Rewind Review: Pandorum

Many times when learning about film you hear the flow of action described as peaks and valleys, a rollercoaster or even an electrocardiograph. Pandorum however has but one peak which is built up to for about 20 to 30 minutes and is thereafter followed by a steady descent into the absurd and unbearable.

When the film is contained to just Payton (Dennis Quaid) and Bower (Ben Foster), both having recently awoken from hypersleep and trying to both figure out what has happened to their ship and how they can repair it, the tension is palpable. As each new character is introduced more details are unfurled that just make the film descend further into the ludicrous and becomes more and more uninteresting.

The problem that faces this film is that it’s trying way too hard to be smart. There are twists to be found here but too many and nealy too hard to follow at times. They are not easy to guess but they are ludicrous and two are discovered in one minute of action towards the end regarding Quaid’s character. Not only are these twists difficult to accept so is Bower’s new attitude towards Payton, which seems based on our knowledge of Payton, not his own.

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There is more fiction than science, which is not a problem in and of itself, however, the discovery of what Pandorum is, combined with the explanation of what the creatures are is so much hokum that it’s hard to deal with. The nature of the beasts attacking them on the ship is intended to make it more frightening than it was but it failed on that account … miserably.

It’s also very strange in as much as this movie seems dissatisfied with being a horror/sci-fi story alone instead it was decided that every one of the characters Payton runs into should hit first and ask questions later and be so adept at hand-to-hand combat that it seems as if a Kung Fu movie broke out. One of the least compelling things that can possibly happen is to have an extended fight sequence when we, like the protagonist, are in search of answers.
There is also a lack of logic by our supposed hero, who due to the fact that we meet him in a state of amnesia after having slept for years, is very vaguely drawn. While they barely escaped a siege by the monsters he walks about a pod area mumbling incoherently about finding his wife, which would be understandable to an extent if only it didn’t last so long that Nadia played by Antje Traue, Germany’s answer to Milla Jovovich in every way (both good and bad), tells him twice that they should be on the move.

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Leaving significant plot details aside, to avoid spoilers, this film also features the most ridiculous and improbable “cliffhanging” scene ever. Payton crosses a bridge to try and get to the reactor to reset it. It collapses Nadia holds his hands and holds him up while Manh (Cung Le) reaches down and grabs the iron bridge and holds it up during a very long scene. As if this wasn’t bad enough there is a sea of monsters inexplicably lying down below as if they had all dropped E or something.

The acting for the most part ranges from flat to bad with the exception of Dennis Quaid who was rather good. It’s just unfortunate that the story surrounding his character was one of the many fatal flaws in this film.

It’s possible to go further into the details of this story and why it falls very short. The fact of the matter is that each twist renders it more and more futile and makes it a more wasted experience. It takes great potential and a few decent ideas and twists them so much all hope of quality is wrung out of the fabric of the story. The intelligent becomes pedantic and the fascinating becomes futile and facile. It starts as a film made for adults and ends as a tale for children, both of whom have their intelligence insulted. The lead was buried in this story and instead of being cute with tricks and twists they would’ve been better off telling a slightly longer more straight forward tale in proper chronology, without the amnesia aspect and the potential for drama is already better.

Review- Contraband

Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster in Contraband (Universal)

In the first incarnation of the Best Foreign Film Awards for the BAMs one of the winners was The Sea, a film from Iceland. While I try to keep tabs on former winners it does get harder as the years go on and the new winners accumulate. Combine that with the fact that Baltasar Kormákur, the director of the aforementioned film, continued to work in Iceland, a country that doesn’t always achieve international recognition and distribution, one could see how I lost track of him but that one film with its sharp direction, palpable drama and believable performances stayed with me. So when I saw his name on the opening credits of Contraband, which is itself an American remake of an Icelandic film, I was perhaps a little more hopeful than I otherwise would’ve been and I was not disappointed.

Contraband indeed does take a lot of familiar elements: an ex-con turned legit doing “one last job” (until the potential sequel) to protect his family because his brother-in-law got in over his head. The set-up is one we’ve seen but the film language and interpretation is a bit more artistic than one might expect. The precise relationship of the characters does not reveal itself right away, concepts that might be unknown to the audience are introduced then explained later, certain continuity is assumed therefore less-than-essential elements might be omitted and bother completists. It is this kind of telling that is almost required of a story that otherwise doesn’t offer much in the way of innovation.

One of the places wherein this film really does excel is in the portrayal of its villain both in the scripting of the film and in his interpretation. Briggs is not only ruthless and reckless but very well realized by Giovanni Ribisi. In this modern era there seem to be fewer black-and-white characters than before and a lot of navigating in the gray areas of humanity, which can be fine but it’s a lot more nebulous and difficult to get through it. Therefore to have a character who has no obvious redeeming qualities or seemingly no complexity is practically verboten but a good actor relishes this challenge. It can allow the actor to do a lot of work on the character’s story that could lead to his mannerisms and so on. I’m not saying Ribisi is method, I can’t confirm or deny but that what I am saying is a character so seemingly simple free of being judged can be a liberating experience and allow an actor to bring more than expected to a part. One way or another Ribisi goes above and beyond here and is a big reason this film works.

It seems every so often some way or somehow I’m reminded that Mark Wahlberg started in music and I do need to be reminded. Not only am I now accustomed to seeing him as an actor but have liked quite a few things he’s done. I think the key is creating a screen persona. He has one and usually he finds himself in films not too different than this and he also helps makes this film happen. Some action films need to work to have you believe the star fits in the milieu or builds up the world of the character and then the character but Wahlberg due to his persona and the types of characters he plays naturally fits therefore the film’s world and character can be discovered simultaneously. He always makes his characters identifiable and likable in spite of their flaws.

The supporting cast highlighted by Kate Beckinsale as the knowing yet vulnerable and worried wife, then there’s Ben Foster who’s very nuanced and Caleb Landry Jones who seems to be carving out his own niche as the engaging yet troubled youth.

Two other things that are a boon to this film are: it has a very good twist that propels it to a dramatic conclusion and it depicts an interesting and oft unexplored world of smuggling on ocean faring vessels. The conclusion gets quite dramatic and actually does leave you wondering how things will work out in the end.

The end did make me wonder how things turn out in the Icelandic version, however, that didn’t really adversely affect this film. What did was in the Panamanian episode there’s really the only pacing issue of the film and our leads are forced into a situation where they become passive observers, which makes that section quite tedious. That and a few other willful suspensions of disbelief are all that hold it back.

Despite its second act stumbles Contraband is a slightly elevated genre film with some good surprises in store and a nicely appointed denouement that should be a crowd pleaser.

7/10