Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
December 2016

Passengers

You did a bad thing, Passengers

On desert islands in space, how to use and not to use Chris Pratt, and the difference between existential despair and simple boredom

Passengers
Sony Pictures Releasing
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts
Starring: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen and Laurence Fishburne
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 56 minutes / 2.35:1
December 21, 2016
(out of four)

You don't ask questions if you're not prepared for the answers. Every answer. You don't take action if you're not prepared for the reaction. You can't dive into the deep end if you don't know how to swim.

Passengers does not know how to swim. It's not that it doesn't want to. It just never bothered to learn is all. So you can only imagine the result when it decides - with naive, delirious gusto - to cannonball into the Nemo 33. Down down down it sinks, a swift and inevitable drowning; a hundred and sixteen minutes later, its bloated belly floats to the surface, as if deliberately exposing itself in submission.

The film is premised on a moral dilemma ... well, no, let me re-phrase. An outright moral violation. And it knows this. It knows it has put itself - and us - in an unusually thorny situation. But to say it really knows what it's doing? That'd be a stretch. Because while director Morten Tyldum and writer Jon Spaihts do have a challenging scenario in mind, and while they do want to address it, they also really don't want to dwell on it. After all, they have an end result in mind and they wouldn't want anything getting in the way of that, even if means leaping right to the emotional resolution without ever attempting to do any heavy lifting. An emotional resolution that - without spoiling anything - proves they never really took their moral dilemma seriously in the first place. Passengers does not want to be thought about deeply, yet it is based on a premise that virtually requires it. (Although, in fairness to Spaihts, the script has been floating around Hollywood for so long that I'm curious whether a more thorough and thoughtful version existed and was simply watered down into this one.)

The situation is this: Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) was supposed to be in hypersleep for 120 years, along with thousands of other passengers (!) on board the Avalon. But his pod malfunctions, and he wakes up 90 years early, with no way of getting himself back into hibernation. After a year or so of loneliness, failed experimentation and beard-growing, he finds the passenger (!) who looks like Jennifer Lawrence and sabotages her pod. Because, y'know, if it's only the two of them, and they're gonna be alone for 90 years ...

Jim of course does not tell the woman - a journalist called Aurora Lane, the kind of absurd sci-fi name that belongs in something much more pulpy than this - that he sabotaged her pod. She's as devastated as Jim was when he first woke up, but with no clue of the nefarious means that landed her in this position.

But eventually she forgets about her devastation and falls in love with Jim, and they have many fun sexy times together. Everything according to plan.

The ethical breach that brought the two together is the black cloud hanging over the entire middle portion of Passengers - that Aurora will eventually find out, in one way or another, is inevitable - but the film is incapable of seeing it as much more than a bridge between plot points. A means to an end. It's a telling sign that the handling of its central issue is most analogous to that of a romantic comedy. Rom-com couplings are often built on deception and withholding, with one or both parties hiding something that, once revealed, calls into question the very genesis of the relationship. Separation, reconciliation, happily ever after.

From the jump, the deception in Passengers is more than just that, in that it involves a removal of agency. By waking her up, he essentially sentences her to a lifetime of virtual solitude and eventual death on a fancy spaceship. He strips her of the rest of her life, with only his companionship as an alternative to complete isolation. Hers is a permanent sentence - no matter what choice she makes once that one huge one has been taken away.

In the spirit of neutrality, the specifics of Jim and Aurora's coexistence - like most any other movie scenario, but movie romances in particular - is a device, over and above all else. Movies are built on shortcuts and contrivances that would never pass muster in the real world. It can be tricky, even impossible, to reconcile that sort of artifice with any real-world analogue. (Take the plots of any beloved romantic comedy and imagine them occurring, point by point, with actual people, or assessing them with real-world logic.) "But still," in the words of Laurence Fishburne, in one of the line readings of the year: "Damn."

So yes, device or no device, there's still more gravity to the core premise of Passengers than simple farce. What's discouraging - aside from the obvious - is that the film has a chance to delve into an intriguingly ambiguous moral space, but doesn't. It has a chance to wrestle with an ugly truth - that, on a long enough timeline, many would be more than capable of waking somebody up if faced with the prospect of spending the rest of their lives entirely alone. That's some Twilight Zone shit. Reality is always messier than we want or expect movies to make it for us - a fact Passengers seems to be on the wrong side of at every opportunity. It begins with a premise that implicitly acknowledges this, and treats it as a mere device. It has the opportunity to embrace it - to essentially follow its initial impulse - and it shrugs it off. That kind of quagmire isn't conducive to fun family sci-fi adventure, apparently.

