Monday, December 26, 2016

'Passengers' review

To lead things off, the marketing campaign for Passengers is a complete lie. That isn't the movie. The movie is based around an entirely different premise. If you wish to be "surprised" when you go into the theater, this review will contain SPOILERS. I'll try to keep it to the first act, but so many of my issues with this movie stretch into the final moments. You've been warned.

I first read the idea for Passengers several years ago, when the script was at the top of the annual Blacklist. The concept of the movie went something like this: "After his hibernation pod malfunctions, a male passenger decides to wake up a female passenger to avoid being alone for the rest of his life." This is still the general idea behind Passengers. It hasn't changed. But when Sony's marketing team tackled the film, they decided to skirt around this very important plot point. They merely positioned the film as a space-set romance between Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, a sweeping romance for the ages. Director Morten Tyldum even discussed how he wanted this movie to be the defining cinematic love story for this generation.

Passengers is a very misguided movie. I've seen some critics and commentators discuss the film like it's a total disaster, which isn't exactly true. There are some interesting elements in play here, as well as a pristine visual look that features some extremely strong design choices. It's a sleek, occasionally entertaining movie that has no idea what it wants to be. It's part romance movie, part esoteric space thriller, and part big-budget action movie, a strange combination that produces some bizarre and utterly baffling results. The decision to turn this into a grand scale romance movie (instant comparison is space Titanic) is so incredibly wrong, and the big action beats only grow more and more tedious as the movie plays on. Passengers could have been something great, but it ends up just being frustrating, and by the time the movie reaches its conclusion, you'll be scratching your head.

Passengers takes place on the starship Avalon, which is headed on a 120 year voyage to a colony planet. There are over 5,000 passengers on the ship, all hoping to start a new life on a brand new planet. One of those passengers is Jim Preston (Pratt), a mechanical engineer heading to Homestead II to discover a fresh world of opportunity. But during a disastrous meteor shower, something malfunctions with Jim's hibernation pod and he's woken up early. The Avalon is only 30 years into its 120 year voyage, which means that Jim is doomed to 90 years on his own. He believes that he may be able to go back to sleep, but it's no use- he fails and slowly accepts his fate. He spends a year on the ship alone, playing basketball and video games, talking to Arthur (Michel Sheen), the robot bartender, and wishing he was dead. One day, during a moment of extreme desperation, Jim notices a beautiful woman in one of the other pods named Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence).

Jim becomes enamored with Aurora, who it turns out is a journalist from New York who was heading to Homestead II to write a story about the experience of colonizing a new world. Jim is utterly obsessed, and after debating it for weeks, he decides that he needs to wake Aurora up. In his borderline suicidal desperation, Jim decides to throw away Aurora's life as well, just to save himself from being alone. But here's the catch- he doesn't tell Aurora. When she wakes up, she thinks that her pod just malfunctioned. Alone on one of the most beautiful space crafts in the universe, the two begin to fall in love, without disclosing the true origin of their relationship. But as other things on the ship start to show signs of danger, things may end up going in a slightly different direction.

It's hard to sum up the plot of Passengers past a certain point, because it gets into territory that sounds extremely confusing on paper. The second half of this movie is as mind-boggling as anything I've seen on the big screen this year, and it only grows more frustrating the more I think about it. And once again, it goes back to the basic concept and execution. While I've never read Jon Spaihts' original script, on paper, this is an unnerving thriller about morality, isolation, and certain death. This is not a light, poppy movie by any stretch of the imagination. For some reason that I just cannot explain, Morten Tyldum saw something different in Passengers. He saw an intergalactic love story, a movie about two people destined to be together under highly strange circumstances. He establishes such an interesting scenario, and then abandons it, settling for easy answers and Hollywood blockbuster cliches. It's disappointing and baffling in the worst possible way.

However, while many have said that the basic concept is the root of the movie's problems, I don't think that's the case at all. In fact, it's probably the greatest benefit. The idea of being doomed to a life of total solitude with the option of destroying someone else's life for your own selfish advantage is all kinds of intriguing, and there are so many fascinating directions to take this story. The problem is that the movie doesn't seem interested. Sure, it acknowledges the morality briefly, giving Aurora a time period to be mad at Jim when she finds out that he was the one who woke her up. But soon after, Laurence Fishburne shows up, everything on the ship starts blowing up, and we're back to "I love you, don't die on me!" The love story is so shallow, empty, and almost nonsensical, as there's genuinely no reason for Aurora to care about this guy at all. Whether we'd like to acknowledge it or not, Jim's character choice at the start of the movie is believable. Not correct or moral, but believable. A man driven to insanity through desolation would wake up someone to save himself. There's a realistic world where that happens. There is no realistic world where any of Aurora's character choices in the third act make sense. It just wouldn't happen and it's so thoroughly misguided that you'll probably be in utter disbelief.

In the days since this film was released, I've read any number of different takes on Passengers online. Some have positioned it as a thriller through the eyes of Aurora, a movie that would give off a vibe similar to 10 Cloverfield Lane. Some have positioned that it should be about the dynamics of living with someone who pretty much ended your life. Others have established it as a cyclical story, where Aurora is later faced to make a choice similar to what Jim had to do. But there's one similar thread running through all of these story ideas- anything is better than what's actually on the screen. Passengers doesn't make a lick of sense, and the ending is so monumentally dumb that it eliminates any prior goodwill that the film had. If anything, this film exists as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when heavy questions are tackled in a bad movie. Tyldum and the creative team took an interesting concept and turned it into a YA movie, which is bizarre on pretty much every level.

I've been laying much of the blame on Tyldum and the screenwriters, but I'm guessing there was some studio interference here as well. There's a moment in Passengers where it takes a sudden turn, setting itself up as an epic action movie without warning. The film ignores all of the previously established drama in order to tell a generic story about saving the dying spaceship. Laurence Fishburne's Gus Mancuso enters the story, they talk about the dynamics of the Jim-Aurora situation briefly, and then the movie turns into bland nonsense. There are no thrills or awe-inspiring moments of action in the final act, as it all feels forced and cookie-cutter, like every other space movie ever made. And while this feels like a conversation for another day, everything in the final act seems to be oddly justifying Jim's actions. Maybe I'm over-thinking the story, but there are plenty of little coincidences that seem to indicate that he did the right thing by practically ending this woman's life.

What makes the final act of Passengers all the more disappointing is that the build-up is......well, actually pretty good. I was into this film for a while, and I found it to be visually dazzling, uniquely original, and consistently engaging. The Avalon is wondrous and richly designed, bolstered by excellent effects work, the stellar cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, and some very impressive production design elements from Guy Hendrix Dyas. Passengers moves with an unnerving energy, and in the early goings, Chris Pratt is actually pretty good. The feeling of wasted potential hangs over this film, and when things go south, it becomes all the more devastating. In all honesty, you could probably walk out after 30 minutes and you wouldn't miss anything. When things get complicated, Tyldum goes generic, eliminating any impact that this film could have had on audiences.

Essentially, Passengers is a sleek, moderately entertaining film that should have never, ever been a love story. It's not a romantic story and it's not a grand space opera. It's a cold, scary morality play, one that tackles big ideas and themes on an epic stage. Unfortunately, Morten Tyldum didn't see things that way, so we get a movie that practically dissolves as it moves to its conclusion. You'll probably never be bored, but there's a sinking feeling of disappointment that's hard to shake, the idea that there are infinitely more interesting angles to take with this material. Passengers is a well-crafted failure, a movie that feels confused and ill-advised in the worst possible way.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.6/10)

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

No comments:

Post a Comment