Thursday, February 2, 2017

Princes, Let Sleeping Beauty Sleep: Passengers

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers.

Passengers, written by Jon Spaihts and directed by Morten Tyldum, isn’t a very good sci-fi film. It’s also not a very good romance. It touches on thought-provoking themes that it doesn’t bother to explore, it wastes some lovely production design (and some talented leads) on a tepid story, and it squanders numerous opportunities to surprise and thrill its audience. Moreover, whatever improvements might have been made that could have coaxed out the film’s true potential, they would all be for naught, thanks to a single terrible decision that lies at the story’s core, poisoning the whole movie from the inside out.

I’m talking about the central conceit of the film. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is a mechanic, one of several thousand passengers on the starship Avalon travelling to a human colony 120 years away from Earth. Everyone is nestled all snug in his or her hibernation pod for their long journey’s nap, until a ship malfunction causes Jim’s pod to wake him up early – extremely early, as it turns out, so that, with no way to put himself back to sleep and no access to the ship’s control functions, he will live an entire lifetime and die on the Avalon alone. There’s only one way he can stave off the loneliness and isolation he feels . . . and that’s to wake up someone else to keep him company. (Michael Sheen as the Avalon’s robotic bartender, Arthur, is a charming dispenser of jocular wisdom, but he doesn’t provide the kind of companionship that Jim wants.) Jim takes a shine to another passenger – a writer named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), whose prose (and beautiful sleeping figure) captures his heart – and makes the decision to short-circuit her pod and condemn her to death along with him.

To the character’s credit, he feels bad about it. He agonizes over the decision and feels guilty enough about making it that he keeps it a secret from her – for years, as it turns out, during which time he allows her to resign herself to her fate and eventually fall in love with him. Aurora ultimately finds out, of course – though not because Jim tells her himself – and the movie scrapes up some boilerplate “ship AI malfunction” story beats to allow him to save the day and win back her love. But more than two-thirds of the running time is centered on this love story between them, and it’s played straight, with no acknowledgement of the lie that is rotting away at its core – either by showing Jim struggling with his own guilt or by showing their relationship deteriorate as he withdraws from her. It’s frankly disgusting to expect an audience to sympathize with Jim or to enjoy the blossoming romance that the movie’s trailers are selling, especially since it takes up so much screen time, making the majority of the film a tedious slog you must endure as you wait for the other shoe to inevitably drop.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers.

Interesting ideas are definitely tucked away within this narrative. Jim is a clearly a troubled individual, weak enough to strand someone else on his own desert island and allow her to believe that it was an accident. There’s room here to explore the inherent selfishness of isolation, and the desperate and dangerous need that can drive lonely people to do terrible things. There’s room to talk about the deep connection we feel to the artists who create the works that resonate with us, and the strange ways this lets us feel like we know people even if we haven’t met them. There’s room to touch on the toxicity and possessiveness of the male gaze, which has taught generations of boys that just because they want someone, they can treat her as if they had ownership over her. But the film doesn’t use any of these ideas, and I think it’s because it’s just not smart enough to do so. There’s no other word for it: Passengers is creepy, insanely so, and it doesn’t seem to realize how creepy it is. It doesn’t capitalize on the horrific nature of Jim’s decision, by deconstructing the notion that what he did is forgivable or acceptable (it’s murder at the very least, and definitely indicative of something even more sinister) or by affording Aurora the chance to reject Jim’s choice and forge her own destiny. It’s far worse than wasted storytelling potential: it’s tone-deafness that ruins any chance the movie has of being taken seriously.

I’d love to praise the leads, and say they’re doing their best with deeply flawed material, but neither Pratt nor Lawrence can mine anything valuable out of the script or summon much in terms of believable chemistry with one another (and even if they did sizzle onscreen, their cutesy sex romps across the Avalon would still be tainted by what we – and Jim – know about what’s really going on). Laurence Fishburne shows up long enough to add exactly nothing to the story before disappearing again – his character no doubt realizing the caliber of film he’s in and making a break for it at the first opportunity. And Passengers is a prime example of the “sci-fi for dummies” genre. Even if I tried, I couldn’t enumerate all the times a character repeats information that has just been given, in dumbed-down language, just to make sure the film’s tired plot points are penetrating our thick monkey skulls. I don’t need every film set on a spaceship to embrace an ultra-realistic approach, but I appreciate not being treated like an idiot who doesn’t understand that being exposed to vacuum is bad for the human body, or that interstellar communication takes a long time. The distinctly condescending storytelling style of Passengers almost gets an idea, since the Avalon is a gorgeous luxury cruise liner in space which caters to its rich passengers in the same patronizing way in which the movie speaks to its audience -- but the film lacks the self-awareness to capitalize on this idea, too.

Passengers is suitably pretty, and features some wonderful production design and neat special effects, but that’s as much as I’m willing to say for it. Even if it didn’t operate on such a loathsome premise, it would still succeed only at being the most overwrought, boring, forgettable kind of sci-fi cinema. Make no mistake: this is a brainless romance film with a thin sci-fi veneer, and it’s being sold as such – but, spoilers be damned, I’m taking this opportunity to warn anyone that might be interested to stay away. This movie is a problem. It introduces a truly fucked-up character but doesn’t know enough not to condone his actions. Passengers doesn’t have any respect for its female lead, its setting, or its audience, so it doesn’t deserve any in return.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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