In any case, point being: The yearn for human contact can be a powerful thing. I'm not sure how long it would take for someone in Jim's position to lose his or her mind, but it'd happen. (The suicide possibility is broached at one point in the film, but seemingly only to mark it off the checklist, as if to make sure we know he's exhausted all options.) And yet, the film miscalculates even this - gets wrong the one detail that could salvage its ethics, or at least its ethical sincerity. The person who sabotages that pod is not a desperate man on the brink of madness (Tyldum's flavorless direction has no psychological orientation whatsoever; Jim's actions are merely, and exclusively, what they appear to be); this is a person who gets bored, sees a pretty woman, and internet-stalks her. Or, whatever the futuristic equivalent of internet-stalking is. He finds all of her files - anything she's said or written on the record - memorizes them, and falls in love. He's basically Elijah Wood's character from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, only he gets to eventually leap into action-hero savior mode. To reiterate: the human-contact angle is no longer a defense here, because the sexual dimension is well established long before he ever takes action. If the film had wanted to make the romance more palatable, even with the male lead ultimately doing the same thing, it would've needed to handle him a whole lot differently. Have him wake up young and spend many years in solitude, perhaps? Or do it impulsively, without first becoming obsessed with a specific target? Or wake up a whole group of people at once instead of exactly one? This is all spitballing, yes, but the bottom line is the filmmakers had a choice of allowing this film to be murky and troubling, or developing a charming romance, and it chose to attempt the latter while using the formula and ingredients of the former. Nearly every choice the movie makes is the wrong one.

The film takes the sexual-ethical problem and somehow addresses it in the shallowest way possible, treating it merely as a plot obstacle. The filmmakers refuse to wrestle with it. They briefly try to (a little), and it's possible they even think they have, but ultimately it's just another meaningless relationship hurdle.

There's nothing untoward about Jim's behavior after he wakes Aurora up (although that's quite the caveat), but it's a damn good thing the movie has a star of Jennifer Lawrence's caliber to really sell the way Aurora takes charge of their burgeoning courtship. It's not a well-written character in the slightest, but Lawrence is immediately in command once she's on screen, immediately registering as the smartest, the strongest, the most in-control of the two. That's huge for the film's tone during its middle section, as Jim shrinks into passivity, with her picking up the alpha slack and, when it comes to it, making the first move. It's one of the few things the film gets right. Pity the rest of the film can't justify its intentions.

As for Pratt? Passengers is a perfect distillation of both how to use him and how not to use him - and in the process he embodies the movie's flaws. He is at his best in the early scenes, alone on the ship, which are played almost entirely as light comedy. He eats by himself in the fancy restaurants on board, he plays basketball, he makes small talk with the android bartender, he gets drunk, he gets himself some high-class living quarters, and he gets really good at the virtual dance machine. He basically Groundhog Days the shit out of his year of freedom and solitude. He even grows a hilarious fake beard worthy of Matthew Fox's Lost flash-forward. Perhaps his naturally winning persona in his affable, silly, regular-guy mode was the reason for the tone in the film's first 20 minutes, but the result is that the film never sells the despair or desperate loneliness that is the presumptive prerequisite. Even its "despair" is played mostly for laughs.

And then for the bulk of the rest of the film, Pratt gets to play entirely different notes ... notes that do not work to his strengths. His gifts lie mostly in natural charms; he's a personality. A casting tip: If the role requires a heavy dose of smoldering, hire someone else. That's not his groove. Nor is he interesting as Tough Action Star, which he also gets to try on during certain sequences in the film's back half. It didn't work in Jurassic World and it doesn't work here. He's a likable weirdo with leading-man looks but something much different from a leading-man personality ... which is precisely what makes him a unique leading man, but only in leading-man roles that take advantage of those characteristics. (Did you follow all that?)

There's a lot of wasted and mis-used talent here. Cinematographer Rodriego Prieto's images are nice enough, but it's impossible to feel much voice or vision behind them. Ditto the production design, which seems to take its cues from Kubrick by way of Baz Luhrmann, but which mostly just sits there in the background, never coming to life. That all goes to Tyldum, a thoroughly anonymous presence behind the camera who nonetheless makes his presence felt through all he can't do, or is unwilling to do. Why is it so easy to harp on the basics of the plot, the basics of the character motivations, the ins and outs of its message? Because Tyldum gives us nothing else to think, or feel, or question about it. (There's one shot of Pratt in a space suit engulfed in flames that would make for a nifty evocation of his damnation - a fine comment on his character and his actions - but the film doesn't do anything with it.) There's also a touch of class commentary - when Jim wakes up he discovers that he doesn't have high enough privileges to access the gourmet coffee and more expensive cafeteria food - that, again, the film seems uninterested in exploring.

It should come as no surprise, then, the way Tyldum stampedes toward a completely unjustified and ill-conceived third act, never curious enough to stop and examine much along the way. This is perhaps the most revelatory failure of all: That the studio took on a story fully aware of its prickly material, and never bothered to find someone capable of interrogating it, of tangling with it - or even willing to try. Passengers is an act of cinematic cowardice.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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