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Forgotten Favorite: The deep space horrors of Pandorum

Contributed by
Aug 14, 2017, 1:45 PM EDT


2009 was an outstanding year all around for science fiction, though it will best be remembered as the time when James Cameron's Avatar soared into theaters during the holiday season to become the all-time box-office overlord.

This fantastically fruitful year also gave us J.J. Abrams' rebooted Star Trek, Duncan Jones' Moon, Neill Blomkamp's District 9, McG's Terminator Salvation, John Hillcoat's The Road, Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland, and highly underrated offerings like Knowing, Splice, and Gamer.

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But for my money, it's director Christian Alvart's overlooked and critically dismissed Pandorum that deserves a heap more respect as we reflect back on some criminally neglected sci-fi fare. Filled with a claustrophobic dread and Lovecraftian terror, it's been banished to the $5 Best Buy bin, and something needs to correct this egregious error.

Released on Sept. 25, 2009, and hailing from Resident Evil producers Jeremy Bolt and director Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon), it stars Dennis Quaid (Innerspace, Frequency) and Ben Foster (3:10 To Yuma) in an amnesiac nightmare in deep space.

It's a grim, hard-edged tale about the Elysium colony ship, which encounters a malfunction en route to the Earth-like planet Tanis in the year 2174. Two crew members, Payton (Quaid) and Bower (Foster), awake from cryosleep due to a reactor failure. They must discover what has happened to the rest of the crew and passengers as mutated cannibalistic creatures prey upon them. A shocking secret lurks inside the interstellar ark's gothic hull, and the jaw-dropping finale is a beautiful blast of effective screenwriting by Travis Milloy and Alvart!

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Not without its faults and made on a modest budget of $38 million in Germany, Pandorum was a huge box-office flop, and gathered only $20 million total in its global release. Much of this was due to a nonexistent American marketing campaign by Starz' nearly bankrupt Overture Films, with almost no TV spots or online buzz, and some of the ugliest one-sheets ever printed.

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The wildfire of sci-fi and superhero films had not yet ignited to the inferno it is today, so without any ad support or promotional events, this enigmatic flick sadly got lost in that post-summer/pre-fall doldrums zone. Partly inspired by Robert Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky, and displaying a wealth of engaging design elements, it's a shame it didn't get more recognition.

Here are five reasons why the intensely satisfying Pandorum gets kicked up a few rungs on the silver ladder of appreciation for me:

Discovery / End Credits Pandorum


Perfectly suited to the twisted, haunted confines of the enormous colony ship, Britsch's experimental soundtrack is an unsettlingly discordant sonic-scape injected with jarring electronic tones, sharp metallic strings, and breathtaking acoustic overtures. Similar in style to Jerry Goldsmith's classic Alien score or Mark Streitenfeld's disturbing Prometheus soundtrack, and exhibiting echoes of German industrial metal bands like Rammstein, this Pandorum score needs a deluxe, premium vinyl release pronto!!

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We're used to seeing Dennis Quaid as a grinning good-guy and noble hero in movies like The Right Stuff, Innerspace, The Rookie, and Frequency. So it was a risky move for the actor to take on this grim hardcore sci-fi flick. But Quaid nails the psychological torment his Payton/Gallo character goes through as his amnesia begins to fade and the full horror of his deeds surface in the throes of the fictional psychosis, Orbital Dysfunction Syndrome. In rewatching the movie, I was reminded of the dual timeline technique of Westworld's Man in Black and the god complex exhibited by Anthony Hopkins' Dr. Ford, here used to similar degree.

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Stan Winston Studios was responsible for the impressive makeup effects on the Hunters, and created the gruesome corpses. These cannibalistic orc-ish creatures are not the passengers or the lost crew, but their descendants that have mutated over hundreds of years with an adaptive enzyme designed to allow humans to evolve into their surroundings once they reach their planetary destination. Gallo's mad scientist experimentations (ala David in Alien: Covenant) turned these spiky tribal headhunters into troglofaunal (cave dwellers) monsters that used equipment from their spaceship home for tools and weapons.

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Director Christian Alvert was all about extreme darkness, and was required by the studio to sign off specifically on this point of diminished light to not implicate his crew. His cinematographer, Wendigo von Schultzendorff (The 13th Floor), embraced the lack of light on the cavernous starship, but used specific colors to signify character and tone.  No matter where the camera was pointed, the spectacular somber sets of the Elysium were showcased as a separate character of the interstellar saga, accented and bathed in unexpected glints of cool blues, saturated greens, and warm golds. Extensive use of the extreme close-up intensifies the confused states of Bower and Payton's minds. I'm shocked this cinematographer didn't get some major Hollywood calls after Pandorum was released, but I suppose nobody was there in the theater to admire the work!

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I can recall with perfect clarity the moment in the theater when the truth is revealed as to exactly where the Elysium ark is, and it ain't outer space! The ship has been underwater all along, after remote landing on the planet Tanis 800 years ago!! What??!! This was one of the smartest climaxes I'd encountered in a film in years, and it totally pays off the dark and disturbing survival tale of psychological delirium. After two hours of depressing revelations, we're given a hopeful finale, as Bower and Nadia escape the flooded ship and witness the remaining 1.211 lifepods ejecting in a rain of promise along the Tanis coastline. The bioluminescent sea creatures, who they saw earlier when the ship's cockpit shields were opened, offer a transcendent moment.