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Josh Reviews Passengers

Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) are members of a colony expedition to a planet, Homestead II, far from Earth.  But something goes wrong and they two alone amongst the 5,000 cryogenically frozen passengers aboard the space ship Avalon are woken from their sleep 90 years early.  As they wrestle with their fate of living out their entire lives alone aboard the ship, a series of cascading technical failures present a far more urgent crisis: if they cannot identify and repair the problem, they and the 5,000 sleeping passengers will die long before the Avalon ever reaches its destination.

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That plot description, and all of the pre-release advertising and promotional material for Passengers, leaves out a crucial detail of the story.  I guessed it from the film’s trailer (which I must have seen 10 times since the summer, it seemed to have played before every single movie I saw for the past several months), but the film doesn’t actually treat this as a surprise — this event is presented in a very straightforward manner in the film’s first act.  I don’t want to spoil this for anyone since the filmmakers clearly prefer that audiences go into the film not knowing about this.  However, it is difficult to discuss Passengers without mentioning this event because it is central to the whole story of the film.

So for now, what I can say is that Passengers is not the glossy, mass-appeal film starring two current Hollywood heartthrobs that it is advertised as being.  This central event at the start of the film seems to be intended to spin the story into something far more complex and interesting.  And yet, the film (directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Jon Spaihts) doesn’t seem at all interested in exploring those complexities.  And so Passengers exists in an uncomfortable middle ground.  The film looks absolutely gorgeous, and Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are certainly fun to watch.  But the story remains superficial where it felt to me that it begged for something deeper, something more difficult.  And this superficial, glossy telling of this story actually results in a film that was, for me, disturbing and uncomfortable in a way that I don’t think the filmmakers ever intended.

For those interested in treading into SPOILER TERRITORY, please read on!

All of the film’s promotional material suggested that something went wrong with Jim and Aurora’s cryogenic pods, alone among all the passengers on the Avalon.  And yet that’s not the case at all.  Jim (Chris Pratt) is the only one woken from the malfunction.  After a year of living along on board the ship, he becomes obsessed with the sleeping Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) — a beautiful woman who he has never met — and eventually he decides to wake her up so that he will not be alone.  This is a terrible act of extraordinary selfishness, as Jim chooses to destroy all of the life dreams of this young woman who he doesn’t know at all, and condemn her to live out the rest of her entire life alone with him aboard the Avalon.  Later in the film, when Aurora discovers what Jim has done, she calls it murder, and that is a fairly accurate assessment.

This is a bold and unexpected choice, to allow the good-looking hero of this big-budget film to commit such a monstrous act.  A film that explored the consequences of such a profoundly disturbing choice would have been a fascinating movie to watch.  And yet, that is not what Passengers is at all.  Despite this incredible event that sets up the story, the rest of the film unfolds as a fairly light Hollywood romance/adventure story.  The film seems unwilling to treat Jim’s act as anything more than the type of third-act speed-bump present in so many cinematic romances, the type of thing that causes a momentary schism when it comes to light but that eventually our star-crossed lovers will get past and find their way back into each other’s arms.  It’s a choice that staggers me.  Why include this event in the story if the filmmakers were not interested in exploring it?  Had the events that set up the story happened the way they were advertised — that it WAS just a random malfunction that allowed Jim and Aurora to both be woken up 90 years early — then the rest of the film would have been able to unfold almost exactly the way it does in the movie that they made!

As it is, I am completely creeped out by the notion that Jim fell in love with Aurora just by staring at her beautiful body and reading all of the info in the ship’s computer about her.  From this superficial level of knowledge — without ever have actually exchanged a single word with her — Jim believes he has found and fallen in love with the perfect woman?  It’s incredibly juvenile and simplistic.  And yet, to my shock, when Aurora wakes up she turns out to be exactly the perfect woman Jim had imagined her to be.  There’s not one single instance in the film in which we see Jim surprised that Aurora — the actual real-life woman — thinks or says or does anything anything different than the way he’d imagined she would think/say/do back when he was just staring at her beautiful, cryogenically-frozen body.

