***Warning: spoilers everywhere***
The condition of pandorum is described by film producer Jeremy Bolt as “orbital dysfunction syndrome, caused by loneliness of space,” and it’s a worthy hook upon which to build a psychological sci-fi thriller about the effects of long-term space travel.
Pandorum’s pre-production journey is unusual in that Bolt had contacted director Christian Alvart to direct a script by Travis Milloy (Just Like Mona, Street Gun), which dealt with space travel woes on a prison barge, plus a twist ending. Alvart, a genre fan, had been developing his own epic with very similar scenes and finale, and figured a collaboration with Milloy would create a more powerful and topical film that could exploit the unknown factors space agencies will have to wrestle with if they plan to send people to far off interstellar marbles like Mars.
Creating a hybrid script from existing material isn’t new – Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995) was upgraded from a non-franchise script called “Simon Says” – but the problem with Pandorum is that while it may have been mapped out as a complex psychological thriller, Alvart’s pruning of scenes for a tighter running time as well as pacing (particularly in the opening scenes) pretty much rendered the finished film into a frustrating experience.
The premise is simple: a nuclear technician, Bower (Ben Foster), and a navigator, Payton (Dennis Quaid), are awoken by the ship to relieve the previous navigational crew, but both discover the power system is dying, and the ship’s gone derelict due to a virtual absence of any other active crew.
They realize they must get to the bridge as well as reboot/”reconfigure” the ship’s nuclear reactor, or the ark-like vessel will lose its valuable cargo of frozen humans and a vast microbiological library from a long dead Earth. Their only major hurdle is a feral group of cannibals who’ve been subsisting on stray crewmen, and may be remotely related to their human chum.
Alvart and Milloy left a number of ambiguities in their script because the audience is supposed to discover clues alongside the characters, but there’s no final confirmation as to whether the creatures came from man, are parasitic bilge creatures that evolved from consuming human DNA, or infiltrated the ship like some bacterial wave and rapidly evolved.
Although Bower and Payton think the ship’s been en route to the Earth-like planet of Tanis for 8 years, the ship’s actually traveled farther than they know – at least 800+ years. If that’s actually the time required for a one-way trip to Tanis, then it makes sense to have various crews who either live out their duties over a lifetime, or go through a series of rotations before returning to a deep-freeze after a tour of duty.
Each worker bears a numerical tattoo on the left arm that identifies his/her work group, and it takes some time for memories to seep back into full consciousness after emerging from the sleep tubes.
The film’s five primary characters have unique identities and ongoing struggles: Bower can’t initially recall if his wife is on board, yet knows rebooting the reactor is paramount; Payton’s sense of time is all mushy, and his efforts to get to the bridge are delayed by the sudden arrival of a co-navigator, Gallo (Cam Gigandet), a member of the prior team who managed to escape from the damaged bridge; bug-eating microbiologist Nadia (Antje Traue) is a guardian of the precious Earth samples and a self-reliant huntress; warrior Manh (Cung Le), speaks no English but joins the group for solidarity; and Leland (Eddie Rouse) is a crewman who lost his purpose after living alone for 30+ years, surviving off ‘strays’ who wander into his metal Venus flytrap.
While Payton stays in the crew quarters and guides Bower to the reactor, Bower, Nadia, and Manh managed to evade death by the cannibals, only to find themselves trapped in Leland’s chamber-like lair, although eventually Leland latches on to the ship’s grave condition and agrees to help the trio rather than eat them. He also recounts the mythology that’s tied to the ship’s seemingly derelict status: ages ago, someone went bonkers, and while in a state of blissful pandorum, killed the crew needed to guide the ship.
This myth is in fact etched into the walls of Leland’s lair, though there’s no clarification as to whether Leland drew the pictograms, or whether they were already present, scribbled by a lone survivor from the initial killing spree. What is sort of clear is that the myth infers someone among the five crewmen may be that villain, and he’s come back to reclaim his throne of evil.
