Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Passengers (2016)

Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Major Spoiler Warning: This review gives away key plot details, including the ending**

What you may not have heard about Passengers is how good a premise it has, exploring some morally deep and heady stuff for a mainstream sci-fi picture starring the two biggest movie stars working right now. For a while, it really has something, with a script that does what the best in this genre demands, painting its characters into a corner and pushing their buttons in such a way that all the filmmakers had to do was step back and let the actors and story organically take us where we needed to go. Halfway to three quarters through, it seems that's exactly where we're headed, until it's abruptly abandoned in favor of sending audiences home happy. Or more accurately, insulting our intelligence.

While still leagues better than it's gotten credit for, what everyone will probably agree on is that the wrong decision was made for silly commercial reasons in the final act. This happens a lot. That the film still works really well despite its conclusion is a testament to all involved since I refuse to believe the ending resulted from anything but wrongheaded studio interference. You may as well post those studio notes right up there on the screen since it's unlikely anyone will be considering much else in the final minutes. Labeled and marketed as a "sci-fi romance" Passengers handles both the former and latter part of that equation exceptionally well with two incredibly likable, skilled actors, but it's the ethical predicament presented at the get-go that will spark arguments and conversation. Had they stuck with that all the way through there's no telling what we could have gotten.

As it stands, this is still a consistently engaging endeavor, featuring performances, production design, music and writing more than a few notches above the standard. Then it just throws its hands in the air and surrenders, doing a disservice to both these actors and the audience. Even worse, the most obvious and effective ending is just sitting there on a platter ready for the taking. Hopefully, there were re-shoots and those scenes are laying around somewhere other than the recesses of our imaginations. Until that sees the light of day, I'll continue to deny the existence of the one we got, even if what precedes it provides unexpected thrills.

The starship Avalon is on a 120 year journey to a new colony called Homestead II, with 5,000 passengers and 258 crew members all comfortably resting in their hibernation pods, set to be awakened a month prior to arrival. But when mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakens 90 years early due to a pod malfunction, he discovers that aside from an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen), he's the only passenger awake on the ship, and faces years of isolation until his eventual death.

Depressed, suicidal and having exhausted the few potential options available to him, Jim discovers the pod of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and through her video profile immediately falls for the funny, beautiful journalist. He then makes the controversial decision to awaken her for companionship, thereby dooming her to the same fate as he, dying on this ship years before the rest of the passengers and crew arrive at Homestead II.  Once Aurora is revived, the two grow close, as Jim continues to conceal the truth that her "accidental" awakening had nothing to do with a pod malfunction, Unfortunately, the ship is faces other, bigger problems that could threaten the entire journey.

Right out the gate, the scenario is immediately compelling yet still somewhat of a slow burn as we watch Pratt's character come to the realization that something went very wrong and he'll be spending the rest of his days in solitude.  Him trying to figure out the technicalities associated with that and his slow surrender to that fact that there's no way out are reminiscent of the dilemma faced by Matt Damon's protagonist in The Martian. But while certain problem-solving scenes are similar, there's a key difference that actually works in this film's favor: It isn't intercut with a bunch of muckety mucks goofing it up at NASA. He can't contact home at all so while Mark Watney's life may have been in immediate danger in ways Jim's isn't here, this at least treats its premise of isolation and loneliness dead seriously. So when Jim opens that pod to awaken his sleeping crush it really means something, throwing gasoline on the fire of an ethical dilemma that's already kind of jaw-dropping in its implications.

Those familiar with Chris Pratt's TV career know how good he is and how much more personality and dimension he's capable of showing when not pigeonholed by the action hero mold he's been shoved into thus far on the big screen. In the opening hour and slightly beyond we get a big glimpse of that talent again because he's handed worthwhile material, even if I'll contend it was a mistake to have his character initially come out of the pod looking like he just stepped out of Gold's Gym.
There seems to this push-pull going on with Pratt lately, and through this entire film, where Hollywood is desperate to turn him into the next huge action star under their terms when his skill set doesn't necessarily line up with that, at least in the boneheaded way they want it to. He's better than that.

