannibalism. We also get information from Gallo (Cam Gigandet), who appears near Payton and explains that his flight crew team learned that Earth was destroyed in some cataclysm, and what is on the ship is all that remains of not just human civilization, but the entire world. This realization, he says, caused his team to experience Pandorum, a mental disorder related to space travel that causes intense paranoia and psychosis. It’s soon evident that Gallo himself might be suffering from Pandorum, as might Bower, Payton, and possibly everyone else.

One of the things that I like about Pandorum is how grimy it is. Alien was one of the first movies, at least one of the first popular movies, to present something more akin to blue collar space travel. Yes, I realize that you can argue a film like Dark Star for this as well, but Alien is the one that really got us there. The Elysium is a dirty, greasy place. No one and nothing is clean. It feels in that respect like very much a real place that has been lived in for years and that has not been kept up for any number of reasons.

What Pandorum does well is reveal things slowly. There are a couple of big reveal moments throughout, and they work well. It does feel initially opaque, but I like just how carefully things are revealed to the audience over the course of the film. We always feel like we know at least a part of what is going on, and each small piece of exposition (much of which comes in a large chunk from Leland telling the story of the ship) clears away a few of the cobwebs. In a sense, we are having that story revealed to us as Bower’s memory and Payton’s past come back to them.

I enjoyed this a lot. I feel like I’ve been watching a lot of heavy and unpleasant films lately, and having something gritty and dark but not depressing was kind of a relief.

Why to watch Pandorum: It’s a very new spin on an old idea.
Why not to watch: It takes a very long time for it to make any sense.


  1. This was a film that didn't work for me at all. I found it to be boring despite the cast (with the exception of Cam Gigadent who can't act for shit).

    1. At first blush, I thought Cam Gigandet was actually James Noseworthy, and I was pleased, because I like James Noseworthy.

      But no.