That mole ends up being Payton, who’s revealed in the twist finale to be suffering not only from pandorum, but a split personality disorder with young Gallo being his younger alter ego who, according to the rapid flashback sequence, was the person on the bridge who lost his mind and killed his team. Leland’s pictographs related to Payton, but whether Payton planned to wake up from a long slumber or was awoken by the ship to address the reactor’s imminent shut down is never clear.
On first viewing, the film’s twist-reveal is essentially one big ‘Huh?’ because of its suddenness, and yet in re-viewing the film, it’s clear Alvart took pains to stagger the proliferation of temporal revelations for Bower and Payton, as well as provide subtle clues and omissions: Payton never reveals his tattoo to Bower when awoken, and the non-existent Gallo is seen in two-shots with Payton, or as a POV shots. When Gallo and Payton battle in the bridge in the finale, and literally coalesce into one person (Payton), Alvart shows them physically melding into one person, with Payton becoming aware he’s in a heightened pandoral state.
The problems with Alvart’s twist stem from a number of confusions:
Alvart’s editing of the major shot that reveals Payton and Gallo to be the same is blown because A) the numerical tattoo is too long and takes too much time to read; B) Alvart holds the singular shot of Gallo and Payton’s arms, side-by-side with their identical tattoos, for a few seconds, making it far too brief for audiences to connect the dots conclusively.
Payton’s recollection of his mental break still don’t address the core question: How is one man responsible for fucking up an entire ship?
If Payton went bonkers 800 years ago, has he re-emerged every few years to kill the new crew, or did he kill them all and mistakenly miss Bower? And why wouldn’t there be some kind of policing system in play, since the ark holds the DNA of a now-dead Earth? Surely there would be some perfunctory police force?
Did Payton kill the others before re-entering suspended animation to ensure no one would be able to pilot the ship again? If so, why is Bower still around? Are the awakenings random effects due to the nuclear reactor’s power spikes?
Then there are the cannibals, who by the finale, can be regarded as the writers’ convenient excuse for killing off the ship’s human population. If the cannibals were present at the ship’s launching, why wouldn’t a full crew have known? If they evolved from man, it seems unlikely cognizant humans with civilized social backgrounds would physically devolve into a reptilian state over 800 years instead of a tribal culture.
The creature designs are striking, but their physical differences from humans are so extreme that one has to presume humans, like dogs or plants, can be bred to wholly radical designs through several generations of in-breeding, but then from where did the original parents come – inbred Appalachian stowaways?
The DVD includes a commentary track with Alvart and producer Bolt that’s quite helpful in covering the film’s production as well as the clues audiences likely missed during the first viewing, as well as the revelations and hints they failed to pick up because of the film’s wonky mythology and choppy editing at key junctures.
The Payton-Gallo revelation is a grievous error, but there’s also some vital material in the DVD’s gallery of deleted and alternate scene edits that should have been retained. Of note are small bits that extend Bower’s gradual physical and mental acclimatization after emerging from a pod and ripping out painful feed tubes from his arms. Like the intro scenes of Alien (1979), they’re small scenes that add mood, character, and allow audiences to get a feel for the spectacular ship that Bower finds rotting, and must travel through to reboot the ship’s power and ensure a safe landing on Tanis.
Among the deleted scenes from the first act is more material showing Payton’s confusion as he awakens, as well as longer hold on a shot where Payton removes clothes from what’s supposed to be his locker. To the shot’s left is an I.D. tag that’s fuzzy in the finished film, and as Alvart describes in the commentary track, it’s probably a picture of his wife clamped to what appears to be an I.D. tag, but the shot rack focuses to the picture, which resembles a full I.D. tag, and infers that Payton is assuming the identity of a female navigational officer named Payton.
