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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review: Passengers (2016)

* * *

Director: Morton Tyldum
Starring: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence

Passengers has a 31% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 41 rating on Metacritic. Is it secretly a great movie? No, but is it the terrible movie that those ratings would imply? Not nearly. Those ratings would suggest something borderline incompetent, something shoddily made with little to recommend it. But Passengers is an entertaining movie with more than enough to make it worth taking the time to watch, even if it is thematically problematic. Thinking about it afterwards, I was reminded of something I once read about Jerry Maguire (I can't remember the exact wording and couldn't find the review, so I'm stuck paraphrasing), that it's a movie that knows a great deal about sports but very little about relationships. Similarly, Passengers is a film that knows a great deal about how to spin an adventure yarn, but very little about women and relationships. It suffered for the latter, but it deserves praise for the former.

At some point in the near or distant future, the passenger ship Avalon is transporting 5,000 colonists to a planet named Homestead II for the purpose of creating a new human settlement there. 30 years into the 120 year journey, one of the hibernation pods malfunctions, prematurely waking mechanical engineer Jim (Chris Pratt), who slowly realizes that he's all alone on the ship. After some failed attempts to get himself back into hibernation, Jim tries to live with his situation and a year passes in which he only has the company of Arthur (Michael Sheen), an android bartender. Having lost his will to live and some of his mind during the course of that lonely year, Jim becomes obsessed with a passenger named Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer whose intention is to travel to Homestead II, live there for a year, and then travel back to Earth and write about her experience. I'm still undecided about whether the eye-roll inducing fact that screenwriter Jon Spaihts actually gave the character the same name as the Princess in Sleeping Beauty is cancelled out by the refreshing fact that humans are seeking new territory in outer space for reasons other than that Earth has been completely ruined by our presence (I'm not saying I buy it, but it's a nice change of pace). At any rate, the introduction of Aurora is where things start to get a bit hinky.

A lot of what was written about Passengers at the time of its release had to do with the decision that Jim makes to wake Aurora so that he can have some company, and how that turns a would-be romantic plot into a romanticized vision of Stockholm syndrome. This criticism is not unfounded, as there is something inherently gross about the film's central premise which the film deals with in a way that is deeply unsatisfying. It's unsatisfying because the film acknowledges the messed up parts of the "love" story, but seems to think that merely acknowledging the existence of those messed up parts is enough to make them palatable. When she finds out what he's done, Aurora tells Jim that he's a "murderer" who has condemned her to die and she's right, though it remains unmentioned that entering into a relationship with Jim under the false pretenses he's created throws the question of consent into the air since it's pretty doubtful that she would have slept with him had she known that he was condemning her to live the remainder of her days on the ship. There's also a scene, after Aurora has learned the truth and broken up with him and told him that she doesn't want to be around him anymore (it's a big ship, so it would be possible), where Jim completely disregards her wishes by getting over the loudspeaker to force her to hear him out. She yells that she doesn't care what he has to say, which is great, but it's still a scene where he's forcing his point-of-view on her whether she wants it or not and I'm not entirely sure whether the film understands how of a piece that is with the mindset of entitlement that drove Jim to wake Aurora up in the first place and then lie to her so that she would "date" him.

And that's the big problem that Passengers sets up for itself and then can't quite overcome. It understands that what Jim did was wrong but seems to think that, in the grand scheme of things, it's not that big a deal and even makes excuses for it. One of those excuses comes from Gus (Laurence Fishburne), a Chief Deck Officer whose pod malfunctions a year after Aurora has been awakened and who likens what Jim has done to a drowning man grabbing on to someone and dragging them down, too, meaning that while it's not right, it's entirely understandable as a reaction to panic. The film then endorses this notion by having Aurora soften towards Jim after she experiences the scenario Gus lays out in his metaphor as she almost drowns in the ship's pool (which is filled with water for some reason, even though there shouldn't be anyone around to use it for another 88 years). It's not a great look and none of it is really even necessary, given that conflict could have been created in some other way than Jim waking Aurora up. Really, the only way that the premise could have worked as it is would be if Jim woke Aurora up and then discovered that she has a personality so terrible that he becomes repulsed by her or if he woke her up and she was completely disinterested in him. He'd still be a murderer, but at least then the movie would be having a joke at Jim's expense rather than rewarding him for being a jerk.

Yet, in spite of all of that, I still rather enjoyed Passengers, which is a great adventure even if it's a bad romance. When his character isn't busy psychologically abusing the woman he claims to love, Pratt's ability to hold the screen and not allow his charisma to get muted when surrounded by special effects is on full display (in terms of his live action blockbusters, he's not as winning here as he is in Guardians of the Galaxy but is a step above his performance in Jurassic World). The opening stretch, in particular, is a fine showcase for him as the film finds the tragic comedy in his character's predicament and even when the film makes its tonal shift as it first introduces Aurora and then begins to get to the bottom of why Jim's pod malfunctioned in the first place, Pratt is still a strong enough presence to hold the center of the story. Lawrence has a bit less to do, and the screenplay has put far less thought into her character and motivations than it has into Jim's, but she equips herself well and, like Pratt, is such an eminently watchable performer that a lot would have to go wrong for her to seem wasted by any film. While Passengers probably won't end up being considered one of the best films of either performer's career when all is said and done, it's a decent movie of its type despite what its critical reception would imply.

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