When my friend and I arrived to see “Pandorum” at the Century 24 last week, the parking lot was empty. This is the place where bad movies open to die an unwatched death. For a science fiction movie, good or bad, this wasn’t a bad situation. We were horrified to find a bevy of pre-teen girls moving through the concession stand, wondering if “Pandorum” appealed to the teeny-bopper set of“Twilight” and we should return our tickets. We were relieved see them go into the theater playing “Fame,” a re-make of the classic 1980’s TV/movie/play/whatever since Hollywood can’t think of anything more original. Unlike “Jennifer’s Body” the week before, no one was talking behind us since there were fewer people watching. We had one question that was left unanswered by the trailer thatwe first saw at WonderCon 2009.
The bridge crew of the Elsym receives the final transmission from a dying Earth that they are now the last survivors of humanity. Later on, two crew officers, Bower (Ben Foster) and Payton (Dennis Quaid), are awaken from hyper-sleep. They have functional memories for operating the various subsystems of the ship that comes back to them sooner than their personal memories of who they are as individuals. They discover that they’re locked inside their compartment, unable to raise the bridge crew on the radio, and a periodic power surge is slowly destroying the ship. Bower goes into the ventilation system to bypass the locked door to find out what is going on with the ship and reset the nuclear reactor before it shuts down forever. Payton monitors Bower’s progress via radio and tries to find a way to unlock the door to the bridge.
Bower comes across the pale-skinned creatures that are roaming around the ship, hunting down and eating any survivors they can find. Are these space vampire or space zombies? Neither. They appear to be space cannibals who violently eat humans—or each other—into shreds. Bower discovers two other crew members, Nadia (Antje Traue) and Manh (Cung Le), who had eked out a marginal existence of staying alive while avoiding the creatures. Together they travel towards the nuclear reactor. When they come across another survivor in a bolt hole, he recites how one member of the bridge crew reacted violently to Earth’s last transmission, taking on a Messiah complex, and exiling the other crew members into the ship, referring to the elaborately carved images into the metal panels like cave paintings that resembles the exile of humanity from Eden. Of course, the survivor telling them the story posioned their water so he could have them stay for dinner as his dinner. They convinced him that they would be his last dinner if the nuclear reactor shuts down to kill everyone aboard the ship.
Payton, meanwhile, discovers a crew member crawling in the ventilation shaft, Gallo (Cam Gigandet of “Twilight”), who was on the bridge when the last transmission from Earth came in. Pandorum, as Payton explained to Bower earlier, is a psychological condition that sometimes effect crew members in deep space, introducing paranoia and homicidal rages. The first ship sent to the Earth-like planet failed because a sick crew member took over the ship and jettisoned the hyper-sleep pods of 60,000 people into deep space. When Payton confronts Gallo about what really happened to the ship, the Pandorum madness spirals out of control in a fight to the death. Meanwhile, Bower resets the nuclear reactor with minutes to spare and comes under the influence of Pandorum when reaching the bridge.
The ending has several twists, some obvious and some obscure. The most significant can easily be missed when the camera crosses over the mission time clock—924 years from launch—that explains the evolution of the cannibals from the exiled crew. When the doors over the bridge windows are opened to reveal a dark void, the distinctive lifeforms swimming outside explains where the ship had landed. Although Pandorum the disease nearly killed the mission again, the ship itself had completed the mission to bring humanity to a new planet. Only 1,200 some odd survivors are left to restart humanity.
Cannibals in space is a subject rarely touched in science fiction. The closest example I can think of are the Reavers from the TV series,“Firefly,” who haunt the space ways looking for flesh to consume and decorate the outside of their ships with skeletons. The only other science fiction series where the crew evolved was the TV series, “Red Dwarf,” where Cat is the humanoid descendent of a pregnant domesticated cat during the three million years sealed in the ship cargo hold. This makes “Pandorum” a rather curious blend for a science fiction movie, less like “Alien” and “Event Horizon” in many ways.
Updated – Sunday, 20 March 2011: A newer blog post about Pandorum can be found here.