Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid headline Pandorum, an effectively moody but also fairly frustrating sci-fi mash-up of Supernova, Event Horizon and Cube, among other films. A more action-oriented cousin of spare, fellow paranoid space opera Moon, Pandorum could slot decently as part of a double-dip couch festival with that movie, depending on one's level of interest in either slipping into something spooky and meditative after a well intentioned but essentially romper-style genre flick that feels shruggingly compelled to include snarling beasties, or vice versa.
The latest collaborative effort by Robert Kulzer, Jeremy Bolt and Paul W. S. Anderson, the producers behind the hugely successful Resident Evil movie franchise, Pandorum — like Unknown, Cube and the basic plot hook for the original Saw — revolves around people who wake up in strange places, and in various stages of pain, abuse and amnesia. In the year 2174, two astronauts, Bower (Foster) and Payton (Quaid), awaken in a hyper-sleep chamber aboard a massive, seemingly abandoned spacecraft known as the Elysium. They're massively disoriented, and the only sound is a low rumble and creak from the belly of the ship. Trying to piece together bits of their own respective identities along with mission specifics, Bower ventures deep into the ship, with Payton staying behind to guide him via radio transmitter.
Before too long, however, Bower comes across some nasty, pale, toothy creatures who, unsurprisingly, do not have much of a penchant for cultural dialogue, or even exchanging pleasantries. These mysterious creatures — where did they come from, Bower wonders — are lightning-quick, and they like to kill, even if they don't seem entirely carnivorous. In scrambling for his life, Bower comes across Nadia (Antje Traue) and Manh (Cung Le), and the three of them form an uneasy alliance, continuing their trek deeper into the Elysium.
Directed with a nice attention to background detail by German-born Christian Alvart, who traded in similarly grim subject matter in his underappreciated 2005 film Antibodies, Pandorum is an interesting study in contrasts. Much of the tech-jargon dialogue ("The reactor timing is offset in the core!") and all the get-to-the-center-of-the-ship plot mechanics are yawningly familiar, to the point of almost paralyzing disinterest. And yet the movie is constructed with such style, and makes use of a couple nice slick directorial tricks, that it keeps you leaning forward a bit, always wanting to like it a bit more than you in the moment are, but never entirely giving up on it. The engaging authenticity of the film's settings and production design — which nip piecemeal inspiration from some of the aforementioned genre efforts, but also movies like Dark City — go a long way toward holding an audience's interest.
It's just a shame, really, that Pandorum seems almost bound by convention to include such a clamorous external threat. This is by far the least successful and intriguing portion of the movie, in large part because Alvart and company have neither the budget to replicate the creature effects of an Aliens film, nor the imagination of someone like Guillermo del Toro, who can stage memorably unsettling and fantastical scenes for a fraction of the normal Hollywood cost. Part of the film's initial appeal relies in its use of unreliable narrators, and in this way, it feels a bit like a jumbled-up, madcap, recast take on The Shining, which put eroding sanity and the effects of extreme isolation under the microscope. Pandorum starts to be this type of film, and fitfully returns to this theme, but it's an ill-designed and ultimately unsuccessful match, on a cathartic narrative level, with a lot of what else is included in the story.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Pandorum comes to DVD presented in a 2:35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, with Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. DVD special features are ample, anchored by a feature-length audio commentary track with director Alvart and producer Jeremy Bolt, in which the pair discuss Alvart's late-in-the-game, pre-production idea of depicting the effects of years of hyper-sleep via sloughing skin, as well as the special challenges involved for Foster in crafting a performance out of reacting to Quaid's disembodied voice, since more than half of his material was prerecorded, before the younger actor's scenes.
The DVD also includes 16 deleted and alternate scenes, which run a total of 28 minutes, though there's additionally a separate four-and-a-half-minute featurette, "What Happened to Nadia's Team?," that in actuality is an excised, direct-address in-character bit. Running 14 minutes, a behind-the-scenes featurette includes some solid interviews with both on-camera talent and director Alvart, who talks about blending together Travis Milloy's original screenplay with an entirely separate yet thematically similar script that he was working on when producers first approached him about the project. After a brief, pointless "flight team training video," a robust slate of picture galleries, including everything from pre-production storyboards, model work and conceptual monster sketches to on-set photographs, rounds out the material, along with the theatrical trailer and sneak peeks at five other forthcoming Anchor Bay DVD releases. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C+ (Movie) B+ (Disc)