Passengers and all the images you see in this review are owned by Columbia Pictures
Directed by Morten Tyldum
I’ve started watching Parks and Recreations recently and seeing Chris Pratt in that film has started to color my perceptions of him as a leading man. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy still holds up as he’s still playing up to his comedic strengths, but every time I see the poster for this movie with him and Jennifer Lawrence blandly starring back with their chiseled Hollywood looks, it’s just gotten harder to take that seriously when all I can think of Burt Macklin: The best FBI agent ever! Still, the guy does have a HUGE amount of talent and more than enough charisma to carry a movie, so maybe he’s the right fit to bring some humanity to this kind of science fiction story and can hold his own against an actress of Jennifer Lawrence’s caliber. Does Passengers manage to give us a compelling story anchored by two great performances from some of the most bankable names in the business right now, or is this a giant misstep that will be stain on their relatively strong careers up to this point? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with everyone’s favorite member of Mouse Rat in a giant space mall that’s hurtling through the galaxy at a preposterous rate but still too slow for anyone to if they had to manually control the damn thing. That’s why the ship is on autopilot and presumptive hero Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) along with the other five thousand people on this ship are in hibernation pods and riding out this long journey to the new space colony on Homestead II. Unfortunately for Starlord, there’s some malfunction that wakes his ass, and ONLY his ass, before everyone else with no way to go back to sleep and is trapped alone on this space ship for the next ninety years. At first it’s not all bad considering he sort of has the run of the place which is full of video games, movies, and sushi, and he even has a friendly robotic bartender (Michael Sheen) to air his grievances at. Eventually though, he manages to taste every variation on the tuna roll, got the high score in the latest instalment of Just Dance, and manages to drink half the ship’s wine cellar within about a year, so doing this for another 89 of them isn’t all that appealing. He basically has two options at this point; kill himself or wake someone else up to keep him company. Well we wouldn’t really have a movie if they went with the former (that actually would be a pretty awesome short film) so he JUST SO HAPPENS to fixate on a writer named Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) and eventually cracks open her hibernation pod and pretends it was an accident just like his was. Will she be able to fill the silence that has driven him to the brink of madness and give a reason to live once again? What could he possibly do to make up for essentially kidnapping her and ruining her life as she’s doomed to suffer the same fate as him, and what will happen when she finds out the truth? Well there IS an airlock. I’m pretty sure she could have some fun with that.
I ended up liking this movie as I was walking out of it, but the more I think on it (and the more I read of other people’s reactions to it), the harder it is to stay positive as the central moral dilemma in here is interesting, but doesn’t really play out the way it should considering the implications of the scenario. I was aware the whole time that what Chris Pratt had done was a terrible thing to do (i.e. forcing Jennifer Lawrence awake), but I’ve sat through plenty of movies with reprehensible characters who we feel at least SOMETHING for and are interested in following their stories. Hell, Breaking Bad is all about watching someone who increasingly becomes more and more morally compromised, and while there are plenty of people who don’t understand what it’s all supposed to mean (similar to most Scarface and Fight Club fans), that sort of look into the deterioration of someone through a combination of circumstance, survival instinct, and personal gratification, is usually pretty damn interesting to watch. I found that to be the case here, but it didn’t really hit me until sometime later that the movie’s exploration of this horrible situation (even before the cheesy ending) leaves a lot to be desired and doesn’t go far enough to address how this situation would actually play out in any other movie or with any other cast. Maybe I can put some of that on how Jennifer Lawrence’s character was written (she’s angry once she finds out but gets over her fear rather quickly), but I think it’s more important for me to realize that I need to be more perceptive of these things even if the movie is trying to lead me to another conclusion. I had no problem sympathizing with both Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in this movie based on the situations they find themselves in and how the movie presents them, but in hindsight and by listening to what other people have to say, it’s clear that this is only a half thought out story and the parts that is tactfully left out and diminished are where the REALITY of the situation lies. Chris Pratt may be sympathetic to the extent that his dumb luck put him in one of the worst positions possible (utter isolation until you die or kill yourself), but the movie doesn’t want to acknowledge just how bad the desperate choice he made really was, and I should have been aware enough to notice the movie dancing around the implications. Well, I’m more aware now, and… yeah. It’s a decent premise that could have worked, but not as a romance and not as sugarcoated as the final product ultimately is.
