Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Patrick Wilson, Andre Braugher, Clea DuVall, David Morse, Dianne Wiest, William B. Davis
Running Time: 93 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Passengers is a deeply misunderstood movie. Misunderstood by nearly all critics and audiences who saw it. Yep, all five of them. Dumped into theaters for about a week before hitting DVD it's the latest victim of mismarketing and false expectations. It isn't a cheesy "B" horror movie or a "suspense thriller" as the posters, taglines and cover art imply. And that's why it's successful. It's a compelling if only slightly uneven human drama that doesn't belong in the bargain bin like you've heard. More surprisingly, it's made too well to even be considered a guilty pleasure.
Yes, there's a big twist ending but everyone was too busy pointing their fingers at what other movies it may have "ripped off" that they forgot to actually look at the context it was presented in or notice that it worked very well. I didn't think a film focusing on the mysterious circumstances involving a plane crash and featuring such diverse talents as Anne Hathaway, Patrick Wilson and David Morse could possibly be awful. I was right. They have nothing to be ashamed of for appearing in this, especially Hathaway who gives a performance that not only rises above the material, but elevates it. Those hoping to see her slumming it for a quick payday will be sorely disappointed. I guess you'll just have to rent Bride Wars instead.
The film appears to make its first mistake within the opening minutes by not showing us the horrific plane crash that jump starts the narrative or letting us get to know the passengers on any personal level. But there are reasons. They're not entirely surprising, but are much more rewarding than I expected. It opens, Lost-style, with the few surviving passengers wandering aimlessly as the plane engulfs in flames. A frazzled, inexperienced psychotherapist Claire Summers (Hathaway) is assigned by her superior (Andre Braugher) to counsel the survivors and deal with their post-traumatic stress. In her late twenties, she's spent more time collecting diplomas and masters degrees than living life, which proves to be a major hurdle in helping these people. As far as grief counselors go, she isn't a very effective one. And knows it.
Each of the passengers handle their ordeal in different ways, but one of the survivors, Eric (Wilson), appears to be on a euphoric high after the crash, relishing every moment and making major life changes. In other words, he's in complete denial and could explode at any moment. A major part of his new self-improvement program is trying to get the repressed Claire to loosen up enough to sleep with him. Claire is concerned when Eric starts showing signs of "E.S.P.", knowing things about Claire only those closest to her (and probably just about everyone else on the planet) would, like that she takes milk and sugar in her coffee and has a sister.
The more the mysterious details of the plane crash present themselves the more interested she becomes in piecing them together to give her patients closure. This raises the ire of an airline beaurocrat (David Morse) who's trying to cover up the company's possible negligence in the crash. Since he's played by Morse you probably could have guessed that he's really creepy and talks in an evil whisper. Tensions escalate when the surviving passengers start to go missing and Claire's relationship with Eric crosses that "ethical line." Worse yet, her kooky neighbor (Dianne Wiest) won't leave her alone and yes even the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) from The X-Files shows up to join in the action.
I was worried this movie would go the way of the dreadful Julianne Moore supernatural thriller The Forgotten from a few years ago. Strong premise, pathetic follow through. Instead what shows up onscreen more closely resembles Peter Weir's Fearless, the definitive entry on the psychological scars of a plane crash and a character driven drama interested in examining how we choose to live our lives. The central mystery involving the crash isn't that interesting (at least until the final minutes) but it's to director Rodrigo Garcia's credit that he knows this and focuses instead on the relationship between Claire and Eric.
Despite his considerable talent, I fully expected Wilson to be roped into doing a poor man's Jack Shepherd from Lost, minus the beard and prescription drugs. But what he does with the character is kind of bizarrely brilliant and hysterical...in a good way. He's definitely not your typical traumatized survivor and a lot of things that came out of his mouth were really funny. In fcat his delivery was so funny and his chemistry with Hathaway so breezy you get the impression that if he signed up for a romantic comedy opposite her it would be excellent. We saw glimpses of his deadpan humor in Little Children but this was a completely different kind of part for him. He's not just playing a variation on the "everyman" here or "Mr. Nice Guy."
Hathaway is given a surprisingly complex, multifaceted character to play for this type of film, completely believable as a counselor without the confidence in herself to do the job, or do anything. Toward the final act you realize her role was even better developed than you thought and a good effort was put forth into fleshing her out, both by the writer and the actress. I've been very slow to come around on on Hathway but in the past year with Get Smart, Rachel Getting Married and now this she's proven she's got the goods to stick around a long time. Consider me a fan. A true test for any actor is always whether they can not only survive starring in a movie like this but actually make it entertaining. She's been criticized left and right for the choice but if anyone looked closer they'd see she wasn't just playing a pawn in a cheap thriller. Her character drives the plot and I can see why the role looked inviting beyond the paycheck.
I won't claim the twist ending is some big shocker and I'd be surprised if no one guesses it (minus a few details) by at least the halfway point, but I can argue that's it's handled with restraint and resonates emotionally. It's not treated as some big "GOTCHA!" moment. Instead, Garcia uses the final moments to explore the characters and it goes a long way to help explain some of the more problematic and confusing sections of the film away. The best example is the payoff involving Morse's character. It's unexpected, but sure makes a lot of sense when you think back on the picture.
The real twist here isn't the actual twist, but that you thought you were watching one kind of film and Garcia gave you another. Compare this to Flight Plan or Red Eye, where we're promised something huge and then cheated in the final act when it devolves into a routine thriller. This goes in the exact opposite direction. We think we're getting a routine thriller but its conclusion proves otherwise. The plane crash, when we do see it, is gripping and good technical decisions are made throughout, such as a subtle, unobtrusive score and rich, textured lighting from cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo. The PG-13 also rating feels appropriate, not a cop-out where you can tell certain sections were watered down in post-production to appease the masses. Garcia isn't a mainstream director, specializing in intimate character driven pieces, and the film is all the better for it. It's more of a pensive and reflective experience than a thrilling one, but explaining exactly how would require more information than should be revealed.
It's a pity when a film is mismarketed. THIS IS NOT A THRILLER OR A HORROR MOVIE. Had that important distinction been made in the advertising Passengers could have cleaned up a little at the box office or at least broken even given its premise and star power. A movie shouldn't be punished for what it isn't, but judged on its own terms. And blame most definitely shouldn't be placed on Hathway and Wilson who go way above and beyond the call of duty with their performances. They made me care about both these people and the story. I knew they were good, but this is further proof of just how good. Watch Passengers because of them, but also watch it because it's actually far smarter and much better than you'd expect.