Three significant events have occurred in 2013 that lend credence to the claim sci-fi is on its death bed as far as mainstream moviemaking goes. Star Trek Into Darkness continued to drive its franchise further and further away from its ideological roots in pursuit of money spinning breakneck action with a loose plot better suited to the Mission: Impossible series; the announcement that Star Wars will be revamped under the tutelage of the very same J.J. Abrams shows that rather than create new iconic franchises the executives would rather bleed dry the old ones; and Avatar will be graced by three sequels, suggesting a lack of faith in fresh ideas on the part of James ‘Mr. Innovation’ Cameron.
We’re a long way from Stanislav Lem and 2001: A Space Odyssey when you look at what is over the space-set horizon, a rather sad state of affairs when considering the advancements made in filmmaking technology. It seems that as the means to create alien worlds compellingly arrived, the writers who had sweated blood to paper over the cracks were on their way out, replaced by last minute scripters with a remit to include as much computer graphic friendly sequences as possible. Proper science-fiction, fuelled by ideas rather than explosions and dictated by necessity of setting rather than novelty no longer seems to be high on the list of anyone’s priorities. And why should it? More original pieces in this field have not had the same success gradient. A shame, since profit isn’t always an exact science when it comes to the movies. And sometimes one can take more solace from the diamonds in the rough when that particular course at least bares the hallmarks of different thinking. An example of this would be a particularly flawed recent outing which died a quick death itself, Christian Alvart’s Pandorum.
With a lukewarm at best commercial release and generally loathed by critics, the 2009 sci-fi horror is a piece that is open to misrepresentation more than misinterpretation; it doesn’t exactly tax one’s intellect with its premise, components and occasional B-movie strains. Having been touted as a tight, claustrophobic and industrious psychological thriller about two astronauts who wake up on a damaged and seemingly abandoned vessel, it’s understandable that there was some backlash upon the discovery that after the first half hour, the story quickly escalates into something much bigger and, at least on the surface, much more familiar. From some kind of mutant offspring of Dark Star, it gestates into a full blown apocalypse movie with monsters that are a little too similar to almost every horror film of the era, sans hand held camera. However, looking past this development and putting a little more faith in a dark and nightmarish story does allow one to enjoy a film that while not definitive, is certainly different.
Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid are the astronauts in question, awakening from stasis with no memory of their identities, purpose or location. Their ship, Elysium, proves to be significantly larger than one first imagines, as Foster explores the vessel and begins to find other crewmen, some dead, and waltzes straight into a hideous struggle for survival against packs of inhuman zombie like creatures who stalk the halls and nest in the holds. Quaid meanwhile attempts to restore the ship’s systems above deck and runs into a rather unhinged young bridge officer who quickly becomes an evil muse. Each turn of a corridor reveals new truths, each one more horrifying than the last, and boils down to the harsh truth that the action unfolding is actually a matter of the human race’s survival, in the most literal and ambitious manner possible. By film’s end, we may know just what the monsters are but they are hardly the biggest problem.
What it lacks in originality Pandorum certainly makes up for in imagination, and every dud note Travis Milloy strikes with his inconsistent script is seamlessly covered by Alvart’s impeccable direction which just screams ‘born for the big stage’. It should be noted that when the screenplay does slack into inferior levels of quality, it is never a conceptual problem, merely the treatment of the here and now and the scene by scene. The very concept of the film, in true horror fashion, plays out like an incredibly vivid and monstrously bad dream, filled with shadows and darkness and crude creatures of the night (all of which look superb, incidentally) but moreover defined in its every moment of terror by an atmosphere that never lets up, never lightens, and always engulfs you in a sense of dread rather than peril. German director Alvart, making his biggest picture to date here, not only has composed control of the action and the visuals, he also manages to maintain the darkness constantly from beginning to end, replacing claustrophobia with fatalistic hopelessness. An edge of ambiguity surrounding the cabin-fever-esque mental disorder of the title just adds to the sense that there is no safe ground on board the Elysium, that there are potential enemies lurking within to accompany those without.
Casting Ben Foster as the principal protagonist helps this effort, as his nervy and untrustworthy demeanor is totally at odds with his story status as the main hero. Ever since he truly became a name actor by stealing the show in James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma remake, Foster has made a career out of playing characters who are never fully sympathetic when on the right side of morality, and who ooze plausibility when edging towards villainous territory. This makes him perfect for the film, since we never truly trust him as he battles with the notion that he is imagining his terrible surroundings, a conflict we share in. The inactivity on Quaid’s end seems to back up this theory in progress, only for a shocking switcheroo to show that we have been scrutinizing the wrong man. In a bigger, less bloody incarnation a Tom Crusie type may have plumped for the role and would doubtlessly have torpedoed a good part of the film’s slight of hand. It’s similar to Rufus Sewell’s casting in Dark City, choosing a black knight to play a white one.
His acting, rather regrettably, is probably the only notable exercise of thespian prowess within the film, as characters range from the wooden (Quaid in the early stages) to the scenery chewing (Eddie Rouse during an engaging distraction via bondage and cannibalism). Antje Traue, making her Hollywood bow here (four years before her more notable role in Man of Steel), is mostly provided for the eye candy but is at least able to inject a little allure and coy suggestion into matters as a perhaps unconvincing biologist. But there is a sense that this was the best that Alvart had to work with, a cast mostly made up of B-movie players, and thankfully the events help to steal one’s attention. Set pieces and ongoing mystery puzzle solving also lead one away from obsessing over the shaky dialogue, and the big reveals stop ‘spot the movie’ drinking games from getting out of hand. There are shades from many films within the piece, from the Alien franchise to Event Horizon, Resident Evil to The Descent.
The crux by which Pandorum finally is defined ultimately proves to be its greatest strength, the real truth behind the mayhem and anarchy. In a rare example of writing a story in the right order, everything builds up to a final denouement that lays the truth out clearly; the purpose of the Elysium, the origins of the mutant monsters, the fate that has beset the ship and its Biblically sized passenger contingent and, most crucially, the significance of Pandorum itself. Having played out for two thirds of the film as a subplot that seems set to be a red herring, it instead proves to be the cause of everything. These elements, the bigger stuff, is where other recent attempts such as Oblivion have failed, but here they are they rescue the film from being average entertainment and instead promote it to something more respectable. The nightmare wasn’t a nightmare, it’s just a dark new world brought about by that worst of intergalactic foes; ourselves. It’s not just the grandeur that makes this work, it’s the ingenuity.
Pandorum seems like a film that is destined for cult status in the same way that the aforementioned Dark City was. In terms of tone, style and sense of escalation the two share a lot of common ground, and also enjoy similar endings. They are concept pieces, defined by the over arcing idea at the heart of the action, and while this certainly doesn’t reach the giddying heights of celebration that the greats take for granted, it should definitely be given more compassion for its successful efforts to tell a good story in a compellingly imaginative way. Its setting, huge Noah’s Ark in space overrun by man eating monsters, is not a flashy attempt at gimmick but genuine necessity to act out its fundamental principles. It is inherently science-fiction in the way that Star Trek Into Darkness and Avatar are most certainly not. Though not challenging the status quo, or much else for that matter, it is as engaging and entertaining as a Hollywood blockbuster and shows something in its genetic makeup that most of these do not; heart, soul, thought and ideas.
But I suppose if it provided and still failed, why should we expect any more like it? The cult of yesteryear sci-fi cinema beckons…