Dennis Quaid in 'Pandorum' (Overture Films)

Really good sci-fi horror flicks don't come along too often. Pandorum may be burdened with the unfair stigma of "not screened in advance for the press" (at least in my area), but it proves to be a superior picture, expertly establishing and maintaining a charged atmosphere of unhinged ferocity.

Director Christian Alvart displays an assured grasp of visual storytelling and provides a solid framework for Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid to let loose with intense, uninhibited performances. Four years ago, Alvart made the powerful Antibodies, a haunting serial killer movie that neatly subverted expectations, and he has delivered another impressive genre-buster. He even made me sit on the edge of my seat a few times, an inclination which I nearly always resist.

Foster and Quaid are apparently the first two members of their mission team to awaken from hyper-sleep on the spaceship Elysium. They're both badly disoriented; hyper-sleep is supposed to induce brief memory loss, but they look like they've journeyed through all nine circles of suffering in Dante's Inferno, which might feel like a picnic in the park compared to their situation.

The ship appears abandoned; no one is present to greet them, the power has been shut down, and they're locked in a chamber with impregnable metal doors. They can barely remember their names, much less their mission or even their own qualifications. Just wait until they find out they're not alone. And whatever is out there is very fast, very ugly, and very hungry.


What comes back first is probably what was sounded down the deepest: respect for the chain of command. Corporal Bower (Foster) listens to orders from Lieutenant Payton (Quaid) and obediently clambers into a pitch-black air duct to try and find a way out. The air duct is tight; a sense of claustrophobia emanates from the screen as Bower takes more and more turns into darkness, getting more and more frustrated as he goes deeper into ... what? He doesn't know.

Sitting safely in the locked chamber, where his slowly-returning memory has allowed him to kick-start emergency lights and computer systems by hand, Payton calmly exercises his leadership. The tension builds and builds, and then releases, and then Bower makes a startling discovery, which leads to the disturbing revelation that some thing or things are skittering around the ship, striking first and never asking questions.

Did I mention they're fast? Whatever they are, they're lightning-quick, so blurry / speedy that they make the zombies in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and the subterranean creatures in Neil Marshall's The Descent look like slowpokes. "Running is always the best option," someone will say later, and Bower wisely exercises that option, narrowly escaping a bloody demise at the hands of ravenous things.

Eventually Bower and Payton will meet up with other survivors, whose number includes Nadia (Antje Traue), my new favorite blood-spattered, kick-ass heroine), Manh (Cung Le), whose character name I never clearly heard, and Gallo (Cam Gigandet), a soldier with a mission of his own to fulfill. Bower and Payton remain separated for much of the story, only occasionally intersecting, allowing disparate strands of the narrative to comment on one another.

Under Alvart's direction, the film begins as a mystery and develops into a full-fledged, sometimes over-hysterical drama, with razor-edged horror elements lurking nearby; the creatures can strike anywhere and at any time. Their identity is never truly in question, even though Bower raises other possibilities. The more important mystery lies elsewhere.

A brief prelude sets up an over-populated, resource-depleted future in which the last hope for humanity, the spaceship Elysium, has been hurled into deep space toward an Earth-like planet that may prove to be the salvation for the human race. So what happened to the Elysium, and to the other crew members? What started the disaster? And is there a path toward salvation for the survivors?

Flashbacks are used judiciously to fill in some of the missing details, and that's where we get the explanation for the movie's title, which sounds like an unholy formula of pablum, boredom, and tedium. "Pandorum" is described as a mental condition that closely resembles a sci-fi version of cabin fever. Upon waking from hyper-sleep, a certain infamous captain eventually went crazy and killed everybody on board. The symptoms begin with a shaking of the hands, progress toward hallucinations, and so forth. After that explanation, it's inevitable that one or more of the Elysium survivors will begin exhibiting symptoms, but which one and to what extent?

It's equally inevitable that some wiseguys will claim that the solution to the mystery is so obvious that they figured it out within ten seconds of the movie beginning. Well, good for you. As for me, I got wrapped up in the picture to the point that I didn't care so much about how the mystery was solved; the journey became the thing.

Not that every element works equally well. The action scenes are a problem. One hyped-up incomprehensible sequence is enough for me -- it helps establish the blinding, deadly speed of the creatures and how quickly a living, breathing human being can be transformed into a ripped-up slab of meat with his internal organs hanging out. The editing style, though, feels like it was imposed by producer Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Death Race). The scenes are mercifully brief, but would have benefited from about a thousand fewer edits.

Other than that and a few minor quibbles with how certain story points played out, I was pleasantly surprised by Pandorum. It earns its R-rating without dwelling too excessively on the explicit carnage, adds several entries to the library of memorable sci-fi / horror imagery, and in general provides a bracing jolt of deranged b-movie entertainment.

And for those of us who saw and enjoyed Antibodies, that film's star, André Hennicke, plays the Hunter Leader of the creatures. In addition, Alvart got Norman Reedus, who was also in Antibodies, to enact another small but memorable role.

Antje Traue in 'Pandorum'