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Review: Passengers (2016)

Passengers (2016)

Directed by: Morten Tyldum

Premise: A science fiction tale in which a spacecraft carries thousands of people in cryogenic sleep to a colony on a distant planet. Thirty years into the 120-year voyage, one of the passengers (Chris Pratt) is reanimated and cannot get back to sleep.

What Works: Passengers has a promising start. The movie takes place aboard a commercial spacecraft, a sort of luxury cruise in outer space, and the art direction mixes practicality with elegant design. The film also includes clever details in the mechanization; the filmmakers visualize the kinds of frustrations inherent to automated services. In this respect, Passengers also includes some interesting ideas about how for-profit space travel might work. The characters make reference to the economic background of the story in which middle and lower class people have abandoned Earth because of planet-wide gentrification but are financially exploited in their search for a new life. Passengers also has some impressive visual effects. Nothing here is above the bar set by movies like Gravity but it does have some great looking star fields and it uses the coldness and emptiness of space to reinforce the loneliness and isolation of the characters’ predicament. The story of Passengers begins in a compelling way. A blue collar worker, played by Chris Pratt, awakens alone on a massive ship and is unable to get back to sleep. Realizing that he is ninety years from his destination, Pratt’s character faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life alone on a spaceship. He then discovers a sleeping female passenger, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who he thinks he would be happy with. Pratt’s character then debates whether or not he ought to wake her up and have a companion but thereby doom this woman to live out her life on the ship. That’s a complex question that makes for an interesting tension.

What Doesn’t: Unfortunately, the filmmakers fail their premise. As is obvious from the trailer, Pratt’s lonely traveler chooses to awaken the female passenger. But the relationship between Pratt and Lawrence is too easy. Everything works out exactly the way Pratt’s character intended. After a brief getting-to-know-you period the two travelers fall madly in love with each other and expect to spend the rest of their lives living in luxury on the spaceship. This is not interesting; it has shades of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead but without the satire or irony of Romero’s film. Furthermore, there is a sexist presumption that underlines Passengers. The male traveler falls in love with the idea of this woman by viewing her profile on the ship’s manifest. But Pratt’s character doesn’t actually know this woman before he wakes her up and it’s established that they don’t have much in common. The two fall in love anyway because that’s what the story requires. There is an interesting implication here: do these characters fall in love because they discover a genuine affection for each other or are they victims of circumstance because they have no other options? Passengers never answers that question. It doesn’t appear to have even occurred to the filmmakers. And the shallowness of the love story reveals another flaw of Passengers; despite its small cast the movie fails to characterize either of these people. There’s nothing to them and Pratt and Lawrence, who are very watchable and charismatic movie stars, have little to work with. But the ideas and tensions of the first two-thirds of the picture are discarded in the end as Passengers becomes an entirely different movie. A crew member played by Laurence Fishburne is woken up as nothing more than a plot contrivance. The ship is in grave danger and at this point the moviemakers discard all previous story priorities to give the movie a spectacular but dramatically flat ending that doesn’t resolve anything.

Bottom Line: Passengers is a prime example of a movie that’s been compromised by commercial pressures. The filmmakers run away from anything complex or interesting about their premise and gradually force the story off the rails.

Episode: #628 (January 1, 2017)