Passengers (2016)

Directed by Morten Tyldum

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There’s a home run spike going on in baseball these days, which has been a bit unexpected because of the offensive drought that spanned most of a decade as the league cleaned out most or all of the performance enhancing drug users that defined the early 00’s.  Whereas you once had MVPs like Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa launching 50 home runs a year, soon you had Buster Posey winning that award while hitting half as many.  With fewer home runs, like fewer natural resources, maybe a team had to get creative, play small ball and craft wins when there weren’t any easy shortcuts.  Why do I bring this up?  Well, it’s a cheap metaphor that I’ll reference again in the final paragraph, and Passengers is Barry Bonds at the height of his steroid usage, someone with all the injected resources in the world at his disposal.

There are 5,000 passengers aboard the Avalon, a ship headed on a 120 year journey to the distant planet Homestead II.  There the passengers will start life anew, fresh from their 120 year hibernation.  30 years into the journey, a large asteroid field causes a slow series of malfunctions, the first of which involves one passenger, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) waking up 90 years too early.

So Jim roams the halls of the grand, sleek ship like Jack Torrance in The Shining.  Just as Jack is the Overlook’s caretaker, Jim, as a mechanic, takes care of the ship with no one else around.  Again, like Jack, Jim’s only friend is the bartender, this one an android named Arthur (Michael Sheen).  So Passengers is like The Shining, you get it.

It also bears a few similarities to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey though maybe not as many as it does to the Pixar film Wall-E.  There’s a Sleeping Beauty component to the story as well.

Passengers borrows from a lot of other sources, and it fails to create anything new in the process.  This story is simple, promising, and I’m sure there was some originality in the first draft of the script, only to be washed away by excessive studio notes.  I’m making assumptions here but, as my friend pointed out, this film is telegraphed in this scene from 2005’s Thank You For Smoking.

Passengers would make for a great episode of Black Mirror.  It could be an existentialist horror film about purgatory and what you will do to get out of that purgatory.  It’s about the pain people can inflict on others when it means self-preservation.  As Laurence Fishburne’s character will point out,  “the drowning man will always try and drag somebody down with him.”

Jim wakes up and soon finds out he’s alone.  He then attempts to fix the hibernation pods, but when that fails it becomes clear that he will die alone on the Avalon unless he wakes someone else up.  He is Adam asking God for an Eve.

Jim struggles with the decision.  He lives alone for over a year, and that much isolation probably means he has lost much of his sanity.  It’s almost inevitable that he will wake up another passenger because, well because of that Fishburne quote.

This is the premise of the story, that Jim wakes up an attractive woman named Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence).  He picked her.  He even fell in love with her before ever meeting her.  There is some commentary here on social media and the male gaze, and probably some other sh*t too.  Jim is likable, but he becomes a little more of a creep, even if it is slightly understandable.

The point is that there’s a lot of possible nuance here, but the movie blows right through it.  If you’ve seen the trailer, hell even just the poster, then you know that Aurora wakes up, eventually she finds out Jim woke her up, and then the spaceship nearly blows up because that’s how big budget movies like this have to end.

This means that for over half of the movie’s runtime, we’re just waiting for something interesting to happen.  It’s not until around then that Aurora, only recently awoken, learns what Jim did.  Then the rest of the time, when there should be some discovery, the movie just pretends they’re going through some kind of lover’s spat.  Then the ship needs saving, and they must put aside their differences for the rest of mankind.  Or at least for 4,998 of them.

It’s been pointed out before, but this film would work better through a different perspective, that of Aurora’s.  She experiences the same existential dread as Jim but with the added ripple that the man she’s fallen in love with is the one who cursed her to such a fate.

This episode of the Nerwriter youtube channel breaks it down…

As it is, we know way too much to spend so much time watching nothing happen.  We watch Jim look for other passengers.  We know none are awake.  We watch Jim try to contact the ship’s crew.  We know he won’t.  We watch him try to fix the hibernation pod.  We know he can’t.  We watch him debate whether or not to wake up Aurora.  We know he will.  We watch Aurora look for help, and again we know there is none.  Then we watch Jim and Aurora fall in love, and we knew they would.  Then we watch Aurora learn what Jim has done to her, and we knew this was built into the movie’s premise.

A lot happens that we already know about, and there is nothing new for us to discover.  The third act has to do with them saving the ship in another CGI-laden, exposition-be damned sh*tshow.  How many times do we have to watch the protagonist(s) prevent something large from going boom?

This explosive finale undermines any of the drama the story might’ve raised over the first 90 minutes of the story.  It takes an interesting premise and turns it into just another big budget fiesta.

Were Aurora to be our perspective into this story, we could watch her wake up with Jim already there.  He tells her he also woke up, and because he’s the likable Chris Pratt, maybe we believe him.  Even if we don’t, there’s a small amount of doubt, a question, in the audience’s mind.

When we learn what he did, we’re ideally learning about it for the first time, just as Aurora is.  We see this through her eyes and get to identify with the victim of the man’s supposedly romantic lust.  Whether or not they can fall in love, the basis of their relationship is f*cked up, and the movie will end on what’s meant to be a hopeful note, that they will live happily ever after.

I don’t fault Jim’s decision, but the film should try to feel the weight of his choice.  He makes it out of desperation, not because he’s in love with Aurora.  He thinks he’s in love with Aurora but only in the same way you think you see a body of water when you’re on your own lost in the desert.  It’s a mirage, and now I’m thinking the film would’ve been a hell of a lot more interesting if Jim and Aurora genuinely didn’t get along.  Then you’re veering into the broad comedy territory of something like the tv show Last Man on Earth.

I’ve been thinking about this movie a lot, but I’ve been thinking about all the things it didn’t do.  Once the plot ends, we see an 88 year time jump to when the ship’s crew awakens.  To them, it’s as if they just has a long night’s sleep, but when they wake up, in something like the blink of an eye, the ship is marked with signs of decades of life.

Jim and Aurora built themselves a life on the ship and grew a whole greenhouse worth of shrubbery in the main hall.  It’s a striking image, and then the movie ends.  But wait!  How long did they live?  Did they die together like elderly Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling in The Notebook?  Did Jim die first, leaving a 70-ish year old Aurora all by herself?  Having lived most of your adult life with literally one person would make that person’s death unbearable.  I could imagine a scenario in which a distraught, old Aurora does what Jim did and wakes someone else up, unable to cope with the isolation.

That would be such an awesome ending, I mean a haunting one and definitely not what this studio movie was going for, but still.

A studio movie like this has a lot to play with, but it’s also never going to swing for the fences.  It’s a batter loaded with steroids who insists on bunting.

Up Next: Taste of Cherry (1997), Footloose (1984), Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

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