by Jay Seaver
The very core of "Passengers" is so misguided and unprepared to wrestle with the moral questions that make up its central conflict and are arguably the movieâ€™s whole reason for being that it makes one feel bad for enjoying anything about the sleek, potentially very entertaining sci-fi adventure around it. In putting it that way, Iâ€™m probably being far more generous than most would or should, but Iâ€™m willing to admit my weakness: Iâ€™ve wanted to see a movie along these lines for a long time, and as a result I find myself just giddy enough at the shiny surface to look away from the rot underneath.I mean, it starts off with something beautiful, an initial shot of a starship that, viewed head- or tail-on, initially looks like a traditional sort of design (habitation rings rotating about a central axis), but which distorts a little bit with the motion, seeming to come apart as the angle shifts, revealing a corkscrew design which may not be as eminently practical but still looks great on-screen. Its crew and complement of 5,000 colonists in suspended animation, it flies through what would be an improbably-dense asteroid field within a solar system, let alone interstellar space, seeming to pulverize a massive rock before continuing on its way, although red warning dots start appearing on the bridgeâ€™s status screens.
"Almost pretty enough to hide a messed-up core."
For many fans of science fiction on film, it will be hard to resist smiling a big, stupid grin during that opening sequence and the ones where the world is explored. Theyâ€™re grand and visual, often staged with imagery telling the story rather than dialogue, presenting a future where humanityâ€™s settling the stars is treated as safe and corporatized but still capable of inspiring great awe, and the unexpected dangers on this adventure are to be bested with courage and ingenuity rather than violence. The sets and costume design are bright and sleek without seeming particularly sterile, the special effects are beautiful, and the filmmakers even make great use of 3D, exaggerating the curve of the shipâ€™s deck and otherwise heightening the unusual design of the environments while creating an impressive sense of scale.
A story does need people, though, and the first we get is Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanic who, following this collision, is awakened from his suspension pod a mere thirty years into a one-hundred-twenty-year voyage, alone except for android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), and heâ€™s not quite enough. He goes through the expected phases - panic, frustration, indulgence, loss of hope - until, a year later, heâ€™s nearly crushed by loneliness. Thatâ€™s when Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a beautiful, well-to-do journalist seeing the sort of life experience that fueled her fatherâ€™s writing, is properly introduced. But as they start to discover that there are likely worse people to spend the rest of oneâ€™s life alone with, systems all over the supposedly fail-safe ship are falling apart.
Itâ€™s not the filmâ€™s biggest flaw (which is truly gigantic), but itâ€™s interesting to note that as the couple whose relationship must inevitably form the heart of the movie, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence tend to be better individually than as a pair. Lawrence gets the better part in more ways than one, with Aurora having both an earnestly friendly demeanor and underlying willingness to isolate herself; though she doesnâ€™t show up until later, she makes the movie about her hurt and fear. Pratt is given the character who is more comedic on his introduction, and heâ€™s good at reacting to a strange situation with amiable confusion, and possibly the best guy at playing off special effects since Brendan Fraser stopped getting cast in this sort of movie. He doesnâ€™t show himself as being great at despair, unfortunately. That he seems to come at everything with scruffy charm may be as much on director Morten Tyldum as Pratt, but there are a lot of moments when it not only doesnâ€™t work, but the filmmakers donâ€™t seem cognizant of that working. Though they can be kind of fun to watch together, perhaps more than many might like, they can at times be the most extreme possible case possible of expecting the viewer to have a vested interest in their relationship because they are the two leads in a movie.
And thatâ€™s if the audience is inclined to root for them. At the core, the film really has to lean on them being the default couple, because Jim makes some rotten decisions that affect Aurora, and while the filmmakers go through the motions of using this as a source of conflict, they never fully commit to it, always framing the film in terms of â€śhow can Jim get Aurora to forgive himâ€ť as opposed to what Aurora can do with the rest of her life besides be angry. Itâ€™s a poisonous set-up, and while it would probably still be that way if the gender roles were flipped, as it is, itâ€™s hard not to notice that this is a movie written, directed, and produced by men, in which a man puts a woman in a bad situation, and when it does hash this stuff out, itâ€™s got a â€śyeah, butâ€¦â€ť ready far more often than a condemnation or an actual examination of being unable to leave the orbit of someone who has hurt you (one of many interesting things for which this filmâ€™s set-up could be a killer metaphor).
Instead, the film inevitably sets up a big action climax that requires the pair to work together and where Jim can do something heroic enough that the audience, at least, can forgive him because he has done something far more noble than his previous ignoble acts, even if the good doesnâ€™t really counter the bad. Donâ€™t mistake - when the film gets into adventure mode, Tyldum, writer Jon Spaihts, and the visual effects crew deliver the goods, doing a good enough job of escalation that a lot of the other material can be pushed to the back of the viewerâ€™s mind while he or she gawks at the gorgeous production values threatening to be ripped apart as a Thomas Newman score cranks things up. It may feel hollow afterward - and for many the well will be too poisoned to enjoy the spectacle - but even when it seems like a cynical exercise, the dance is done well.I admit, I enjoyed this movie far more than I feel like I should; as much as I do recognize what should be fatal flaws at the center of the script - though, frustratingly, they were likely not unavoidable even if they were probably the genesis of the movie - the part of my brain that is hardwired to like big, high-concept science fiction, and like it even more when it looks this great had me smiling through much at the first act and at more moments than Iâ€™d like to admit later on. Iâ€™ve wanted to see a movie with this set-up for too long to not appreciate what "Passengers" does well, even if thereâ€™s no getting around what it does wrong.
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originally posted: 12/22/16 12:49:13