Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Long Space Journey Into Night: PASSENGERS


It’d be impressive how brainless Passengers is if it didn’t also come with an attendant sense of overwhelming boredom. Here’s a movie that does the heavy lifting to establish a concept with a modicum of compelling interest, then squanders it. Thirty years into a century-long spaceflight, two passengers wake from hibernation. Unable to return to suspended-animation – what with their pods malfunctioning and whatnot – they’re simply trapped to live out the rest of their lives on a cross-universe flight, doomed to die before even reaching the colony that was their destination. Great, right? But the movie seems to care not a stitch about the horror of the situation, nor does it particularly care that the central location is a bland cavernous 2001-themed shopping mall with a cruise ship aesthetic and stole its best ideas from WALL-E. Add to this an underlying creepiness on the doomed voyage that the filmmakers mistook for romanticism – Titanic this ain’t – and I started to get almost grateful that the movie was so devoid of interest. It lulled me to sleep with its stupidity and no amount of gleaming sci-fi gewgaws or flattering shots of attractive movie stars could hold my attention.

The movie stars in question are Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, here playing future people who were eager to sleep off a hundred years and wake up colonists on a new planet. What would make a person agree to such a momentous prospect? The movie’s eager to shrug it off to get to the smooching. Normally I wouldn’t be opposed to such a task, especially in a movie built around two actors who we know will end up together for no other reason than because they’re the only two around. (Well, there is an android bartender played by Michael Sheen, but the movie’s not that nutty.) Consider the circumstances that bring them together. Pratt’s pod malfunctions, so he’s left the only waking life on the ship. He wanders around like this for a year, getting beardy, bedraggled, and deeply lonely. (Think Forte’s wildest moments in Last Man on Earth filtered down to the lowest shiny studio denominator.) It’s then that Pratt decides to open up another pod, the prettiest lady in hibernation thus summoned to be his playmate. He hides this fact from her, of course, thereby enabling a castaway romance the movie wants us to root for.

If you can stomach such a rocky foundation for a relationship, you can enjoy these two pretty people swimming, playing basketball, going on picnics, drinking in a bar like The Shining’s complete with the aforementioned unreal barkeep, talking to robots, plundering the ships stores of food, and making gauzy backlit tastefully PG-13 love. We’re supposed to feel the isolation as harrowing and cozy in the same moment, a romantic getaway for two surrounded by the howling void of galactic expanses. In one of the movie’s worst moments, as the couple fights, Pratt (all charm before it curdles to smarm) mentions giving Lawrence (flat and unconvincing, except for her perfume-ad poses in a tight white bikini) some space. “Space is the last thing I need,” she groans, while we silently wait out the dead air left around this cornball laugh line. Still, the movie does acknowledge their untenable situation from time to time, especially as the ship’s malfunctions escalate, increasingly threatening to put a quick end to their good times. That is, if she doesn’t discover the truth first.

Here’s where I started idly wondering if Jon Spaiths' script was just told from the wrong perspective. Instead of spending a year with Pratt before he wakes Lawrence from her sci-fi slumber – thereby stealing her future, and thus, in effect, murdering her – what if we woke up with her? She’d be told their pods malfunctioned, deal with her suddenly rewritten future, grapple with knowledge she’ll die alone in space, and slowly get drawn into a romantic entanglement with the only warm body around. Then – what a twist! a sick, cruel, surprising twist! – she learns she’s been betrayed, and trapped with him forever. Sounds better to me, but that’s premised on sorting out not only the perspective, but the tone, approach, and the filmmaking’s smooth, polished, nothings. The movie’s simply too bright and empty, even at its bleakest and most complicated, to really dig into its implications. (It doesn’t even give its stars cool future fashions, instead leaving them in boring leisure wear.) Director Morten Tyldum (of the almost equally bland Imitation Game) gives the whole thing an unreal sheen, too dutifully proficient to cook up any real heat and too sedate to gin up any excitement. It’s so vacant a production, not even a zero-g swimming pool calamity can get something going.

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