In Pandorum, Bower (Ben Foster) a crew member of the the spaceship Elysium, wakes from hypersleep to find that the ship isn’t in very good shape. There are no lights, no other crew, and no welcoming committee. The initial scene is surprisingly painful to watch; it is more like a birth than a peaceful awakening. It is clear that Bower does not remember where he is, or why, but all his technical knowledge and his mission-specific skills are intact. Shortly after Bower’s awakening another crew member, Payton (Dennis Quaid), wakes up to the same confusion.
They set about trying to contact their superiors, and figuring out where they are and what’s gone wrong with the ship. It’s not as easy as it seems.
Elysium is overrun with vaguely humanoid carnivores that may have started out human, but have now evolved into something more primal. They hunt in packs and more or less have the run of the ship. Their favoured prey consists of crew members emerging from their sleeping pods. There are still bigger problems, however. Firstly, the reactor is acting up and needs to be manually restarted. Secondly, the ship has received a transmission that Earth is done, gone and over, and the ship’s crew is all remaining of mankind. Thirdly, there’s a space sickness called Pandorum that affects those left in suspended animation for too long. Or those that have been in space for too long. It starts as the shakes and graduates into full-blown paranoia and violent tendencies.
Elysium was on its way to Tanis, the only habitable planet in reasonable reach, when it launched and now there’s literally no way of telling the ship’s location. Bower sets out for the bridge, trying to get back to the room in which he and Payton first awoke. The monsters roaming the hallways try to eat Bower a couple of times, but he manages to form a tenuous alliance with Nadia (Antje Traue) and Manh (Cung Le), crew members who have managed to stay thus far alive.
In the end it turns out things are even more complicated than getting the reactor restarted, of course. The maneaters are probably a result of genetic enhancement meant to help the crew in their biological transition to their new home planet. The ship is run by a madman, one of the officers present when Earth’s last transmission was received, and a victim of Pandorum. Or maybe just megalomania, who knows? The ship is both where it is supposed to be and not, at the same time; meanwhile this viewer is mostly going “huh?”at this point.
The environment is atmospheric, I will give it that. The mise-en-scene is darkly gorgeous. I like The Elysium, in all its gloomy, overrun, beleaguered and begrimed glory. It’s not one of those pristine, white and shiny ships, which I like. There’s an impressive sense of scale to it, too, without it losing its claustrophobia. The monsters mostly leave me indifferent. They’re fast and vicious, but the actual hunting and fighting feels a little too much like a computer game for me to invest too much in it. You can probably argue that gravity is different on board a spaceship, but still.
Ben Foster’s and Dennis Quaid’s performances are surprisingly layered and played straight, which definitely lends this the gravitas it needs not to descend into complete pulp fiction. The movie is ambitious, and maybe that is part of the problem. It wants to scare the viewer with dark things hunting the hero through long, dimly lit corridors, supply a creeping psychological horror and question the way memory works and the effects of long distance space travel. It’s a veritable cornucopia of fears to tap into, claustrophobia, loneliness, alienation, memory loss, fear of the dark and the things in the dark that can eat you, what we are reduced to when pushed to extremes, cannibalism… The overall effect is surprisingly un-frightening, though. There are better movies in this genre, like the Alien movies, Solaris, Sunshine, and 2001: A Space Odyssey just to mention a few obvious ones.
This is still good enough to merit a viewing, but it isn’t all it could have been if it had sharpened its focus a little and not tried to overreach itself.