My first review of 2017. It’s a shame I have to start it off like this…
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You know me right? I love a good sci-fi film. Even as flawed as it can be at times, I can find enough reasons to defend it. If the intention is there, it can be justifiable.
But sadly I can’t for Passengers.
“You can’t get so hung up on where you’d rather be, that you forget to make the most of where you are.” – Aurora
It’s practically impossible to talk about Passengers without spoiling the film, given the nature of this story. The fact that it has been in development for years, passed around like a game of musical chairs, the film has been a long time coming.
But nothing can quite prepare you for how bad this film is.
In my review of Arrival I made a comparison as to why the film was unconventional. It avoided the usual clichés that are normally associated with sci-fi films. But most importantly, I made a point about the film’s intimacy, not overly relying on the spectacle. Arrival’s focus on its characters and its core message shone through.
Passengers is the reverse psychology of that.
There’s nothing special or unique about this film. Don’t get me wrong, visually Passengers is a stunning film, worthy of the big screen treatment. You can tell a lot of effort and attention has gone into making this world a reality. The technological aesthetic is sleek and state of the art, clearly inspired by other notable sci-fi films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey for example. It adopts the same visual taste as if they all shopped at the same galactic version of IKEA. Even the spaceship (the Avalon) as it embarks on an 120 year old mission to a new colony, is catered to your every need and desire. It’s essentially a giant size cruise ship holiday in space! However, Passengers falls victim of that spectacle trait I mentioned. You can throw all the visual effects in the world on-screen but if the film lacks a heartbeat, something for you to engage in (both in terms of plot and/or characters), then you end up not caring about the film at all. In other words, it renders it as [bleeping] pointless.
Passengers is as generic, cheesy and clichéd ridden of a film you can get. Instead of being immersed in this world which begs for exploration, the wafer thin plot leaves nothing to the imagination. All you’re left with is the constant nitpick at all the inconsistencies and its direction.
Funnily enough my reaction to this film reminded me of The Adjustment Bureau, the film adaptation based off Philip K. Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team. The film version sacrifices an interesting concept of unseen manipulators controlling your future (bringing into question the whole idea of fate and destiny) and focusing on the romanticism between the characters played by Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Now over the years my opinion about the film has changed. Damon and Blunt’s on-screen dynamic inject the personality and charm into characters that are predestined to fail. The chemistry holds that film together where you could believe without question that it’s real.
The same can’t be said about Passengers. It takes on the same approach as The Adjustment Bureau but stretches the belief system. Whilst this is not the fault of Chris Pratt or Jennifer Lawrence but the script and its execution badly lets them down.
Arthur: “You two look fine this evening.”
Aurora: “We’re on a date.”
Arthur: “Very nice.”
Aurora: [to Jim] “Took you long enough to ask. So why’d you give up your life on Earth?”
Passengers doesn’t get off to a good start because it deploys questionable ethics to convey its story. It doesn’t help that the trailers came across as misleading.
You get the impression that both Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) wake up at the same time. You get the impression that something must have gone wrong with the ship, forcing both characters to wake up early from their sleep. That would make a better story but sadly, that is not the case. Jim is the first to wake up and realises the full extent of his situation. Passengers heavily borrows elements from Castaway and even Will Forte’s Fox comedy The Last Man on Earth (right down to the beard) to demonstrate the psychological pressure of exhausting every means necessary to survive. But here’s where Passengers gets sketchy. In a moment of desperation Jim decides to wake Aurora up.
Now let me take a step back before addressing the above. I need to paint the picture before putting it in a frame.
The fact that Jim randomly wakes up alone after a system malfunction is highly unbelievable in the first instance. What this stupid film does is remove accountability. Somehow in this distant future of a world with all its modern, technological advances, the corporate minds, engineers, designers and system programmers of the Avalon have somehow designed a spaceship that can fend off the unexpected. Somehow in this future we’ve lost the ability to predict the impossible. We’ve sent a ship into space carrying over 5,000 passengers and not planned for ANY KIND of emergency protocols. As it runs on autopilot, there’s ZERO staff to monitor the ship on its journey. When the ship encounters its issue, the system doesn’t bother to wake up the ship’s commander – you know, the guy who’s piloting the ship along with the crew to the new colony. Because in an emergency, THAT SHOULD BE THE FIRST LINE OF PEOPLE YOU WOULD WANT TO WAKE UP no matter what. The only “staff” that become available when Jim wakes up is Arthur (Michael Sheen), a robot bartender and other robots working around the amenities. Don’t ask why they’re awake as well as the plot doesn’t seem to account for their own technological fault. Why didn’t the ship wake up more individuals?
You know people slate Prometheus but at least David took care of the ship!
Then you have the situation with the so-called hibernation pods that is keeping these 5,000 passengers in a peaceful slumber. Instead of designing a machine that can be re-used, they’ve somehow created a “one time” only deal. You sleep for the duration but once you’ve woken up (for whatever reason), that’s it. You can’t go back to sleep – YOU WHAT? Can you imagine the end of Alien where Ripley sends the Xenomorph into the cold depths of space and her reward is to just sit on her ass and play with her cat? The pods are obviously not meant to fail. It’s impossible (according to the film) and yet when faced with the daunting task that they have, there’s no override to reset it. WHO DESIGNS A HIBERNATION POD LIKE THAT? Why is this a plot device? Someone from this fictional space company needs to be sued…
Then you have Jim who has a life skill as an engineer which he conveniently applies his trade when the plot is needed. In his time of isolation, Jim discovers the depths of the Avalon, including spare parts for the ship and the instruction manuals for the pods. Through this discovery, he works out a way to wake up individuals from their sleep. Yet somehow he can’t work out how to reverse engineer the pods so he could to get back to sleep.
