Pandorum posterFor a movie as overflowing with space-movie clichs as Pandorum inarguably is, it's amazing what a thrilling science fiction horror experience it is. I spent at least as much time spotting references and homages to decades of science fiction history as I did following the movie's story, but it never feels like a rip-off or a tired plodding through old ideas. There's not a scrap of light in the movie, but it creates a realistic atmosphere and tells a story about the last surviving remnants of mankind that is good enough to keep you interested.The year is 2174 and mankind has literally used up the planet Earth. Wars over remaining resources have become commonplace, and an expedition is put together to move an embryonic selection of humankind to a distant, earth-like planet. There are 16,000 people in hyper-sleep for the duration of the mission, and a population of crew members who are automatically awoken at different times to run the ship. Each team has a specific time when they are supposed to be awake and in command, before being succeeded by the next team.The movie starts with Bower (Ben Foster), an engineer on Team 5, violently awakening with vague memories of life on earth and no idea who he is or what's going on. Another astronaut, Payton (Dennis Quaid), soon awakens as well and then leads Bower by radio contact to the ship's reactor, so that he can mend it and they can figure out what went wrong and continue the mission. Gradually we learn along with Bower that they're on a ship destined for a distant planet capable of supporting human life, the ship was built for a one-way trip, and it's is full of bloosthirsty, humanoid monsters.Cung Le, Ben Foster, and Antje Traue in Pandorum.Before I go on, I should point out that "pandorum" refers to a psychotic break that takes place among ship's captains, when they become convinced that a mission is cursed. It's a mental downward spiral, a descent into madness brought on by the pressures of life in space impacting on a person's growing sense of paranoia. The last time pandorum happened, we learn, the captain snapped and evacuated the ship's entire population into deep space, still in deep sleep in their pods. This creates an atmosphere where no one is sure who can be trusted or who is starting to show the intitial signs of pandorum, and it's a shady, tense atmosphere that is exploited perfectly.[caption id="attachment_59273" align="alignright" width="400" caption="Payton confronts an unruly subordinate."]Payton confronts an unruly subordinate.[/caption]The story really captured my imagination at first in a story element that is ultimately it's greatest disappointment the discovery of a new Earth-like planet, and a mission to reach it. The movie ends with an enormous, cheating cop-out in this department, but the story that gradually unfolds on the way there is one of the best science fiction stories that I've seen in a movie in the last decade, maybe more.As far as the monsters aboard the ship, there are suggestions that they're aliens and suggestions that they're mutated humans, but despite a few of their behaviors (and apparel) and a slightly too human-like appearance, I would have to lean toward the former. Regardless, they might be the best movie-zombies I've ever seen. Eddie Rouse, Antje Traue, Ben Foster, and Cung Le in Pandorum.We first hear about them when Bower runs into a woman who was in charge of a specimen-collecting program that is one of the movie's great revelations, and she explains to him that she doesn't really know much about them. When they see them, they don't try to learn much, they generally just get the hell out of there. Soon there is a run-in with some of the monsters, and it's one of the best holy crap scenes of the year. Suddenly running seems like not such a bad idea!There is a major, major revelation late in the movie that is one of it's best development and which I won't even hint at here, but it is far better than the countdown to self-destruct that drives most of the action in the last third of the film. The ending of the movie is outstanding, despite the cheat I mentioned before, and as a whole it comes along with other outstanding science fiction movies like Moon, District 9, and the spectacular new Star Trek movie to make 2009 one of the best years for science fiction in decades.The Bean MeterThe Man.