Skip to main content

Can't slogans be true?

Passengers
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Maybe it’s appropriate that, amid audience ambivalence in the face of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and semi-outraged critical dismissal, Passengers has been rather overlooked. After all, Morten Tyldum’s previous picture, The Imitation Game, was vastly overrated, and over-feted, a psychologically thin and dramatically crude telling of Alan Turing’s life and work that needs to be compared to a truly barrel-scraping biographical portrait like A Beautiful Mind to come off looking remotely praiseworthy.


Here, Tydlum exhibits a similarly glib understanding of his protagonists, but the premise of Passengers nevertheless holds twisted, unsavoury potential. That it fails to succeed in following through – and so the talking point becomes what might have been, in tandem with the problematic actual content – must ultimately be blamed as much on screenwriter Jon Spaihts as its director. Added to which, its stars haven’t exactly brought everything to the table in suggesting hidden depths and inner lives. But, for about half its running time, Passengers is one of the more interesting big budget spectacles of recent years.


I’d read various attestations during the build-up to release that the script was really good, and consequently the suggestion that it’s in the realisation thereof that Passengers goes awry. But really, I can’t see much scope for the third act developments being other than a heavy-handed attempt by Spaihts to manoeuvre himself out of the blind alley he has brazenly careered into. It’s also my understanding that his earliest drafts were very different in outcome, but the one Tydlum filmed does appear to be the one that received all the plaudits.


Although it has been talked of as such, it isn’t really much of a spoiler that Chris Pratt’s Jim Preston, having been revived from hibernation too soon on a flight to the unexotically named Homestead II (the corporate meeting to pick that catchy little name would have been interesting – or soporific), facing the prospect of 90 years alone, with only Michael Sheen’s legless android bartender Arthur for company, decides to awake J-Law’s Aurora Lane (will you look at that: she’s named after something ungraspable) and, having elected not to come clean that it was him wot dunnit, slowly woo her. Because it’s all front-ended; it pretty much is the premise. The drama comes from his deception and the inevitable repercussions when she finds out.


It’s the very fact of his maladjusted act that makes this a compelling idea, and as such, I think it could have worked. That is, as unappetising as it sounds, the challenge of having Aurora, despite her instincts rightly being that Jim’s act was indefensible, could find herself still wanting to be with him, with the unsettling ramifications that carries on both sides. The Telegraph called it “a creepy ode to manipulation” (as Aurora theatrically accuses Jim at one point, “You murdered me!”) but that unfortunately gives too much credit to the processes the picture fails to engage as its lurches carelessly forward in character motivation. Whereas, an actual creepy ode to manipulation might have been singularly conceived, and would likely have been consistent in making you aware, in Hitchockian fashion, that there was something very awry with the way things were panning out.


But it would require a filmmaker with far more gumption than Tyldum to pull off. Verhoeven maybe. De Palma, definitely. Obviously, a movie doesn’t have to give its characters morally-pleasing compasses to be effective, but it’s usually advisable to have a clear perspective on who they are and where their actions will take them. Passengers ultimately goes out of its way to atone for Jim’s sins, rather than having the guts to follow them to their natural conclusion. As such, Spaihts ought to have very much eschewed the Laurence Fishburne ex machina, whereby he too is woken up and with him the chance for Pratt to prove his heroic mettle, save the 5000 other passengers and earn Aurora’s undiluted devotion. Although, he already has that by the time he decides to go outside and open a troublesome airlock, and the process by which Aurora concludes she wants to be with him entirely fails to convince (there’s even a means for her to go back to sleep, so she can say “No, I’d rather be with you, you big dopey lummox”).


To be honest, their preceding romance doesn’t very much either. They aren’t exactly a bust together, but neither are Pratt and Lawrence brimming with chemistry. Part of the problem is that neither role plays to their strengths. Pratt is too often a blank, and what should be the furrowed churning of a muddled mind is unfortunately streamlined into a jockish episode (well, year) in which he gets pissed, grows a glue-on beard and develops a chubby for the sleeping blonde chick he happens across. And, when she’s revived, all he can do is look sheepish, or attempt to give off a lost puppy vibe (freeze any Pratt frame from the trailers and marvel at how all his looks looks the same; Derek Zoolander would be proud).