So how does the movie present the central moral dilemma? Chris Pratt has the entire first act of the movie to himself to convey his loneliness and gain the audience’s sympathies. This works as we watch him go through the stages that we would; namely Panic, Sadness, Hedonism, and more Sadness. The movie goes out of its way to show his loneliness and need for someone to connect with, and presents the situation in a plausible Twilight Zone sort of way so that we can put ourselves in his shoes and think about what we would do in this situation. I don’t really have a problem with all this as it sets up his decision and lays down enough groundwork to get the audience to understand why he did something that will ultimately destroy this other person’s life the same way that fate destroyed his. Where it starts to not work is with Jennifer Lawrence’s character that just doesn’t have enough going on or enough focus for the audience’s sympathies to move over to her as much as they should. She has plenty of scenes and we do feel for the situation she’s been unknowingly put in, but it’s always revolving around Chris Pratt in some way and we’re never given a reason to side against him. There are moments, especially after she finds out what he did, that movie does go in that direction and Lawrence’s acting in these scenes is perfectly haunting in the way she (as well as the camerawork) is able to portray the feelings of betrayal that she’s going through. The problem is that there’s just not enough of that there, and while they don’t make up until the end of the movie, the situation doesn’t go to the victim/abuser relationship it SHOULD be (whether or not that’s what Chris Pratt’s character wanted or intended) and ends up feeling more like snippy roommates which diminishes the depth of Chris Pratt’s personal failing and how much it really does hurt Jennifer Lawrence.
Ultimately, the decision that Chris Pratt made needed to have more of a consequence for him. He didn’t need to be painted as an outright villain, but he shouldn’t have gotten the more or less free pass that he ended up getting in here as the movie contrives excuses for him to not only be SUPER heroic but to do so in a way that wins back Jennifer Lawrence which… I guess is what you would want in any OTHER movie but only adds to the creep factor as Lawrence’s forgiveness comes way too easily. Don’t forget; Breaking Bad didn’t end with Walter getting away scot-free (spoiler alert). The kind of forgiveness that the movie wanted Chris Pratt to receive was simply not earned here and it leads to the ending which is just lame and cheesy, though is made worse by the particulars of the bad relationship these two have. I’m reminded of the analysis Lindsey Ellis gave of the Phantom of the Opera’s character arc. Toxic people may have led bad lives but that doesn’t give them the right to demand that anyone else pays for it which is why him letting Christine go at the end was best possible conclusion to his character arc. Chris Pratt, while in some respects more sympathetic in his plight, is similarly working under such an assumption that someone HAS to take responsibility for his unfortunate situation which is one of the reasons he’s able to justify waking up Jennifer Lawrence. The movie gives a small nod to that kind of revelation for Chris Pratt, but he ultimately doesn’t have to act on it or even face the consequences of having to actually do the right thing. I won’t say EXACTLY what happens, but it’s too much of a fantasy in a movie that SHOULD be about realizing the reality of ones actions.
So that’s the big and unavoidable flaw that I recognized at first but didn’t fully grasp until after the movie was over. What about the rest of the movie? Honestly, I found it to be REALLY damn good for the most part. The actors do great in their roles (even in Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t have the same depth to work with as Chris Pratt’s character is given), and the movie looks stunning throughout with great sci-fi technology and interesting set designs. The poor vs rich commentary is a bit on the nose, but I do like this version of the future where the worst thing you can face isn’t robots trying to kill us all, but cheerfully unhelpful automated systems that reduce us to data points on a spreadsheet or predictable input devices looking for simple solutions. Now it’s still a bit unrealistic that there is THIS much that these two are unable to do in this situation (how did the ship builders not put in more fail safes and how did Chris Pratt go THAT long without smashing open the food dispenser?) but that’s usually the case when you’re trying to make a point instead of simply providing a quasi-believable set for the drama to take place in. Hell, even the finale worked for the most part what with them having to fix something through some incredibly dangerous methods, but even then it’s a bit soured as it clearly is set up to provide Chris Pratt a chance to redeem himself through selfless actions, and it leads to the final decision of the movie which is what solidifies this as incredibly problematic in terms of how the filmmakers and writers felt about their story and how it would work out.
I really did like this movie quite a lot while I was watching it as I got absorbed in the WHAT IF type of morality play and was enjoying a lot of the sci-fi bells and whistles that added a lot of personality to the setting. With a final pass of the script from a fresh perspective, it might have been salvaged and would have been a great time. As it stands, it just doesn’t pay enough attention to what it’s doing to realize how this whole situation reads, and while it’s something that not everyone will pick up on (it took a while for it to sink in for me), plenty of others will and they’re voices will be heard the loudest when it comes to the reputation this movie has going forward. I guess it is worth seeing if you recognize that there is that HUGE problem in here, but maybe not at the theaters. Wait until it hits home release, pause the movie ten minutes before it ends, and then recreate what SHOULD be the ending using hand puppets or something. I’m sure it will be better than what we actually got at the end.
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