From the Archives: Passengers review

From the Archives: Passengers review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

Passengers opens strong. Very strong. It introduces a complex idea in the fashion of the best sci-fi, setting up a tale that’s sure to be mined for heady philosophical thematics. And then it squanders it all in favor of a bland “ticking time-bomb” space adventure. What easily could have opened up a timely discussion about personal agency, loneliness, and resiliency, ends up saying nothing, short of “isn’t that neat?” This is doubly frustrating given that the pieces of a much more interesting film are right there, dangling like a bunch of unpulled threads, hidden behind CG imagery that would have been par for the course 15 years ago. In fact, a better version of Passengers wouldn’t have required many effects at all, and it certainly wouldn’t have required two hours of my time.

The movie that exists unfolds as follows: A commuter craft is traveling into deep space, en route to Homestead II, a recently discovered planet in need of colonization. The trip is set to take 120 years, and the 5000 passengers are to remain in induced hibernation for the bulk of the ride. The ship will run on autopilot until it is a few months short of its destination, at which point everyone will be awoken to begin training for their new lives. After passing through an asteroid belt, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is brought out of his slumber 90 years early . . . with no way to go back to sleep.

He’s stuck living out the rest of his days on the ship, his only companion being a robot bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen, in the role he was born to play). Naturally he begins to succumb to intense cabin fever which ultimately leads to an idea: wake another passenger to keep him company, even though it would effectively doom them to an identical fate.

Plus, maybe he can get laid! Gross!

He chooses Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer who is traveling to Homestead II in search of a unique story. She’s cold at first, but eventually resigns to her fate, incorrectly believing that her hibernation pod, much like Jim’s, merely suffered a malfunction. A romance ensues, and the movie that should exist would explore the ethics of this coupling, blurring the lines between right and wrong as we dig into the existential aspects of their situation: Can we really blame Jim for wanting company? Can Aurora really be expected to forgive a man who has put her into an inescapable relationship fueled only by Stockholm Syndrome? The Richard Matheson story that Passengers isn’t at all based on would have had a field day, but unfortunately for us this is all of little concern in our post-Gravity world, SO LET’S GET THESE SEXY CELEBS INTO SPACE SUITS AND PUT THEM INTO PERIL, STAT!

From here the movie descends into blandness and stays there until the whimper of an ending. Laurence Fishburne rolls through at one point to deliver exposition, as does Andy Garcia, who has no lines at all.

I’m only intermittently impressed with Chris Pratt on the whole, which makes Passengers that much more frustrating — he’s excellent in this. He’s not coasting on charm, he’s not being silly, he’s acting. Pratt brings a damaged altruism to the role that, had this been the character study it so desperately needed to be, would have served the story well. When he’s wrestling with the decision to wake Aurora and doom her to an eternity at his side, it invoked a conflict in my heart: He has been screwed by chance into accepting a cruel fate that he doesn’t deserve, and to see him waste away is genuinely heartbreaking. At the same time, the choice to imprison a helpless person for selfish gain is simply wrong. Add sex to it and it becomes that much tougher to just brush off (which the movie asks us to do). This juxtaposition is one that Pratt wears well. He carries the weight of his selfish decision in every scene he shares with Lawrence, and when she eventually finds out what he’s done, we feel equally vindicated and crushed. If this had been the focus of the film it could have pushed Pratt beyond novelty and into the next level of celebrity.

It doesn’t happen, but as a sign of things to come, I’m hopeful. He might just become a real actor. I’m rooting for him.

Lawrence is great, as per usual, even if she isn’t really given much to work with. Once again I lament the movie that could’ve been. Lawrence is second-to-none when it comes to elevating lame material, but the reason she’s famous is her ability to work difficult material with ease. Passengers should have been difficult material. Instead it’s just difficult to watch.

Even so, I’m not ready to jump on the Morten Tyldum hate train just yet. I don’t know his work well enough to have that type of passion about it either way (and I suspect that most of the collective distaste comes from him having the best name for a bullying victim), but I do fear that he’s out of his league visually. If you look back at The Imitation Game, it’s a film which eschews flair (a skill unto itself), instead finding richness in the excellent script and thorough performances. Tyldum clearly knows how to frame human moments while coaxing thoughtful performances from his cast. He’s actually the perfect candidate for the version of Passengers I wanted to see, but his style does not serve the weird space adventure aspects well. The set-pieces are imaginative, and they look serviceable, but that’s really the problem: they do the job, nothing more, nothing less. If that’s the movie you want to make, you have to commit.

Passengers will be best served when it hits TNT and plays on loop during Labor Day. You will be able to check in and out as needed (much checking out is needed – the film crawwwwwwwls after the midpoint), and savor the pieces of greatness scantily littered throughout.

Here’s a fun thing that I’m going to plant into your head: Crisp Rat. Say it.

Crisp. Rat.

Now every time you hear “Chris Pratt” you will instead hear “Crisp Rat.”  Someone told me this and it has never gone away. I give this gift to you.

Passengers opens in Philly theaters today.

Official site.

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