Pandorum is what you get when you hire Wes Craven to direct Solaris: a grindhouse exploitation flick with a brainy, European sensibility. Pandorum might help solidify 2009 as a banner year in genre cinema, because it, along with Duncan Jones' Moon and Neill Blomkamp's District 9, are actual science fiction movies, with real speculations and plots that are built logically upon those initial speculations, and not just action movies with science fictional window dressing.
Pandorum has a vibe like a lot of good 1970s SF, both written and filmed ... that sense of gloom and doom that bubbled under the surface of flicks like Silent Running and in the writing of Tiptree and George R.R. Martin.
Pandorum, as hashed out by screenwriter Travis Milloy and director Christian Alvart (who a few years back made the really interesting German thriller Antibodies), starts out with a great hook: A guy named Bower (Ben Foster) wakes up in a hypersleep chamber on a trashed spaceship, with suspended-animation-induced amnesia and no idea what has happened to the rest of the crew. He thaws out a guy named Payton (Dennis Quaid), who logically should be his CO and who also has a case of deep-freeze-wonky memory.
It would be a shame to tell you more than that, as Pandorum's plot is centered on a process of discovery as Bower ventures out into the ship. The narrative flows really quickly as the pieces of various puzzles are fit into place. Truth to tell, some of the discoveries are kinda groaners, but this doesn't derail the flow of the movie as a whole. Alvart cuts the movie so that the sense of discovery and the frequent action scenes give Pandorum a NASCAR-frantic sense of constant forward movement. There are wonky moments of plotting (the final resolution relies on a bit of dumb luck) and a couple of dead spots that seem thrown in less for the sake of story than as opportunities to provide needed pieces of the overall puzzle. Don't get me started on the maudlin flashbacks. But the pace of the movie, and the way in which the clues as to what went wrong on this spaceship keep coming, are so smooth that these bumpy stretches of road don't feel too rough.
Old-skool geeks will see some familiar territory in Pandorum. The "Big-Ass Generation Starship on Which Things Have Gone Wrong" was a pretty well-worn concept when Harlan Ellison and Ed Bryant published Phoenix Without Ashes (based on Ellison's original pilot script for the series The Starlost) almost 35 years ago. But fortunately, Milloy and Alvart add a few fresh spins to the way Pandorum uses these old concepts so that they don't feel too stale.
And on its most basic level, Pandorum promises you a whole bunch of scary stuff happening on a bitchin' spaceship, and it delivers. Alvart is a damned fine filmmaker. The use of color, framing, shadow and the aforementioned whiplash editing are all great. The ship itself feels real in the way the Nostromo in Alien felt real (and yes... because this is an SF/horror movie made after Alien, there is an obligatory vent shaft scene). There is a truly nightmarish quality to the scary moments that could teach straight-up horror directors a thing or two. Pandorum, despite its shortcomings, kinda rocks.