I’m not sure Keanu, who was attached at the inception of Spaihts’ idea, would have better conveyed Jim’s dark year of the soul, but I suspect the result would have been more elusive, less disposable. Tyldum doesn’t help Pratt out either; his leading Jim to the brink of oblivion is rudimentary and unconvincing. The director has gone to great lengths to show us the luxury playground that is starship Avalon, but he has no feel for the mental degradation of isolation; it takes more than a Robinson Crusoe beard. If we were to get on board – or at least empathise – with the place Jim arrives at, it would have required some Polanski-esque aberrations of the mind to precede it. As it is, it looks like Pratt just wants to get his jollies and debates the matter over a whisky before succumbing (the passage of time is poorly represented – the beard is shorthand, but doesn’t cut it, so to speak).


On the subject of which, one wonders why, when technology is clearly so advanced, the company doesn’t have a coterie of sexbots on hand to service Pratt’s shallow whims (before you say the poor dope’s looking for connection and meaning, he just happens to fall prone before the pod of a gorgeous, privileged blonde; would he have lingered if she’d been a plane Jane? Added to which, his protestations that she’s funny and smart fail to translate into her being other than J-Law).


Of course, the design of the craft is at once impressive, yet simultaneously as shallow as Tyldum’s insights. This is the post-Apple era science-fiction spaceship of gleaming expanses, where everything consists of touch screens and rudimentary holograms (see also the Star Trek reboot’s bridge); are we really supposed to believe the dancefloor’s virtual stars are state-of-the-art, when they’d look iffy on your average video game now (or is that the point? It’s a naff, retro-‘00s experience)? The undemanding nature of the design work (which isn’t to say it’s aesthetically displeasing: it’s just too easy) extends to the eventual detour to the engine room, which naturally is a Blade Runner-derivative, claustrophobic inferno.


Like Rogue One, the most successfully achieved aspects of Passengers are the overtly artificial. When it nods to Silent Running too much (Jim planting a tree, for example), it simply reminds you of how much better that picture is on every level (not least in depicting the desperate mental breakdown of its protagonist; but then, it did have Bruce Dern going for it), but kind-of referential aspects such as the cleaning bots are amusing and well rendered, slavishly picking up messes made by their human masters. And Sheen is just great as Arthur. He should take more genre roles (he was similarly memorable in TRON Legacy). Arthur’s limited logic is both endearing and frustrating, and seems far more clearly formulated than any other aspect of the screenplay, such that, while you can see his crucial part in unravelling Jim’s deceit coming a mile off, it’s no less successful for that.


Lawrence is merely adequate, in a role that’s the closest she’s come to eye candy thus far (which came first, the swimsuit or the zero-G pool?). Which is to say, it offers her little in the way of meat, even of the processed variety David O Russell was feeding her in Joy. She’s at her best when she has a battle to wage, but here she’s on a back foot, the subject of the lead’s projections for the first part, given an unconvincing background of status and journalistic ambition that seems to call for someone a decade older (yes, it’s the Russell “casting her too far beyond her years” thing again), and required to stand by while Pratt proves he’s not one in the finale.


She’s further undermined by coming round to Jim in no time at all, making Aurora’s processes seem as shallow as her literary pedigree. In that sense, the couple do seem made for each other. If Aurora had been given an equal aptitude for darker manifestations as Jim (even if it was simply – in keeping with one of the movie’s themes – a calculated, manipulative, “make the most of what you’ve got”, so unreciprocatingly using the doting shmo), or the path to forgiving him had been etched out astutely (because, despite what he did, she does still want him), aware of the implications, something might have clicked. But, as it is, the Keanu-Emily Blunt/ Reece Witherspoon/ Rachel McAdams pairing couldn’t have elicited less resonant results.


Like Rogue One, Passengers’ lead characters have expired come the final shot, which is something of a Garden of Eden minus Adam and Eve (so again evoking Silent Running) and with an added, big, bushy, Andy Garcia space beard; I was half-expecting the duo to ease their loneliness by propagating, but they evidently decided that wouldn’t be best for the kids (apparently, this was an element of the original draft, complete with incest and the jettisoning into space of the rest of the passengers). No ropey aging prosthetics are applied here; Chris and Jennifer are preserved in all their youthful glory, absent any lingering final decrepitude. It’s that kind of veneer that points up the picture’s main failings. There’s much more potential to Passengers than in the sketchy, joined-up backstory of the current Star Wars story, making its squandering that much more disappointing. And yet, even given that, this is an interesting and blithely provocative failure, and they’re often more rewarding than the sure-fire hits.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…