28 December 2016

First Impressions: Passengers

A year ago I was really looking forward to Passengers (2016). It promised the two hottest leads of our era, an original and intriguing high concept, and a plumb mystery box of what secrets could lie inside. As we approached the release date my intrigue peaked and then fell and fell as it was savaged by reviews, including the now requisite claims of sexism and racism, along with a marketing campaign that seemed more into trading off the two stars' cheeky romance than anything of substance here.
At least no one ran in heels this time.

I didn't even quite want to see Passengers when I got to theater. I was gearing up for La La Land (2016) or a second showing of Rogue One (2016). In my Fandango-free sold-out local theater I kind of got the impression that everyone else in the audience felt the same way. This was everyone's second choice. Passengers ended up bombing pretty hard, even with an audience driven by their second and third movie choice, and in hindsight, launching an original sci-fi against the greatest sci-fi franchise of all time probably wasn't a great idea. I'm not sure this could have done well at any other month, though. It seems like it just got lost amidst the slew of franchises and Oscar bait this time of year.

But I'll be the first one to say that this flick isn't nearly as bad as every one thinks. It's not especially great, but not quite the monumental train wreck that most of the Internet wants it to be. In terms of outrage, and I suppose now's as good a time as any to say SPOILER ALERT from here on out (as if the previews didn't spoil it already), but the basic idea of the film is that all these colonists are travelling to another planet suspended in frozen animation when a meteor causes Chris Pratt to wake up 90 years early. He decides to wake up a girl to bang, and thus Jennifer Lawrence enters the picture. His decision to wake up Jennifer Lawrence is pretty awful, but that's how the movie treats it.

It's important to note that he spends a year in loneliness slowly going insane, which they could have pushed to be a little more explicit. The core of the film is an intense ethical quandary, which has been lost on many reviewers. A lifetime alone on a spaceship surrounded by 4999 other people that you can never talk to is a daunting prospect. You could call it a weakness of character that he caves and stalks J-Law, but is it, really? He grapples with his guilt until it normalizes, which is of course the moment she finds out and cannot forgive him.

Pratt is of course a total creepster, but the film addresses the pain caused by his selfishness. The problematic point at the end is that J-Law ends up saving his life, then when he finds a way to put her back in the tank, she (probably) decides to live out her days with him instead. It may be love and forgiveness for someone who's done an unspeakable wrong, but really it's another quandary. Would you rather spend a lifetime alone or a lifetime with this cute guy who you really like except for the circumstances of your meeting? She even rejects his corny selfish pleas and explanations for his decision to wake her up. It's not great, but there's a line between sexism and general douchiness here that's straddled, addressed, and denounced by the film.

There's also this weird racism bit floating around about Laurence Fishburne. Sure he's the only black guy in the film and he dies right away after giving a bunch of exposition, but that's a weird criticism for a film that only has four human speaking roles, and that's including the Michael Sheen android. Would a non-black character be better? I can't deal with Internet criticism anymore, movies are doomed any way they're made. It may have been sloppy writing, but for the narrative to leave Chris and Jen alone as the perfect space couple he definitely had to die. Of course, the whole reason he wakes up, Chris wakes up, and everything else goes nuts is where the film really descends into crap territory.

See, the initial meteor shower lodged into the ship's computer, which is bad news bears for anyone who likes cereal in the morning or for dead robots to not fall on their head. Pratt and J-Law have to fix it by throwing more manual levers than anyone in movie history. This is seriously the ending for every sci-fi and action movie ever, from Deep Blue Sea (1999) to I, Robot (2004) to Pacific Rim (2013). I actually thought a lot about I, Robot here, which similarly flirts with interesting philosophical and ethical dilemmas before giving up and becoming a dumb action movie for the last twenty minutes.

There's also no way in hell Pratt would have survived the fusion reactor engines venting on his suit. Even if that's a lead suit! I suppose it must have some kind of cosmic ray guard to just float around freely in space, but it's a ridiculous idea that he just stands there fine as he's blasted with a nuclear explosion. Same with J-Law in the pool - she definitely drowned. Like, passed out drowned. One by fire, one by water, both these idiots should be dead.

