Movie Review: Passengers.
Passengers is 2016’s Prometheus: big visuals and big talent squandered on silly plot mechanics and awful characters.
Passengers, directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game,) is currently suffocating in the cold, dark vacuum of critic and audience antipathy. Always a sucker for science fiction, I decided to give this film a roll, despite a Greek chorus warning me of how terrible it would be. At first blush, Passengers is not so much terrible as disappointing. It is a film that tries to ask difficult questions, but then decides to cop out by relying on tired action movie tropes. It is after seeing which difficult questions the film decides to dodge that one gets properly angry about what an enabling turd this film is in its soul.
A colony ship, the Avalon, is headed to the newly founded world of Homestead II on a 120 year journey, carrying 5000 plus souls in deep hibernation. A storm of space debris strikes the vessel en route, managing to overwhelm the defense systems, leading to a host of mechanical problems, including the awakening of one passenger. Jim (Chris Pratt) is a poor engineer who signed up for the excursion because mechanics are not only needed on the new colony, but prized enough to receive bonuses to leave Earth.
Since he is 90 years away from his intended home, he succumbs to depression, having only an automated bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) to keep him company. At the end of his rope, he develops an infatuation with a sleeping passenger, Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence,) and decides to secretly revive her, despite knowing that it will be a death sentence for her as well.
Passengers is certainly a pretty movie. Comparisons to James Cameron’s Titanic abound, and that is largely because the Avalon is a luxury liner disguised as an Ark ship. Every amenity is provided in lavish detail, despite much of it being locked away from Jim, who only has a discount access bracelet. The film (whose budget is a spectacular overreach on the part of the studio) certainly spared no expense on the sumptuous settings, both inside the ship and outside in the cosmos.
The cast gives game performances, despite being hamstrung by the script. Chris Pratt is an echo of his Star Lord character from Guardians of the Galaxy: he’s earthy, slightly roguish, charming in spots, and enamored of silly dance routines. He manages to evince believable angst and morbidity as well, helping to sell the dire plight of his character. Jennifer Lawrence…is Jennifer Lawrence. Once again, she’s on safe ground re-treading her work from The Hunger Games: she’s vulnerable but possessed of an iron core, fiery when called upon, but ultimately tossed about by fate/the men in her life.
The strongest components of the film are Michael Sheen and and a criminally under utilized Laurence Fishburne. Arthur the robotic bartender is engaging and likable, and his stately demeanor does more to create a setting of old world decadence than the million dollar sets. Lawrence Fishburne plays a late arrival to the party who has the answer to many of the questions that the film has been stacking up like cord wood…but then his character is unceremoniously jettisoned. From his first line, you get the sense that he is the most realistic character we have yet met, but he is there and gone so fast his gravitas never has enough time to effect the plot.
The first act of Passengers is Robinson Crusoe in space (no, not Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a much more interesting film!) We get to see Chris Pratt’s character move from helpless alarm to resourceful pluck, then indolence, and finally on to depression and hopelessness. Pratt does a very good job of conveying his character’s mental state, and it is an engaging character study. The major dilemma is that he has learned that while he cannot put himself back to cryo-sleep, he can wake others up. Doing so would save his sanity, at the price of the other person’s life. The struggle is fairly well presented.
The second act is the love story: he wakes Aurora, they eventually become lovers, and ultimately his terrible secret is revealed. Once again, this bit works as a character study for Lawrence’s character, who goes through the same cycle of emotions as we saw Jim, with the added stage of betrayal and rage. Her response to Jim’s selfish act is the most human and believable aspect to her character…then the third act arrives.
Crisis is Not a Cure All.
By now we have a human drama about a very messed up situation. Looking at how compromised people react to awful situations is strong cinema. Think Apocalypse Now or The Count of Monte Cristo. Exploring these issues in such a fabulous setting would be incisive allegory…but the film decides to chuck it all over in favor of a big action third act. Instead of resolving the questions raised by the decisive action of immorally putting Aurora in danger, the two have to work together to save the ship and end up becoming lovers again. Fuck that.
Check Your Privilege.
Passengers has a major problem. Jim’s act is inherently immoral. Yes, he’s desperate. Yes, he’s portrayed sympathetically. But he never once has to own that he did something utterly reprehensible. Lawrence tells him that he is guilty of murder for waking her. It’s more like he’s guilty of rape: he’s essentially imprisoned another person and manipulated her into a sexual relationship with a definite lack of symmetry when it comes to informed consent, but the film is completely unwilling to engage that can of worms. Instead, it seems to want to find any excuse it can to absolve him.
We live in a culture where that is unfortunately the status quo. We victim blame, search for any mitigating circumstance to make the attacker not culpable, and then try to force the victim back into the arms of the perpetrator. “Do you really want to keep making a fuss, dear? He certainly looks like he’s learned his lesson and is being so gosh darn nice now, why not give it another go?” Fuck all of that.
From the asymmetry of development, we can clearly see that this is Jim’s story. He’s the focus, and it is his problems that matter. He’s just so likable, and just so lonely, and when the chips are down he is so selfless and nice. If he needs to force his needs on a woman, well, that’s OK because he’s the hero. His needs are all that matter. He’ll make up for all of the unpleasantness in the end by being a gentleman, you just wait and see.
Reject out of Principle.
There is unfortunately way too many movies that enshrine sexually predatory behavior. Just this year, we had Birth of a Nation use rape as a plot device to further the male protagonist’s story. This bullshit needs to die.
It ends up not being important whether Passengers thought it was handling this element with tact by showing Jim in the doghouse for half an hour, or if it really didn’t see a problem at all with making the female character solely an object to relieve Jim’s loneliness. Either way, it makes this movie an execrable mess to be avoided on principle. For those who need more than that, it also helps that this film is tone deaf, abuses hackneyed sci-fi tropes (really, just like Prometheus and Elysium, the most dangerous thing in the future is the goddamned medical pods?!) and is glacially paced (often dawdling on scenes that show the exact same concept repeatedly.) At the end of the day, though, don’t skip Passengers because it is a poorly made film. Skip it because the shitty mentality that lets this movie even exist needs to die a fiery and painful death, and the sooner the better.