"What did you expect? Hannibal Lecter?" asks Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke), the murderous antagonist of Antibodies (2004), as its writer/director Christian Alvart uses all the conventions of a modern Silence Of The Lambs-style psychothriller to mask a far more ancient kind of morality play – and now, in his latest film, Alvart pulls off a similar trick, only in a different genre guise.

From the opening sequence in which first Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and then Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) are woken from hypersleep by the onboard computer of long-haul spacecraft, the Elysium, through to the presence of something frighteningly aggressive out there in the ship's interiors of (wonderfully designed) grimy decay, Pandorum sets itself up to be a rip-off of Alien (1979). That is until Alvart pulls the plug on this idea with a series of intelligently handled and understated twists that, unusually, serve the integrity of the film's narrative rather than just keeping it on the boil.

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The severe amnesia suffered by these two recently reawakened crewmen may well be a familiar cinematic device for reflecting the viewer's own disorientation and confusion at the beginning of a film, but as we, along with Bower and Payton, gradually piece together the hows, whens, whos and whys of what is going on aboard this ship of the damned, issues of identity, memory and interpretation (or 'judgement'), far from being simply sloughed off like the dead skin that enwraps those in hypersleep, remain crucial right through to the film's end.

"There's no one here except us," Payton tells Bower early on, as they realise the other 'hyperbunks' in their quarters have longs since been vacated and that the lights are, literally and metaphorically, out – but his words will come to resonate later when the external threat they face has turned out also to be internal, in a sci-fi scenario far less interested in exploring outer space than human interiors where the only 'aliens' are our own monstrous selves, just waiting to leap out of the atavistic shadows.

When Bower ventures out into the ship's vast maze of corridors and storage areas in search both of the failing reactor that he hopes to reset manually, and of the wife who is now just a distant memory, he encounters other lost souls like himself – whether it is the tough German biologist Nadia (Antje Traue), the blade-wielding Vietnamese agricultural specialist Manh (Cung Le), the crazed cultural gatekeeper Leland (Eddie Rouse), or the packs of super-fast, super-nasty 'hunters' that feed on whatever prey they can find. In the meantime, while Payton holds the fort, his space is invaded by a manic young officer named Gallo (Cam Gigandet) who is desperate to find a way back in on the action.

Amid all the dark dread, visceral fights and creature effects that make up the thrills of genre, and the drip-drip-drip of revelations that it would be criminal to spoil here, Alvart has found a way to allegorise the survival (or otherwise) of humanity itself in an environment not unlike our own, where the resources of food and fuel are running dangerously low, and where desperation can lead men to unthinkable acts.

Within the film, 'pandorum' is the nickname for a psychiatric syndrome, brought about by the extreme isolation, stress and paranoia of prolonged space travel, which reduces its sufferer to behaviour beyond all moral limits. According to the ancient myth, Pandora inadvertently releases all the ills that would beset humanity from her jar – but hope is let out of it, too. There is some hope also to be found in Alvart's examination of what it means to belong to the human species, but not without an accompanying awareness, so viciously dramatised in the heated test-tube atmosphere of the Elysium, that there are other, far more negative and feral aspects to ourselves that may have also come out of the box.

We are left imagining a brave new world, but also wondering how different it will really be, once colonised and cultivated, from the rotten one left behind. It is an unsettlingly open conclusion to a morally challenging film about the evils latent in all of us – but then, knowing Alvart as we do, none of us was expecting just plain old Hannibal Lecter in space, now, were we?

Reviewed on: 15 Feb 2010
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Two astronauts wake up on a broken-down spaceship with no idea how they got there. What's worse is that they discover they're not alone...
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Jennie Kermode ***

Director: Christian Alvart

Writer: Travis Milloy, Christian Alvart

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Antje Trauer, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse, Norman Reedus, André Hennicke

Year: 2009

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Germany


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