It would have been interesting had the film more deeply explored those opening sequences of Jim, all alone aboard the ship.  This could have been a sci-fi version of Castaway, an exploration of how profound loneliness and isolation can affect someone.  The film plays most of those early scenes for goofy fun rather than horror, which undercuts any feeling that the film has allowed us to empathize in any way with Jim’s act of waking up Aurora.  A key problem here is that the revelation that he’d been alone for a year feels like too short a time.  True, a year alone could be an impossibly LONG time, but on the other hand, had we learned that he’d been alone for a longer stretch, maybe five years, that would make his actions more forgivable in my mind.  (Let’s also not forget that a recent and far superior sci-fi film, The Martian, has also explored the travails of a hero trapped alone for a long stretch of time because of a sci-fi catastrophe.  Having so recently seen Mark Watney survive so well over the course of his years alone on Mars undercuts any sympathy I might have had for what we see Jim do only minutes into the start of this movie.)

Passengers is not a cheap movie slapped together on the fly by a few people.  This big-budget film looks to have been an enormous undertaking, one that I would imagine hundreds of people worked hard on for an extended period of time.  And so it’s just shocking to me that nobody objected to what feels to me to be this enormous flaw in the film’s premise.

The film looks gorgeous.  The production design is incredible.  I love everything about the look of the Avalon’s interior and exterior.  I love the style of the computer interfaces, and the look of the little clean-up robots.  I love the main avenue on the ship, and the mess hall, and the quarters, and the gorgeous swimming pool.  The costumes are terrific, from the civilian clothes to the ship’s uniforms to the space-suits that are used in a few key scenes.  The outer-space visual effects are realized with enormous skill and beauty — space is presented as something of incredible grandeur and also terrible danger, as it should be.  I also love the glimpses the film gives us into the “reality” of this type of space travel, such as Jim’s being unable to experience much of what the ship has to offer, originally, because he bought a lower-level of ticket on the Avalon.  (There’s a great joke when Aurora, who has a higher-class ticket, sits down for her first breakfast and she is given a much more sumptuous repast than what Jim has been allowed.)

Both Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are wonderful actors, and they are not sleepwalking through this movie.  Both performers bring their A game to the film, and both have lots of great moments in the film.  They each have tremendous charisma, and so it’s hard to watch this movie without rooting for these two beautiful people to fall in love and live happily ever after.  The whole film is structured to get the audience to do exactly that.  And yet that happily-ever-after relationship that the film wants you to root for is impossibly colored by Jim’s selfish original sin at the start of the movie.

Laurence Fishburne is terrific as always in a small role in the film’s second half.  I enjoyed every moment Mr. Fishburne was on-screen, but he comes and goes so quickly that I’m not sure why the character was in the movie at all.  What purpose does his character serve?  Since the film is willing to allow Jim to have near super-human engineering skill in the final twenty minutes or so, there doesn’t seem to be any information that Mr. Fishburne’s character provides to our heroes Jim and Aurora that the film couldn’t have just had them figure out on their own.

(Speaking of the film’s final twenty minutes, am I to understand that the ship’s main reactor has been critically damaged for the past two years?  How was that not a problem far more immediately??  They suggest an interesting idea that the ship has been trying to compensate for a damaged main system by using other processing power elsewhere in the ship, but then at the end we see the huge hole in the machinery right next to the flaring-out-of-control reactor, so I’m not really sure how for two years that wasn’t a huge problem or how the processing power of the little clean-up robots was able to help keep the reactor under control.  Also, while I am pulling at this thread, how was that enormous meteor shower not on anyone’s charts?  Things like that don’t just appear from nowhere, you know.  I’d expected to learn later in the film about what caused that meteor shower — had Homestead II exploded like Ceti Alpha VI?? — but nope.  Anyways…)

Michael Sheen is perfectly capable as the robotic bartender with whom Jim and Aurora spend a lot of time conversing.  I’m not sure why this huge ship would have only one single human-like robot — seriously, if they have a human-like bartender then why are the waiters in the fancy restaurant box-like silver robots rather than similarly human-like constructions? — but, OK, I can go with it and Mr. Sheen does a solid job in the part.  He brings just the right balance of sympathy with a hint of possible danger — you never quite know what this robot is really thinking inside it’s robot head — to make the character interesting.

Andy Garcia is in the film for exactly two seconds.  How did that happen?  Is he a friend of Mr. Tyldum’s?  Did he lose a bet?

I’ve heard some describe Passengers as boring, but I didn’t feel that way at all.  I was perfectly entertained and interested throughout the story’s run-time.  I enjoyed watching Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence share the screen, and I enjoyed the big-budget sci-fi spectacle.  But Passengers is, sadly, a film that falls apart upon the least bit of introspection.  It winds up as a huge missed opportunity, in my opinion.

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