Dir. Morten Tyldum, Script. Jon Spaihts
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt
Plot: Two passengers wake up on a spaceship 90 years from landing, but are conveniently rather attractive so they try to fuck the years away.
Haven’t I been here before?
I spent a great deal of the time I spent watching Passengers wondering what other movies I was vicariously watching through it. Of course you have all the space movies it cherry picks from, such as Gravity (alone in space), the Alien series (the far future setting, massive fictional companies) which not-too-coincidentally in my mind screenwriter Jon Spaihts wrote for with Prometheus, and most notably WALL-E, from which Sony’s big-budget interstellar shoplifter derives its production design, its musical score, romantic elements, loneliness of the central character – even the gorgeous space dance scene, one of my personal favourites in the annals of film, has been unapologetically reworked here to feature two, if artificial, far-too-human beings who just so happened to do as well with the focus groups as those previous science fiction films did at the box office. And that’s not getting into the movies from other genres that have also had their inerds chopped up, mangled and reinserted into the $110m composited amalgamation in question. In short, I feel compelled to put on my spacesuit, relieve the airlock pressure, and scream out into the vacuum of space (where sound waves do not travel – how you wish they didn’t inside your head as it starts saying what I’ve typed here back to you) that Passengers is the world’s first collage film, comprised entirely of chunks of other movies, and as much an affront at times as one of those serial killer death threats made from newspaper clippings. But a collage does require some element of skill: Passengers is more like the sinister concoction of spirits the unfortunate bastard who draws the final ace has to down at the end of Ring Of Fire.
Passengers is actually not too bad of a movie. Although it’s touching two hours in length, its engaging enough that I didn’t desperately try to guess how much of my life had passed by in the screening room, nor did my mind try to convince my body that it really was time for a well-earned piss. There’s actually plenty going for it in fact. But, like all big Sony movies seem to do, Passengers has the unfortunate, uncomfortable and even slightly unnerving feeling that this was a movie designed by a committee. And rather than talk about the script, the basic plot and other things we cinemagoers take as gospel that all the roundtables and meetings are designed for, you get the sense that the production team made director Morten Tyldum (brought onto the project in the wake of an Oscar nomination for The Imitation Game) play an expensively twisted dot-to-dot game, forced to connect elements that simply HAD to show up in the film regardless of the tenuousness of the connections themselves. Passengers has a lot of issues, and it boils down to the movie having an identity crisis – simply not knowing who it is, what it wants to be, even where the thing’s from. There are tonal shifts aplenty, from a science fiction thriller one minute to a survival style vibe the next; it even becomes a straight up disaster movie as it begins to hurtle towards its conclusion, existentially screaming bloody murder as it ponders the only question the movie, and many of us will ask ourselves after seeing this movie – ‘What have I become?’
But what I think Passengers is striving towards more than anything else is to enter a hallowed and often derided genre – the ‘epic romance’. You know, one of those movies with a love story so powerful and enduring it transcends space (especially in this instance), dimensions and sometimes even inept filmmaking (in the case of The Notebook). Titanic is one such film, Casablanca a better example, and Allied an example of a complete failure. In its efforts to create a love story for all time, Passengers has recruited (in another move that reeks of audience pandering) Chris Pratt, who has enjoyed truly monolithic box office success in the last couple of years, and Jennifer Lawrence, whose performances have not enjoyed me for the same rough amount of time. They’re not the problem at all: if anything, their charisma and surprisingly strong romantic chemistry is what keeps Passengers – sort of – afloat. Pratt plays a salt-of-the-Earth (although he’ll regret leaving it behind) engineer who takes the chance of moving to a colony planet 120 years away, waking up from his malfunctioning hibernation pod a quarter down the line and realising he’s stuck here with no chance of escape. Pratt actually gets the opportunity to show some range here in Passengers‘ early stages, doing a pretty solid job of it. Pratt is the only character we see for a good chunk of the first act, exempting an android bartender played winningly by Michael Sheen. That’s a daunting task for any actor, but Pratt is able to remain a compelling presence as he grows despondent, alone, drunk, and a killer beard that recalls Tom Hanks in a chrome version of Cast Away.
Of course, one of the key parts of Cast Away is Tom Hanks’s desperation for a companion, and Pratt too seeks a beach-ball to draw crude facial features on. This is where Passengers makes a mistake so fatal it makes Hiroshima seem like a child falling off a swing-set. Of course Jennifer Lawrence is the companion chosen, and she might as well be called Wilson as she’s given about as much personality as a spherical plaything and treated as such – thrown around, owned predominantly by white men, and kicked over the fence between characters and objects. Basically, Pratt wakes Lawrence up. And the way this is done is really poorly judged, carelessly misogynistic and downright creepy. While the moral quandary Passengers presents here (i.e. whether to end your loneliness but effectively end somebody’s life in the process is worth it) is an extremely interesting conceit that probably stands out as the script’s biggest strength, it doesn’t feel like enough time is given for us to think about it before Pratt’s already hotwired it and basically murdered a stranger (what Pratt does is actually referred to as murder later in the movie, in perhaps the one moment Passengers realises that its an obscenely long commercial for Stockholm Syndrome). Except they’re not a stranger to Pratt at all, having spotted her in her hibernation pod one day, effectively space-wanked (even though you can’t get an erection in space, but that’s besides the point), and literally STALKED HER VIDEOS AND PASSENGER PROFILES SHE MADE WHEN SHE GOT ON BOARD. This is pre-meditated. Worse still, Passengers doesn’t really tackle Pratt’s utterly horrific act rather than dance around the edges for the most part; if anything, the intergalactic coitus is his REWARD! And if you see it like I do it will have a significantly detrimental effect on your viewing experience – its kind of like eating a cake only to find someone shat in the middle of it. I understand totally that Pratt’s character had been alone for a period of time that we’d only have nightmares about, but this is unsettling, and not in a good way – safe to say, this plot point got under me like a toothpick underneath my fingernails. I wanted to be turned inside out and dry cleaned, washed and tumble-dried a thousand times to get the smell off.
So basically Passengers is like a sexist version of WALL-E. The biggest shame about all of this is that Jennifer Lawrence is doing some half-decent acting at times – she may have one too many breakdowns over the course of the movie, but Lawrence sells it well and you do believe she is a woman that Chris Pratt would pick over thousands to straight up trap with him for the rest of her life (yeah, I won’t be over this for a while). Her character does not nearly do her justice though, and on top of her being perhaps the most mistreated female lead in a movie since Margot Robbie in The Legend Of Tarzan, the script doesn’t even know on what terms Aurora Lane is inconsistent on. She changes direction like a ceiling fan inside a windmill inside a tornado, and her motivational shifts get so fucking
different completely looks thing whole the that and reverse in seeing your like feel you that jarring.
The Jon Spaihts-penned original screenplay has plenty of moments that feel exactly like this. As well as the whole genre issue, which is as unbelievably scattershot as the inept gunman who couldn’t hit Travolta and Jackson with ten thousand rounds in Pulp Fiction, Spaihts often plots his way straight into a corner, and in order to actually get the movie to a point where it can end, Passengers pulls out a couple of ludicrous deus ex machina’s that do not go unnoticed – if they are even trying to, that is. To delve into just how bad these devices are, spoilers would be required and those are for another time. Putting it bluntly, they’re lazy, and the entire third act in general (which could have been ripped directly from the Titanic script for all I care, Celine Dion included) feels like an entirely different movie because of them – the tone pretty much does a backflip and runs up a vertical wall. Passengers apparently bumps its head 80 minutes in, so much so that it gets retrograde amnesia and forgets what’s already happened and just sort of stumbles to the end holding an icepack on its scalp.
Director Morten Tyldum is relatively powerless to keep this fast-sinking ship afloat, although he doesn’t do a bad job on the visual side. Passengers is still a good-looking science fiction flick, with some pretty convincing special effects sequences involving zero-gravity proving a distraction, welcome or otherwise, from the increasingly choppy waters of the ‘plot’, said in much the same way I say ‘yeah’ to my extended family at Christmas gatherings. It’s shot very nicely by Rodrigo Prieto, and Guy Hendrix Dyas’s production design really works in putting you in this far-future, space-faring future. What I will criticise Tyldum for though is not tackling the subject matter enough: as far as I could tell, the crux of Passengers was that skin-crawlingly disturbing plot point of Pratt killing Lawrence because she looked nice in the pod, implying that the only music he brought with him was The 1975’s second album. Tyldum tussles with it at points, but mainly tries to push the moral debate to one side in order to focus on the stars’ chemistry (which is admittedly quite strong). Passengers just feels inconsequential, and for the most part you want to see Pratt get his just desserts, but nothing really comes. Tyldum’s attempts to keep things light ironically make the film feel a bit darker.
The entire of the movie seems primed to become more of a psychological thriller/romance that examines what Pratt’s done, but Passengers seems more preoccupied with sweeping it all under the ultra-thin LCD carpet. As an epic romance between Pratt and Lawrence, the chemistry isn’t bad but it’s still not quite powerful enough to drag the movie along with it, and the plot is just a bit too rose-tinted for Passengers to work on that level. Passengers definitely feels like a patchwork: cobbled and knitted together quickly in an attempt to make it work on ten scales, but the frays are obvious enough to make the movie work on none. And the continual genre-shafting only makes matters worse – its like jumping between high-rise buildings: you will slip eventually. It feels apt that this review is coming out on Boxing Day, the day when we reflect on yesterday’s festivities and storm out to return and re-gift all the pointless crap we got, and of course eat the bits of Christmas lunch and dinner our stomachs couldn’t get round to the first time. Passengers is the Boxing Day of blockbuster movies: it’s just leftovers.
BEST WATCHED: In space, ninety years from landing.