Sunday, 9 January 2011

Film Ramble: Pandorum

I'm not sure why I didn't rave more about Pandorum when it first came out.  After all, it was an all-too-rare suprise when I saw it in the cinema, a movie that I went to out of vague interest and came out of completely impressed by.  I'd been expecting some kind of Alien or Event Horizon rip-off, that was certainly what the advertising campaign seemed to be angling towards, and what I got instead was so much more than that - one of those rare treats of a sci-fi B-movie that dares to plow its own furrow through the genre.

Where Alien shifted the monster movie into outer space and Event Horizon did the same with the ghost story, Pandorum is, at heart, a crime thriller.  In that sense, it's actually closer to the wonderful Dark City than those more obvious reference points.  Its hero, Bower, is an everyman woken into a situation beyond his abilities or experience.  He's rapidly press-ganged into the role of detective - but it's not whodunit he needs to figure out, (though there is a murder mystery of sorts tucked away in Pandorum's labyrinthine plot), but rather where he is and why and just what the hell is going on.  Because, on top of his many other woes, Bower has amnesia, apparently too much hypersleep will do that, and the only evidence he has to begin with is his own fractured memories.
Like any good detective, Bowers's only edge in a fight is a thick skull, which is sucky news for him because - like any good detective - he spends a considerable proportion of the running time getting kicked around the screen.  In fact, just about everyone has a shot at him, up to and including the heroine and the guy who's the closest thing he ever gets to a sidekick.  But Bower keeps pushing. At first, it's the thought of finding his half-remembered wife that drives him, and it's only late on that he assumes the role of hesitant savior.  Even then, Pandorum remains decidedly un-Hollywood, and Bower's bizarre big hero moment is as unlike the traditional action finale as a scene could hope to be.

There's a ton of stuff Pandorum gets right.  The direction and photography are mostly spot on, the effects work looks like it's wandered in from a movie with a far grander budget.  The sets look real and lived in, and in places are absurdly grandiose.  The cast do good work, whether it be Ben Foster making the most of a well-earned hero part, Dennis Quaid's enthusiastic scenery chewing, or martial artist Cung Le somehow building a likable character on the back of about three lines of garbled Vietnamese dialogue.

But there were two things that really make Pandorum stand out for me, that took it from good to great genre movie status.  First is that the sci-fi elements are genuine rather than window dressing, and often imaginative: the main story runs close to Brian Aldiss's millennium ship classic Non-Stop, but the film has a few neat concepts of its own - my favourite being the wonderfully pragmatic, low-tech idea that all the ship's major systems come with manual dynamos in case of a generator failure.  Second, and related, is the way the script drops a steady stream of clues and twists, all of which organically subvert or widen the scope of the narrative and all of which come together elegantly in the end - in places it really is like watching Chandler do sci-fi. 

In retrospect, I guess the reason Pandorum needed a rewatch to convince me I hadn't somehow hallucinated a half-decent film into a fantastic one was that it took me by surprise.  It was nothing like what I was expecting it to be, and really not that much like the films and books I kept trying to compare it against.  It was only watching it a second time that I got to take it on its own terms.  Which was kind of a treat, because on those terms, Pandorum is one of the better sci-fi films I've seen in many a year.

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