Often, Pratt's a quirkier and more fun presence than what he's given and if not more selective in his choices he could end up in a similar situation to Tom Cruise, currently on acting auto-pilot in action roles into his 50's. And while it's easy to argue that there are far worse places to be than in Cruise's shoes, this battle with Pratt hasn't really bled it's way onto the screen until now, with this, his best big screen performance so far. While it's almost entirely undermined in the film's final third, the humor, empathy and subtly he brings to this part is matched only by his co-star.

Lawrence and Pratt are simply great together. That's at least partially why the ending is so disappointing. Nothing has to be written to manufacturer or further drive home the connection between Aurora and Jim. They just have it and from the second he opens her pod the two actors have an immediate chemistry that's completely believable, stacking the deck even more until the big reveal comes. And when she does find out the truth and that hammer comes down, does it ever come down, with Lawrence giving a tour de force, driving home to gravity of this lie, which should carry huge repercussions. We witness a few of those, until the movie travels another, less interesting route.

I have no problem with the script veering in a more action-oriented direction, but when it starts leaning more on sub-par, video game looking visual effects than Guy Hendrix Dyas' amazing, Oscar-nominated production design, the film suffers. And the unsatisfying resolution pushes aside the central moral dilemma, until it pops up again at the end in an unwelcome manner meant to give us the warm and fuzzies.

It's almost become a long-running joke in romantic comedies and dramas that in the next to last act the girl finds out a lie the guy has been telling and pushes him away, only to run back into his arms at the end for no good reason other than to put smiles on faces. But this isn't one of those kinds of lies. It's huge and intriguing, with far-reaching ethical concerns about how men and women treat each other, all of which stand as a big compliment to screenwriter Jon Spaihts. Up until then this script is so smart that there's little indication it will lazily fall back on that well-worn cliche. But it does. Both characters can survive. She can even eventually forgive what he does. The ship can arrive safely at its destination years later.  If all this happened under reasonable terms without our strings being pulled or the central premise being undermined, it would be fine. 

While I'm slightly overselling the ending's problems to make a larger point, kudos should go to the talented, if previously nondescript director Morten Tyldum for executing a thankless finale as efficiently as possible. But there is an alternate idea that's floated around for the finish that would have easily taken this to the level it belongs. At the risk of instead reviewing a movie we didn't get, having Jim die to save the ship and passengers on board in the final act seems only logical, with the real kicker being that Aurora is left alone in the same isolated predicament he was. In a Twilight Zone-like twist, she can contemplate awakening a male passenger for companionship, continuing the cycle as the screen cuts to black. That would work brilliantly, standing as a cruel coda on the loneliness and selfishness of human beings put in extreme circumstances. Something like that is certainly more in line with the film's existential tone.

At least Passengers, even at its worst, gives us something meaningful to chew on, which is more than I expected given the brutal reviews and poor box office. That this was a decision or two away from greatness is what makes it so infuriating. Ultimately rescuing it is the pairing of Lawrence and Pratt, its ideas and how this world is so thoroughly realized on a desolate spaceship through the impeccable production design. It has a unique vision, and while some may be bothered by how it casually borrows elements from films like Kubrick's The Shining in the bar scenes, it never hurts to lift from the best, and there's little debate Sheen makes that character all his own.

Unlike last year's 10 Cloverfield Lane, at least it's final minutes don't hinge on a big reveal, the result of which makes or breaks the entire picture. In fact, none of what happens is much of a secret at all, given the studio's questionable call to have the film's advertising essentially spoil the ethical dilemma at its center. Whether it showed a lack of faith in the product or represented a desperate attempt to get potential moviegoers into seats, it may have been an unintentionally shrewd move. That scenario is what it has most going for it, inspiring enough thought and conversation to overcome a poorly realized ending that comes close to undoing the good that came before. That it still can't is reason enough reason to respect Passengers' intentions, while still wondering what could have been.

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