The only part of the finale that works is the twist that reveals the ship is not en route to Tanis, but is lying largely submerged in one of its oceans, which explains the inner ship’s heavy humidity, water leaks, and rust. The release of the remaining pods containing humans also works because it ties to the case of a prior ark-like voyage where a crewman suffering from pandorum released the pods prematurely, sending them into space, where those who would awaken would suffocate to death. (One can also theorize that the cannibals are native to Tanis, and infiltrated the ship when it landed.)
The DVD also includes an alternate finale that makes no sense and seems to have been shot purely as an afterthought, since the actors and sets were present. The coda has Payton still alive in the bridge that was clearly shown flooding in the final film edit, grinning as Gallo reappears behind him. The inference is of revenge or some plan to take command of the ship, but it’s all meaningless since Payton, if he did survive the flooding, would be king of a bunch of cannibals that would rather have him as an aperitif than a leader. (Alvart does speak of an interest in a sequel, so perhaps the coda was a teaser for Payton’s return in some form.)
For all of Pandorum’s flaws – and they’re substantive – Alvart’s instincts in creating a topical and psychological sci-fi thriller are admirable, and he manages to hit the right marks in terms of delivering a story of survival in mini-post-apocalyptic world.
There’s a lot of small touches that make the futuristic world believable – from hand-cranking power gears when the standard buttons won’t work, to lights and laser razors that work after a quick shake. They’re the kind of small ideas that are practical when one is in an environment where the failure of one component could create a ripple effect with others, and are in line with the double-redundancy plans that NASA’s been using in their space projects for decades.
The ship’s outer design is overly intricate, and although the circular bands that surround the ship’s fuselage may be some kind of artificial gravity gizmo, it does seem implausible they would remain intact after a crash landing. (There is of course the added theorem of the ship being safely landed by a crew or Payton’s crew prior to Payton’s pandorum episode, but then that opens up other aggravating questions.)
The set designs are a great mix of clever grunge-industrial that evoke the massive complex of the similar ark-ship in The Black Hole (1979) or even the more massive ark in TV’s The Starlost (1973), but there is a lapse of logic for the reactor rebooting sequence, where Bower must reach the reactor and smack a few chunky start buttons. The entire complex – filmed remains of an actual decommissioned reactor - is surrounded by walkways with safety railings and ladders, and yet the only access to the reactor control is a rickety, naked gangplank. This daft design exists purely so that Bower falls to the bottom level, where he must crawl over sleepy and horny cannibals to reach the reactor base and climb up again.
The DVD’s making-of featurettes includes interviews with Quaid, Foster (X-Men: The Last Stand), Traue (Berlin am Meer), Gigandet (Twilight: New Moon), and Rouse (George Washington), as well as mention of martial arts champion Le, who gives a surprisingly strong performance.
There are also two in-house videos made for the DVD: a ‘recruitment’ promo made for the ark, and “What Happened to Nadia’s Team.” The latter is a short series of video diaries meant to show Nadia of the cannibal threats, and where her model-like crewmates have stashed some of the DNA samples they’ve retrieved from the cannibals (although why cannibals would have any interest in microbiological goo is never explained).
There’s also the theatrical trailer which infers more overtly that the creatures are mutations from humans, and a stills gallery of the striking sets, creature designs, and models.
The transfer is surprisingly sharp, with decent black levels for the film’s numerous low light scenes, and the Dolby Digital mix is sufficiently aggressive, although much Michl Britsch’s superb score is subdued in the film’s sound mix. (The soundtrack album presents a much more vivid version of the punchy, snarling score.)
Christian Alvart’s other films include Curiosity & the Cat (1999), Antibodies / Antikörper (2005), and Case 39 (filmed in 2007, and released in 2009 and 2010).
Jeremy Bolt’s other productions include the logic-impaired The Dark (2005), the Resident Evil franchise, and most of the recent films by Paul W.S. Anderson (who also co-produced Pandorum), including Death Race (2008), and Event Horizon (1997), another tale of a derelict ship whose crew is slowly going mad due to isolation, brutal killings, and increasing delusions of colleagues and other forces determined to do them in.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan