Passengers (2016) – Movie Review
*WARNING* This review of ‘Passengers’ will contain full-spoilers. This is mainly because the movie being sold in the trailers is not the movie that is actually in theatres. As a result an in-depth, spoiler-free discussion simply isn’t possible.
Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Written by: Jon Spaihts
Starring: Chris Pratt & Jennifer Lawrence
Music: Thomas Newman
Release Date: December 21st 2016
In 2016 one of my most anticipated original movies of the year was ‘Passengers‘. Directed from ‘The Imitation Game‘ director Morten Tyldum and written by ‘Doctor Strange‘ co-writer Jon Spaihts, ‘Passengers‘ on-paper represents the best of Science-Fiction; it looks at concepts that humanity will genuinely have to deal with in the future and bases a character-piece around it. ‘Passengers‘ has its cross-hairs squarely aimed at the technicality of colonising other planets that are so far away from Earth that the normal human lifespan simply wouldn’t survive the trip.
But ‘Passengers‘ has had a rocky production-history in development-hell despite its promising start on the Hollywood Blacklist in 2007 when Keanu Reeves and Emily Blunt were initially attached to star. Now we have Oscar-calibre talent with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, but we’ve also had a pretty weak and lacklustre marketing campaign and a backlash to the over-exposure of Lawrence. Will a relevant look into humanities future be enough to save ‘Passengers‘ or is originality not enough to support the foundations laid out here?
It’s the future and the starship Avalon is currently 30 years into its 120 year journey from Earth to Homestead II. The Avalon is transporting 5,000 humans to a new homeworld with everyone on board inside hibernation pods so they can survive the trip. However, a supposedly impossible malfunction causes the pod of engineer Jim Preston (Pratt) to wake him up early. With no way of going back to sleep, Jim must face the remainder of his lifespan on the Avalon alone. After a whole year of isolation, Jim deliberately sabotages the pod of writer Aurora Lane (Lawrence) and the two start a relationship with Jim withholding the truth from Aurora. Will Jim be able to come to terms with what he has done and can the two save the Avalon from immanent disaster?
Now, let’s address this right out of the gate; that plot synopsis I just gave was not the one sold in the trailer. The trailer shows Jim Preston and Aurora Lane waking up at around the same time and then starting a relationship. There are no hints towards the darker elements of the story and that’s both a good and a bad thing. The good part is that it keeps many elements of ‘Passengers‘ a surprise with the first act of the movie being completely absent from the trailers resulting in a movie where I genuinely had no idea where it was going. But the bad part comes into play when you consider why this part was hidden in the first place if it’s such an effective premise.
The part that absolutely cripples ‘Passengers‘ and ultimately makes it a sci-fi failure is that it is is fully aware of the moral implications of what Jim has done, it just bends over backwards to try and ALSO be romantic and make him hopelessly endearing. But let me back up a bit. The first act of the movie is not only the best part of the film but it’s possibly one of the best episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror” never-made. Chris Pratt’s character wakes up 90 years early and is alone on this spaceship with absolutely no chance of going back to sleep. No matter what happens he is dying on this ship and he spends an entire year alone with no one for company save for an android bartender played by a scene-stealing Michael Sheen.
Chris Pratt essentially carries the first 30-40 minutes of the movie as he exhausts all available options, experiences everything he can on the ship and wanders around these huge rooms, eating areas and communal areas which were meant to inhabit the 5,000 passengers but with his isolation feel like giant sensory-deprivation tanks just yearning to be populated. He can’t even enjoy luxurious food because of his lower-class he is not entitled to fancy coffee or nutritious food that the presumably wealthier passengers are. The movie does a terrific job showcasing Jim’s isolation and making you feel the weight of every day, every week, every month that Jim spends without human interaction, all coming to a-head in a great scene where he even attempts to commit suicide. This act not only cements Chris Pratt as a terrific dramatic actor but it also shows that director Morten Tyldum’s controversial nomination for the “Best Director” Oscar for ‘The Imitation Game‘ might not have been a fluke (don’t get me wrong, I love that film but he did not deserve that nomination that year)
The opening act of ‘Passengers‘ honestly could have been released as a short and probably would have netted a boat-load of awards but the film goes downhill fast once Jim “meets” Aurora. He notices her asleep in her hibernation pod and effectively starts stalking her public profile, watching video-interviews of her, learning about her life and essentially stalking her prior existence. He then debates with himself whether or not he should wake her up. Now, ‘Passengers‘ is not so tone-deaf that it doesn’t realise what Jim is proposing here. Jim knows full well that if he wakes up Aurora then he’s condemning her to death on this ship. It’s essentially murder. You’d think that the movie would spend the first act getting you in Jim’s headspace so that even if you disagree with what he does you could at least understand and emphasise with him, but that’s not what ‘Passengers‘ is doing here. It wants you to understand why Jim does what he does…and unabashedly forgive and love him for it.
