When I reviewed Christian Alvert’s debut feature “Antibodies” back in 2005, I thought it was an impressive first film, and I hoped that it would lead to a strong feature career. Hollywood and international financing being what they are, it’s taken four years for Alvert to release a second film, and his third one “Case 39” is still sitting on a shelf right now. It’s not what I hoped would happen, but I’m well aware of how hard it can be for even the most talented filmmakers to get their work in front of people.
He co-wrote the script for “Pandorum,” his SF/horror film, and it’s an interesting if not entirely successful attempt to blend the two genres. One of my complaints about most supposed science-fiction films is that they aren’t. They use the genre for its surface trappings, and that’s it. Here, Alvert and his co-writer Travis Milloy are playing with some genuine SF ideas, and the horror grows out of what’s gone wrong with an experiment in off-world colonization. As a result, this is one of the few hybrids of the two genres that I’ve ever seen where I think both genres are given the same attention.
Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster star in the film as crew members onboard a deep space ship called the Elysium, woken from suspended animation for what they think is going to be a routine shift. They quickly learn that something has gone terribly wrong onboard the ship, though, which is a huge problem since they may well represent the last hope for humanity. In the future of the film, our planet was choked to death by overpopulation and environmental abuse, and the Elysium was created as a 60,000 person Ark that is carrying samples to a new planet so we can start over. When Foster and Quaid can’t get hold of anyone else onboard the ship, and when they find that there are major system failures in almost every part of the ship, they set out to solve the mystery of what happened. Even worse, there are signs that they may be suffering from a form of deep-space dementia called Pandorum, which is going to make solving that mystery next to impossible.
Suffice it to say, scary monsters are involved. Which is almost always a plus.
I wish I loved the movie, but I didn’t. I thought it was somewhat by-the-numbers once it gets up to speed, but Alvert still has a strong sense of composition and pace, and he does know what he’s doing from moment to moment. The film’s conclusion is oddly hopeful considering how bleak much of the running time is, and it’s fun to watch Quaid and Foster run a contest to see who can chew the most scenery. I was surprised to see that Cung Le, who is a genuinely scary badass in real life, is used to little effect in the film’s action sequences. Weird casting choice.
I like the film’s look and feel, considering it couldn’t have been a wildly expensive film. Overall, it’s the sort of film that plays better at home, where you probably paid a rental fee, than it would have in a theater, and if that sounds like a slight slam, it’s not. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to like a film without loving it, and the fact that things are so often binary in the world of film criticism is a real problem. I hope Alvert’s able to build off of this film and eventually make something that makes full use of his not-inconsiderable talents.
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