Science fiction horror is probably my favorite subset of the horror genre, because of how high the stakes are raised for the characters as well as the screenwriters. Since most sci-fi horror is set in space, the characters have no choice but to deal with their situation or die. While it seems like there’s an obvious answer in that binary choice, the odds are so stacked against our protagonists that there’s little distinction between certain death and almost certain death. So watching the characters walk that razor’s edge of hope and face unspeakable terror is both satisfying and dreadful at the same time, which I believe should be the two goals of the horror genre. I also enjoy science fiction horror because of the imaginative worlds the writers build to contain the story – or at least they should. Pandorum is one of the rare horror films that gets everything right and proves that no matter how scary monsters are, humans can be just as bad.
In Pandorum, the future of Earth is bleak due to overpopulation and scarce resources. As a way of saving humanity, the world’s best send out probes to find another habitable planet, which is Tanis over 100 Earth years away. So a giant spacecraft called Elysium is created to bring settlers to the new planet and the crew is kept in stasis via hyper-sleep and awoken in yearly shifts to maintain the ship and pilot it along its course until arrival. Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) wakes from hyper-sleep only to find the ship seemingly deserted and almost no memory of who he is or what he’s supposed to do. The only other person he discovers is Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) whose memory is just as spotty. Together, they have to discover what happened to the crew and get the Elysium on course to Tanis or else all of humanity is lost. Unfortunately, they’re not as alone as they think they are. Strange humanoid life forms are hunting humans throughout the ship and the survivors are also contending with possible space dementia called Pandorum.
The horror in Pandorum is done fairly for the most part. The majority of the dread comes from realistic, deep-seated fears, like claustrophobia, isolation, loneliness and helplessness in the face of an overwhelming adversary. Granted, there are a few cheap scares, like featuring a silent, subdued scene immediately followed by a cut to something frantic with an ear-piercing stinger. Thankfully, these moments are kept to a minimum and nothing as cliché as the equivalent of a cat jumping out of nowhere. The gore is also subdued, with only a few appropriate scenes of limbs being hacked off and intestines being spilled – if those scenes can even be considered appropriate under any circumstances. The creature design is also refreshing without being outlandish. They are super tough, incredibly fast and hunt with tools that manage to be futuristic to the audience, but primitive in the film. Being attacked by creatures wielding spears with blowtorch flames for points will intimidate anyone.
The ship is well designed and lends itself to unique sets, like giant shipping containers, wiring ducts and hyper-sleep pod colonies. Ubiquitous metal corridors and a giant reactor room are also present, but are different enough to set them aside from other movies. The filmmakers also went out of their way to showcase the technology, bringing it to life beyond blinking lights on a dashboard. The little things like a communicator that can clip to clothing or machines that need cranking and weapons that need pumping go a long way to immerse the audience.
The acting is pretty standard for the genre. The characters look frightened when they need to and serious at all other times. That’s not to discount any of the performances, mind you. It’s the fact that the cast is as good as it is that makes Pandorum as fun to watch. Kudos to Ben Foster for devouring a live cricket without the camera cutting away. Also, Antje Traue gives a strong performance as Nadia who kicks ass while looking smoking hot. It’s always an achievement when a female character can be tough without being manly and still be believable.
The writing and direction are also very well done and is wisely restrained and deliberate. The story unfolds slowly, allowing the audience to settle into the film and the writing doesn’t feel the need to over explain small points. Also, the direction doesn’t fall back on irritating conventions, like partial reveals. Once the creatures are introduced, the audience gets to see them in full – none of these glimpses of teeth or glowing eyes in the darkness or scary shadows on the walls. If anything, the film might be under-directed. Almost every shot is utilitarian, with only a few artistic scenes, like the eerie blue lights creeping in the dim light when the creatures first come on the scene.
Pandorum does lose its “scare-value” as the film progresses. This phenomenon might be due to several reasons, like understanding the creatures too quickly, not enough deaths of major characters along the way and heavy fighting sequences throughout. On the other hand, by the time the film molts into its sci-fi action self there’s so much going on that you’ll barely care that the movie just flipped genres. Pandorum is the kind of film that will engage you to the very end.