After Jim wakes Aurora up (Aurora as in “Sleeping Beauty”. GEDDIT!?!?!?) and the film then follows what you were expecting in the trailers, but with all of that additional context it’s really hard to buy into the relationship. Do Pratt and Lawrence have chemistry? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you because I was so distracted by the circumstances surrounding it that I never paid attention to whether or not there was a legitimate attraction. Jim tells Aurora that he’s been around for a year and that there’s no hope of going back in the hibernation pod but he doesn’t admit that he’s the one who woke her up and that shadow (deliberately) hangs over the romance. But once the Michael Sheen’s bartender lets it slip to Aurora that Jim woke her up the movie does not shy away from the emotional distress this could potentially inflict and Jennifer Lawrence absolutely lets rip as a performer and gets across the horrifying weight of her situation, climaxing in a scene where she beats up Jim half-to-death as he sleeps and shuts herself off from him.
The issue with ‘Passengers‘ is that it’s simply unable to merge the genres that it wants to, in this case science-fiction, thriller, romance, drama and horror. Something has to give but as the movie progresses it feels like the creative team were met with several creative/narrative decisions and every time they were at one of these impasses they chose the one that would dilute the story further. A scene where Aurora is jogging throughout the ship is underscored by Jim trying to talk to her over the Avalon’s sound-system and it’s played like the moment in a romance where the lead admits he screwed up and just wants her back (the “I’m just a girl standing over a boy” moment), but with the prior context it just doesn’t match. Then we get Laurence Fishburne showing up and downplaying what Jim did and to unlock more areas of the Avalon for them to explore. All leading to a ridiculously contrived climax that could have been leading to a morbid and fascinating resolution but instead indulged in Hollywood-tripe as Aurora forgives Jim as he sacrifices his life to save her and the Avalon, she revives him in the most comical way possible and despite being given the option to go into Fishburne’s hibernation pod, Aurora decides to live out the rest of her days with Jim.
Oh….that’s a terrible ending.
It feels like Morten Tyldum and Jon Spaihts approached ‘Passengers‘ by wanting to make a dark sci-fi thriller but Studio interference (this is Sony we’re talking about) forced them to include a sweeping romance and an ending that follows every cliche in the book despite the first half of the movie absolutely rejecting cliches. It wouldn’t surprise me if the fact that Jim woke her up early was actually going to be presented as a mid-game twist, which might explain its absence in the marketing despite it being the central emotional premise of the film. I don’t normally make a habit of re-writing the movie I’m reviewing but how great would it have been if the movie ended with Aurora never forgiving Jim? He sacrifices his life leaving her alone on the Avalon and she goes through the same experience he did when he was alone, thus potentially setting into motion a horrid cycle of humankind’s selfishness where Aurora contemplates waking someone else up. Whether or not Aurora does decide to go through with that isn’t important. It’s the idea that preys upon her for the rest of her life; like a malicious passenger inside her mind.
Because that’s the key problem with ‘Passengers‘ and, to an extent humankind. There are some boundaries that just cannot be forgiven, some actions just beyond redemption. It doesn’t matter to the broader world if it was done in a moment of weakness or it can be understood, because all that matters is how it effects those directly caught in its influence and having Aurora go to such a dark place after what Jim did to her and still forgive him as well as have the movie as a whole forgive him is just too big a leap and it feels intellectually and emotionally dishonest. While the first act of ‘Passengers‘ is gripping, raw, powerful and something that feels completely new, the final act is trite, cliche, contrived and something we’ve seen a million times before; only this time the movie has such potent emotional baggage that makes the ending feel even more of a betrayal.
A lot of that baggage comes from the brilliant performances. Whether it’s Chris Pratt’s revolutionary attempt at solo-drama in the first act to Jennifer Lawrence’s intensely raw depiction of someone who has been deliberately wronged and violated in the worst possible way, the performances in the first two acts actually start to work against the movie because they seem to come from such an emotionally-real place. Though special mention must be given to Michael Sheen who does a great job as the android bartender.
While the film’s portrayal of androids is hardly revolutionary, the bartender and other automated systems on the ship provide a great and subtle piece of commentary of just how vital a single human influence is despite the fact that humanity is growing more and more automated. But that’s the aspect that’s so frustrating about ‘Passengers‘; it has incredible ideas and concepts at its foundation but the stuff they’ve built on top of it just detracts from it.
At the very least ‘Passengers‘ is a very good looking film with polished C.G.I. and while the Apple-inspired-minimalist production design isn’t the most original it actually does add to the first act of the film when Jim has to inhabit this massive, blank space on his own. Everything from the food, the spaceships and the way the Avalon is designed shows that a lot of thought has gone into the design of ‘Passengers‘ and thankfully the film has the technical heft and the budget to back up that ingenuity. As for the score by Thomas Newman, once the film gets audibly busier with the arrival of Jennifer Lawrence, it kinda fades away and doesn’t leave an impact but it’s a terrific mood-setter for that first act.
And I know I keep going on about that first act but…man is the first act of ‘Passengers‘ terrific. It’s the stuff that great science-fiction is made out of, but it feels like studio interference or just an unwillingness on the part of the creative team to really come to terms with the abhorrent actions of Jim Preston makes ‘Passengers‘ an extremely frustrating film to see to its conclusion. The talent is brilliant, the production design, while not original, is still striking and Morten Tyldum directs the hell out of it, but it just cops-out towards the end and comes across almost offensively tone-deaf as a result. It’ll be hard to find another film in 2016 that’s as disappointing as ‘Passengers‘.
I give ‘Passengers‘ 2 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 21st Feb 17