Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Brief thoughts on Passengers.

Passengers is a film that sounds too good to be true. An epic sci-fi romance and action film, produced with a hefty $110 million dollar price tag, starring two of the hottest actors currently working, and helmed by the Academy Award nominated director of The Imitation Game. On paper, it sounds like a great career choice for anyone involved. And yet, despite all the impressive pedigree, Passengers has become one of the more notorious disappointments of 2016, garnering a generally poor response from critics and viewers. So the question is, "Where did it all go wrong?"

Quite a number of areas, actually. Which is quite a shame, because the film initially begins with some promise, if getting into some shaky territory. The first act of the film is largely a one man show for charismatic action star of the moment Chris Pratt, as the film leads us into an intriguing scenario of him waking up 90 years too early, on a 120 year flight to a new home for 5,000 passengers escaping the overpopulation of earth. Pratt's only company for these segments are a robotic Michael Sheen occasionally giving him advice (his character is literally a robot, I'm not insulting him), and largely these segments see Pratt being forced to face his mortality and isolation. It sounds like a great dramatic break for the comic actor, but Pratt's character is so incredibly underwritten that any sense of emotional connection feels muted. On top of that, Pratt sometimes takes to the role with too comical and goofy an eye, and despite some nice attempts at analyzing his psychological torment, the film largely shies away from going into those darker moods.

But a romance is nothing without a leading lady to go with the leading man, which is where we enter Jennifer Lawrence. Taking until the thirty minute mark to finally make her way onscreen, once Lawrence is in the show, things take both a right and a wrong turn. Not that her character is all that engaging, barely defining her own character to a better degree than Pratt's, but Lawrence is still the best thing about the movie. Her performance makes up for the otherwise weak screenplay elements, injecting some genuine gravitas and devastation into the film, and just a little of her natural charisma manages to go a long way in giving this movie life.

Still, as good as that turn may have been, where the film ultimately goes wrong is in sincerely building the relationship between the two. Despite being some of the most charismatic stars out there, there's a notable lack of any real spark between the two, with their interactions seeming dull despite the film's best efforts to underline the cuteness of it. Key reason why the romance makes for a tough sell is due to the very sinister and uncomfortable context behind how the romance comes to be, particularly because of how unsettling and creepily obsessive it makes Pratt's character appear, in a way that even the film acknowledges as being similar to a stalker, and yet we're somehow supposed to find it charming, as opposed to seeing it as borderline Stockholm Syndrome. The questionable intentions could have gone a long way in giving the film greater depth and feeling of ambiguity, including what compels someone to disregard those warning signs and see the inner sincerity behind another, but is played in such a cutesy way that it instead sends out needlessly mixed signals.

On a visual scale, the film is quite a lovely, if not spectacular feat. Morten Tyldum may be out of his element with handling a big blockbuster story, and would feel far more at home with prestige pictures, but he does bring a neat sense of style to the film despite being an obvious fish out of water. It may not be anything special, but Tyldum does give the production design of the film a very sleek attention to detail, with the sets often evoking a claustrophobic sense of isolation even in vast rooms, and eliciting a nice sense of beauty and excitement with the expansive shots of space, even if his use of green screens sometimes puts it in Star Wars Prequel Trilogy territory. But as nice as the artistry is, none of it ever goes above and beyond, perhaps best embodied by Thomas Newman's score, itself nice to listen to, but sounding like little more than WALL·E outtakes. In the end, Passengers is not so much terrible as it is a subpar waste of potential. But, oh man, what potential to squander...

** / *****

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