(Impact) It's hard to find good sci-fi cinema. Even venerated sagas like Star Trek and Star Wars are actually more science-fantasy than science-fiction. Duncan Jones' Moon is probably the best recent drama set in space, as it rarely strays from the realm of the believable. The Alien series comes pretty close, despite being sci-horror: at least it makes the effort to base its wild scenarios on logical concepts. Ridley Scott's visionary epic Prometheus has taken a lot of flak for perceived inconsistencies and unanswered questions, but what its critics have failed to grasp is that, as a surreal nightmare mystery, it's jaw-droppingly beautiful. You can pick apart any sci-fi tale and find questionable details and plot holes; that's the peril of the genre. What good sci-fi does is create a universe we haven't seen before – one filled with awe and wonder, one that's as internally consistent as possible, and one that says something basic about human nature and the steadfast persistence of the human spirit. That's exactly what Travis Milloy and Christian Alvart's Pandorum does.
Pandorum is one of those cinematic gems that just didn't find its audience when it was first released. Its rating on Rotten Tomatoes is abysmal considering how gorgeously conceived, constructed, and executed the film is. For a story set on a huge generation ship, it's one of the most tense, claustrophobic film experiences you'll have, and yet it never loses sight of the mythic themes that hum at its heart. It's a vision of hell – the hell of violence that stems from the human survival instinct – but it's a hell that's constantly reaching for heaven and the promise of a new beginning.
The film begins with an intense sequence of disorientation as Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) wakes in his hypersleep pod, gasping and shaking from his long slumber in the wastes of time and interstellar distance. His memory has been affected by his suspended state, and it's a while before he and his commanding officer, Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid), can piece together a rough idea of where they are and what their original purpose was. They're onboard the Elysium, a starship ark bound from Earth to the Earthlike planet of Tanis with 60,000 sleeping colonists in its gigantic hold. It's immediately clear that something is very wrong with the ship, as power surges rock the deck on which the two men stand and mysterious figures appear and vanish in the deserted hallways.
Shortly afterward, we're given a space-age ghost story about a different ship called the Eden, whose flight crew succumbed to the space madness known as Pandorum, which causes tremors, bleeding, extreme paranoia, and horrific violence. Throughout the rest of the film, we're left to wonder if any or all of the Elysium's crew is suffering from the same condition.
Like Prometheus, Pandorum is an unpredictable tale of wonder and suspense – a survival story masquerading as a horror story masquerading as a scientific parable. In both cases, it's no accident that the ship is called what it's called, nor that the crew have the particular personalities they have. Both films are about the fear of life itself – the fear of unchecked reproduction bringing doom to our species – but where Prometheus is about the unpleasant answers we might find when we try to meet our makers, Pandorum is about the terrifying things we're capable of when trapped in an unsustainable situation with diminishing resources. Sound familiar?
Pandorum has too many great qualities to list them all, but here are a few: fantastic visual design, an imaginatively complete and detailed world, relentlessly tense performances, and a grand scope of narrative that does nothing less than decide the fate of the human species based on the actions of a few brave souls. It's refreshing to see a survival-horror plot in which the stakes are literally as high as they can get; it tugs at something buried deep in your hind-brain – a sense of primal terror that the prospect of extinction brings.
Ultimately, it's not just the threat of human extinction that gives Pandorum its unsettling power, it's the idea that such a monumental loss could occur for such pointless reasons as a few scared people being unable to work together. It's the timeless struggle of intellect versus brute chaos; that's what gives Pandorum its mythic resonance – and to achieve this in an outlandish setting where every event nonetheless has a rational explanation is quite a feat. It's that most rare of sci-fi stories in which inventiveness is matched by coherence. Pandorum adds up to far more than the sum of its parts, and – if you've ever enjoyed a good sci-fi movie – it deserves your devoted attention. Watch it, and then tell someone else about it.
Why We Like It: a completely realized future world, unbelievable and unremitting tension, the grand scope of truly great sci-fi, a final payoff like no other