Coming back full circle, here’s the problem with Jim waking up Aurora. Why her? The film paints the depths of space isolation, something which I can happily give it credit for. But Jim has access to the ship’s manifest. He could have woken up a member of the crew (if some weren’t hidden behind secure locked rooms) or maybe find someone “like-minded” or next best qualified to help him figure out what went wrong. Then the film heads into the uncomfortable territory of Jim becoming fascinated with Aurora. The mere look of her in her pod stopped him from committing suicide and begins cyberstalking her background history like someone scrolling through a Facebook timeline. He wakes her up and pretends he’s in the “same boat” as her. Remember the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Patrick (Elijah Wood) stole Joel’s personal items of Clementine and impersonates him so he could date her? Same premise but in space. There’s no nice way of saying this but that is [bleeping] creepy because Jim makes a selfish decision. By waking Aurora (think Sleeping Beauty) from her slumber, knowing what you know about the hibernation pods, you’ve sentenced her to death. You’ve robbed her of the opportunity on reaching the colony. The film addresses it but the film also combs over it, almost making it “OK” for what Jim did. How are we meant to believe in the authenticity of this relationship when it has a dodgy and deceitful foundation?
And of course the relationship gets complicated and of course she finds out, otherwise what would be the point of this plot. But the film is so drunkenly intoxicated because of this fabricated, pseudo bubble relationship that suddenly the imminent failure of the ship (which might as well be called Titanic at this point) becomes a surreal afterthought. It never seemed to concern both Jim and Aurora to actually find out why the ship is in this predicament or take ACTUAL stock of their new reality. They seemed to have an endless supply of food and alcoholic drinks which again the film never really addresses. Just when the film couldn’t get any worse, again the film adopts another moment of convenience (and it’s not a coincidence I’m using this word) by introducing Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne), a crew member who’s only job is to introduce the diabolical third act. He delivers the same style exposition that is reminiscent of Fishburne’s role in Predators. Gus’s reward for delivering this piece of news on how to fix the ship – establish that he has a “faulty” hibernation pod and leave him with over SIX HUNDRED MEDICAL ISSUES in his body that can’t be fixed. Yes you read that correctly – over six hundred. Not one. Not two, but over six hundred. The only diverse member of the cast and he dies painfully? ARE YOU FOR REAL?
Remember when I said that the makers of the hibernation pods should be sued? Funny this issue never affected Jim and Aurora’s.
And before I forget, Andy Garcia is in it for one second. Blink and you’ll miss him…
“Jim, these are not robot questions.” – Arthur
In a recent youtube video created by Evan Puschak (also known as The Nerdwriter), he talks about an issue with Hollywood movies lately. The movies that are being released are merely passable, never expanding its horizons. It opts for safe choices and characters doing just enough to get by. It’s an interesting view on the “epidemic”. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with all the points raised, I still recommend watching the video as it further illustrates as to why I’m a fan of his work and research.
Passable movies are unfortunately part of the Hollywood ecosystem but I do agree on one aspect – the lack of tonal control.
It’s the concept of film language. A good film (and it doesn’t matter what genre it is) engages with its audience. I completely get that not all films can be perfect. Films these days are often presented in a reality that doesn’t feel natural or real, as if Hollywood trapped itself in an inescapable bubble of their own universe. For example, people on a cinema screen don’t talk like how people talk in real life. It doesn’t necessarily make that a bad thing. We naturally gravitate towards it because depending on your mood, you might want to escape from your own reality. You don’t want to be spoken a truth. You just want to shut your mind off for 2 hours. But the difference between a good and a downright terrible passable film is, is if you can emotionally connect with the elements, then a passable film can achieve one thing. You can enjoy it.
But Passengers absolutely and completely defines that video. From the get go, the film seemed confused on what its intentions were. Is it meant to be serious or fun? Is it meant to be enlightening and or a simple A to B kind of story? The tonal balance was all over the place meaning you could never engage with the story and its plausibility. What was its message? Love conquers all? Make the best of what you have? It’s perfectly fine and acceptable to cyberstalk a potential partner so you don’t feel alone? I left the cinema comically conflicted.
A good sci-fi film should build a world that you can immerse yourself into it. For example, if I mentioned The Lord of the Rings, you would automatically think of Middle Earth and all the adventures that takes place there. The same goes with Harry Potter and Hogwarts. Passengers however doesn’t cater to that. It shuts you out, locks the door and throws the key into the darkest depths of space. There’s no real sense or purpose to the mission with the exception that humanity can do it and the company profits greatly from such a luxurious interstellar trip into space.
There’s potential emotional depth between Jim and Aurora. But instead of delving into the human condition, exploring the conflicted desperation and the psychological struggles of space, the film glosses over it. The glamorized romance and the occasional sci-fi visual effects are there to distract you. There’s nothing to justify legitimately their reasons for joining the Avalon and the film lazily relies on pseudo-science hoping no one would notice the gaping black holes in the plot. Trust me, there’s no logic that this film presents that you can’t undo by common sense. Everything is conveniently artificial.
Passengers is essentially a live action version of Wall-E but without any real emotional consequences. At least in Wall-E there was a purpose for what they were trying to achieve – to rebuild the Earth after years of abuse. This film does nothing but exists.
Passengers joins a list of films such as Transcendence, Oblivion and Independence Day: Resurgence for promoting style over substance. Because the film lacks any kind of real empathy, how can this film be justified? It becomes a shallow and hollow imitation of other films and shows which have utilized the concept and executed it better…like Red Dwarf for example.
There’s a saying that in space, no one can hear you scream. After watching Passengers, in space, no one can hear you endlessly groan or watch you roll your eyes.
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