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Monday Review: Pandorum and Surrogates


'Pandorum' brings space horror back

In the future, when interplanetary space travel is required because earth is about to be destroyed and we need to find a new planet, if the ships that are built are huge hulking things of metal with iron gratings and black tubing everywhere and cryogenic freezing is necessary I'm going to stay on earth to die. Enough space horror films have taught me that traveling in a ship like that is just bad news. The ship is either going to be attacked by an alien, have the computers turn on the crew or have the crew turn on it itself and go insane. Science fiction horror has taught us well that this is what will happen.

In the case of Pandorum it's the latter issue. After awakening from a cryogenic sleep, Cpl. Bower (Ben Foster) finds himself on a darkened, powerless spaceship of the type described above. He remembers almost nothing as cryogenic sleep will evidently do that to a person, but he knows the ship is on an important mission (to colonize an earth like planet because we destroyed earth), and that something isn't right. Lt. Payton (Dennis Quaid) comes out of his sleep about an hour later, but the two are stuck in the room and thus Bower must climb into the air ducts to try to get power back to the ship. Unfortunately, the ship has been overrun by deadly hunting creatures with pale skin and super strength. A few of the non-crew who were on the ship also seem to have survived by fashioning weapons and running constantly from the creatures who have been hunting humans as they randomly wake up from their cryogenic sleep. Clearly something has gone wrong. Bower meets up with two of the ships survivors and the group attempts to make it to the reactor core before the ship explodes, while Payton seems to be steadily losing his mind (what the film calls pandorum) holed up in the room that he and Bower woke up in.

All the ingredients are there for a solid space horror. There's a worrisome mental breakdown, fast moving creatures that keep to the shadows and a deadline before everyone dies. Believe it or not Pandorum bakes those ingredients into a pretty decent space horror pie, and works a bit of originality into it as well. Quaid delivers a particularly disturbing performance, especially as the film comes to its climax, and while the idea of one man being trapped alone in space is hardly new for the genre the film does treat it very well, throwing a dash of space psycological thriller into the horror film exterior.

Meanwhile, on the outside of Payton's solitary confinement the attacking creatures offer up some very solid scares and even more impressively some decent action. While the monsters do keep to the shadows, this isn't a film where you don't see the big bad until the end. Hand to hand fights with the creatures take place early and often, and the sort of tribal weaponry of both the few survivors and the creatures themselves makes for some very cool fights. It's a very slight twist on the classic theme of being trapped on a ship with predators after you, but it makes the movie far more interesting.

Pandorum is interesting. While director Christian Alvart has some issues directing his fight sequences, and even worse his horror sequences, he still manages to deliver some immensely taught moments and a couple of genuine scares. It helps that Travis Maloy's screenplay isn't dumb as dirt and keeps everything moving at a decent pace. This means that while Alvart is needlessly chopping up a scene the story is moving forward enough to make the viewer stay locked in with the characters despite the poor editing and directing. There are parts of the film where Alvart does well, experimenting with montage and visual effects, but for the most part these fall through or are rampantly cliche (Why does a blurry screen and echoing voices always equal space insanity?).

For fans of the genre I can't see Pandorum disappointing. It literally has it all. Is it of the pedigree of Aliens or Event Horizon (note: these two films themselves are not of the same pedigree)? No, but it's far better than most films involving these themes, and actually attempts to do something interesting with the story it has. In a genre that has pretty much stayed stagnate for years (for better or worse) that's worth seeing alone.

'Surrogates': good idea, poor execution

Surrogates is possibly the most metaphysical film ever made. Not that it is trying to be, but it definitely could be. See Surrogates is about a world where humans basically live their lives through surrogate robots that they control from the comfort of their own home. Everyone is shiny, glossy and beautiful on the outside, but their souls - the interesting parts - are stuck back at home. Everything and everyone is shiny and pretty, but it takes away what makes humans interesting. In much the same way the film itself puts a shiny action movie gloss over an incredibly interesting concept - obscuring its soul.

Surrogates is based upon the graphic novel of the same name, and the concept behind it is brilliant. Even its story could actually be immensely interesting if it was pulled off right (the graphic novel most likely did this). In a world where everyone is living their life through surrogate robots murder has disappeared and everyone can be exactly who they want to be. However, someone figures out a way to kill people through their surrogates and that is when Detective Greer (Bruce Willis) is called onto the case. He is dragged into a conspiracy that eventually leads him into the underground world of a group of people who shun surrogacy and are led by a man named The Prophet (Ving Rhames). Not only this, but Greer is dealing with issues of a dead son and a wife who has become addicted to her surrogate (as much of the world has). A foot chase and car chase ensue.

Seriously. That's it. After spending the first 30 minutes actually setting up and delivering an interesting world and plot line, the film goes into a foot chase and a car chase... and the obligatory twist. Maybe it's because the run time for the film was crammed down to 85 minutes for some reason, but after the filmmakers got all the exposition out of the way they just sort of stopped working. It's one of the most dreadful screenplays based on an amazing concept I've ever seen. You could literally feel the cool ideas begging to be released from the tepid screenplay binding them in.

If you simply saw the first 30 or so minutes of the film you would probably come away thinking you might be seeing a serious sci-fi success, with a slightly poor screenplay. Hints of Blade Runner pervade, though in a far brighter and cheerier world. The film teases at being a truly well done science fiction thriller, and then suddenly stops. Subtle hints at questions of humanity become clear lines between good and evil. Questions and ideals raised disappear into the clear cut definitions of Hollywood cinema. The film truly becomes a surrogate of itself: cold, removed and slightly off from what you know it should be like.

Speaking of the surrogates, they're awesome. If you've seen any film that features an actor made younger by digital effects you know the strange "too smooth" look they get. In Surrogates that look actually makes sense. The filmmakers and actors did a wonderful job of making the surrogates seem just that slight bit off. They're a bit too smooth, a bit too postured, a bit too uncanny. Almost everyone in the movie nails it, except for Ving Rhames, who was one of the worst casting decisions in years. The incredibly cool execution of the surrogates makes the film's last hour all the worse, as you watch the subtle hints of the surrogate's lack of humanity get replaced by speed running and massive jumps onto the roofs of speeding buses. I'm all for action, but not when it's at the cost of something that could have been truly special.

Thus we come to two conclusions. The first is that Surrogates is a brilliant art film that parodies and critiques itself by actually becoming a surrogate for its true soul. The second is that Surrogates is yet another film that got swallowed by the Hollywood machine and spit out the other side. It's a surrogate of itself, but it's hardly aware of that fact. Sadly, I believe the truth of the matter to be the latter.

Oh, and despite the bad review, Bruce Willis is still awesome.

(My poor Italian mother needs money for her open heart surgery, but the doctors won't come to her remote location unless I can also fly them there. Please donate by clicking the link in my profile.)
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About Matthew Razakone of us since 2:04 PM on 04.03.2009

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