Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2009

Permanent midnight

Ambitiously immersed in utter darkness, 'Pandorum' exceeds expectations

Overture Films
Director: Christian Alvart
Screenplay: Travis Milloy and Christian Alvart
Starring: Ben Foster, Dennis Quaid, Antje Traue, Cam Gigandet, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse and Norma Reedus
Rated R / 1 hour, 48 minutes
Opened September 25, 2009
(out of four)

The first thing we notice is the darkness. It's relentless. Our main character wakes up inside of it, enveloped on all sides, with hardly a hint of who he is or why the lights are out. It won't get much brighter for the foreseeable future.

His name, according to the hyper-sleep chamber he's just awoken from, is Cpl. Bower (Ben Foster), and he's aboard a ship that was meant to colonize an Earth-like planet. Something seems to have gone wrong. He wakes up his commanding officer, Payton (Dennis Quaid), in hopes of figuring out what exactly happened and how they can get out of it.

But it's not long before he finds himself stuck right back in the middle of that darkness.

Darkness indeed. While watching the film, I kept waiting for director Christian Alvart to come up with some clever idea how (or why) to brighten up his visual palette. That's what usually happens. We never stay in the dark for very long. But Alvart insists on keeping us inside of it.

It's actually a much more ambitious strategy than most people will probably give him credit for - if they even notice. For the majority of the film, our only sources of light are flashlights, dull computer screens or barely-lit corridors. We see what Bower sees. (Or doesn't see.) If all the lights were to suddenly spark up, he might see a ship full of some sort of ferocious, mutated creatures that seem to have commandeered the ship as their own personal feeding ground. But we only catch glimpses of them - though we are constantly reminded of their peripheral presence with that shrieking of theirs.

Pandorum is a significantly better film than any advertisements have made it out to be. When you're selling your movie as "from the people who brought you the Resident Evil movies," you're selling it far too short.

Alvart seems to have taken a crash course in James Cameron 101, drawing inspiration from Aliens and The Abyss. There are also hints at Danny Boyle's Sunshine and Neil Marshall's The Descent.

Truth be told, it's not as good as any of those films - in large part because the action scenes (which are plentiful) have an exasperating tendency to be completely incoherent. It's during those sequences that Alvart's decision to shoot everything in utter darkness starts feeling like a mistake. Our inability to decipher most of what's going on doesn't really heighten our anxiety, nor provide a unique sensation - it just confuses and, in some cases, annoys us.

In almost every other scene, however, the film's style works to its advantage. There is a discernibly moody feel to the atmosphere and a sense of claustrophobia that slowly builds up the further we descend into relative emptiness. The vessel's hallways might be wide open spaces for all we know, but we never will. We can only see a few steps ahead.

On a ship that can be this creepy whenever the lights go out, it's no surprise that the occasional crew member might suffer from something called "pandorum," a sense of hysterical and violent paranoia brought on by increased stress. (Once again, I was reminded of The Abyss - notably the plight of Michael Biehn's character.)

Needless to say, pandorum will come into play at some point, though exactly how it does so remains something of a surprise. (It will also likely spur debate about whether one particular development makes perfect sense, or is just cheap storytelling. Personally, I'm torn.)

Impressively enough, Pandorum shunned the all-too-common tendency of CGI overload and instead went with the great Stan Winston Studios to create its characters. The result is a massive upgrade over anything I can imagine being done with computers in this type of film. You see these creatures, and you can tell a lot of time and care were put into designing them. That says something about Pandorum in general. It is not a standout film, by any means - but it cares about what it's doing, and is all the better for it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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