Friday, December 23, 2016

In Theaters: PASSENGERS (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Morten Tyldum. Written by Jon Spaihts. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia. (PG-13, 116 mins)

The sci-fi epic PASSENGERS is a triumph of production design weighed down by a script that feels like its second half was hastily rewritten after focus groups said more shit needed to blow up. Its intriguing opening act does a commendable job of replicating that unique Kubrickian chilliness and isolation, with a 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY vessel seemingly revamped by an interior decorator whose favorite movie was THE SHINING. Even the pattern on a wall matches the carpeting where Danny is playing with his cars outside Room 237. Set in a future where people are looking to move beyond an overcrowded Earth, PASSENGERS opens aboard the Starship Avalon, with 5000 passengers and a crew of 238 in hibernation on a 120-year voyage to a planet colony called Homestead II. 30 years into the voyage, a minor collision with an asteroid causes a brief disruption in the computer system that results in engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) being awakened from his hibernation pod. It takes him a while to realize he's up 90 years too early, but going back into hibernation is impossible, a message sent to Homestead headquarters back on Earth will take 19 years to arrive, and his only company for what's looking like the rest of his life is affable robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), who in no way reminds one of Lloyd in the Gold Ballroom of the Overlook Hotel.

An increasingly disheveled and depressed Jim spends the next 15 months alone, growing increasingly despondent by the day. He's contemplating suicide by shooting himself through an airlock and out into space, but notices hibernating Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in her pod. Checking the passenger manifest and watching her video file, a desperate Jim falls in love with her and with the idea of having a companion. He agonizes over the decision for months, spending his days sitting by her pod and talking to her and when he's reached his breaking point, he reworks the pod mechanism so she's awakened. Letting Aurora think her pod malfunctioned just like his, Jim gives her time to accept the circumstances but after a while, they inevitably go from friends to lovers, with Jim still leaving her in the dark about what he did. Of course, she'll eventually find out, but that becomes a secondary issue after slowly-developing malfunctions and glitches, all snowballing since the initial asteroid collision that caused Jim's pod to open, start to jeopardize not just their solitary--and now hostile--living situation but also the lives of the crew and passengers, who still have 88 years before they reach their destination.

The next paragraph contains SPOILERS.

The early scenes of PASSENGERS are the strongest, with Jim realizing the seriousness of his situation while wandering around the most visually stunning spaceship we've seen in quite some time, accompanied by a frequently John Carpenter-meets-Vangelis-sounding score by Thomas Newman that works like a charm. It stumbles a bit during Jim's disheveled phase, where Pratt is required to wear an awful wig and what might be cinema's least-convincing fake beard, which looks like someone glued a stunt bush from a community theater production of BOOGIE NIGHTS to his face. Once Aurora is awake, there's considerable tension as Jim is wracked with guilt over his decision to mislead her, but screenwriter Jon Spaihts (PROMETHEUS) and Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum (HEADHUNTERS, THE IMITATION GAME) quickly lose interest in exploring this ethical dilemma. After a period of not speaking, they more or less agree to set aside their differences when they're joined by Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne), a Chief Deck Officer whose hibernation pod has also malfunctioned. It's here that PASSENGERS shows that it doesn't have the courage of its convictions, abandoning a serious moral quandary in order to restage key elements of GRAVITY and THE MARTIAN out of an apparent need to make Pratt the hero. Some reviews have responded harshly to Jim's actions, likening him to a creep, a stalker, and a psycho, and taking offense over the perceived notion that Aurora is more or less Stockholm Syndromed into falling for him. These sound like the imaginary concerns of people looking for something to outrage them. Jim does what he does out of loneliness, desperation, and slowly encroaching insanity. He doesn't approach it lightly, but he can't fathom the idea of spending the rest of his life. It's wrong and more or less indefensible and he shortens Aurora's life, but it's an extreme situation. And, it's worth mentioning, even if it's ultimately a plot convenience that lets Jim off the hook, they all would've died anyway since Jim ultimately can't save the ship and the other 5000+ people without Aurora's help. It's doubtful the same criticisms would be leveled at PASSENGERS had it been Aurora who woke early and decided to open Jim's pod 89 years early, or if Jim was played by say, Michael Shannon or Steve Buscemi or Clark Duke and it would be easier to grasp Jim's actions because he's being played by an oddball character actor or a dweeby-looking comedian and not Chris Pratt. Focusing on Jim's decision certainly would've made a more interesting film on a psychological thriller level--and it could've given Pratt a chance to show some range--but this is a $100 million holiday movie with two of the most attractive and popular celebrities on the planet.

I'm not asking for Tarkovsky's SOLARIS here, but PASSENGERS could've tried a little harder. The second half wants to be a big, epic, special effects crowd-pleaser and the abrupt tone shift leaves Lawrence and Pratt stranded, which is shame because in the more character-driven sections, their performances are quite good. As far as the rest of the cast goes, Sheen is amusing, Fishburne is fine with his limited screen time, and Andy Garcia has been almost completely cut from the film since his entire role as the ship's captain consists of him walking through a sliding door and looking up, giving him about five seconds of screen time with no dialogue for what must be the most frivolous big-name, prominently-billed cameo since Albert Finney's eight-second appearance in a YouTube video in 2012's THE BOURNE LEGACY.  He had to have a larger role initially. You don't hire Oscar-nominated Andy Garcia, a respected actor for the last 30 years, to walk through a door and look confused, unless he's also wondering what he's doing in this movie. In the end, PASSENGERS is always fascinating to look at, but it abandons its thought-provoking aspects and is riddled with rampant lapses in logic. For instance, why is Arthur online and tending bar for no one?  Why is the liquor opened when no one would be drinking it for 120 years? And if the crew is scheduled to be awakened a month before the passengers, who's been maintaining the pool for the first 30 years of the voyage? Wouldn't switching on Arthur and opening the booze and filling the pool and chlorinating it be something the crew did in the month before the passengers were revived?  How fresh is the sushi that Aurora is eating? Is that the smartest thing to have on the menu?

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