To focus on these actors more for a bit, since they're the only people we have, the chemistry is definitely here and it's strong. It's a damn sexy film, too, with lots of Pratt butt and Law side boob to satisfy everyone in the audience. Their characters are moderately interesting, even if we get a clearer idea of personality and traits from Pratt and a clearer idea of interests and goals from Lawrence. They both do a fine job for needing to carry most of the script in a confined yet expansive location.

Fishburne is also just dandy even if he's mostly just talking about broken ship parts and then coughing blood into his hand. And at the last minute - Andy Garcia! OK! Great. What the hell is a wordless Andy Garcia doing as Captain Norris at the very last moment of this wacky movie? It ultimately comes down to a pretty simple reason - just edits and scene trimming, but it still feels weird.

In the end, this film just doesn't have any sort of panache that makes it stand out. It doesn't work that well as a romantic film or as a science fiction film. Who knew that hiring the director of The Imitation Game (2014) for a space opera would end up so bleh. Apparently from interviews and the whole ten year process it took to get this thing made, though, director Morten Tyldum and writer Jon Spaihts put a whole ton of effort into this, though. I love how much this actually resembled Prometheus in set design, and at times plot devices, such as the medpod, which is exactly the same. Oh, Jon Spaihts. You're not great.

Most of this is Wall-E (2008) featuring Star-Lord - there's even a frozen Pratt face floating around space! Somehow it lacks any of the pithy social commentary of Wall-E, though. Indeed, when most sci-fi films feature some kind of societal parallel, it's hard to parse anything out of Passengers. There's a little bit about the commercialism of...exploring other planets I guess - or at least corporate expansion by way of exploiting consumer dreams, but nothing is really developed or integral to the plot. There seems to be a bit about overcrowding on Earth, but it's clear that the Earth isn't doomed or anything, just kind of modern in the way that Chris Pratt wants to escape from. That's neither treated as wrong or right in the world of Passengers, and this neutered take on every big idea really brings the film down. It has more fun being a thought experiment that becomes a romance, then a devastating revelation of betrayal, and then just an adventure film. There's not a lot of compelling stuff here.
"But you've always been the caretaker, Mr. Pratt."

I was also trying to decode all the references to The Shining (1980), particularly in the bar. Michael Sheen is the spitting image of Lloyd the otherwordly bartender that speaks to Jack Torrance in his lonely madness. The bar also strikingly resembles the Gold Room, the peak of early 20th-Century decadence. Passengers is strangely comfortable with its excess, from its suave clothing to slick fine dining. There's clearly a gap in passenger class, but this too is glossed over, the biggest difference seemingly is what breakfast they can eat. I actually don't think that Morten Tyldum even understands what homage is. He speaks of wanting the bar to have an unnerving element (About seven minutes in), which doesn't make any sense, since the bar in Passengers is the one common safe space for all three main characters here. Ugh.

If something had pushed Passengers a bit farther from the center - some conspiracy, technological threat, or fuck it, ghosts - even SPACE GHOSTS would have made this a whole lot more interesting. Instead it finds itself surprisingly grounded. Even the Homestead corporation doesn't seem to be particularly evil, despite hints of lots of shit in the storage hold and plenty of suspicious activity by way of the unhelpful computers and malfunctioning shit that shouldn't malfunction. But nope, meteor. Great.

Altogether I wouldn't call Passengers the awful sexist Stockholm Syndrome-driven madness more hyperbolic reviewers would think it is. It's part of that now age old conundrum where you suddenly sound tone deaf if you don't address its controversy, even if it's not really there. It's certainly not a good movie, really at all the more I digest it, and probably worth skipping unless Rogue OneLa La Land, and Why Him? (2016) are out. Probably better than SING (2016) and Assassin's Creed (2016).

What did you think?

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