Friday, May 19, 2017

Could Anything Have Saved "Passengers"?

Spoilers ahead.

On paper, Sony's "Passengers" seems to have done everything right. It's a big budget science fiction film that had landed two major stars, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, for the leads, a script that had appeared on the 2007 Black List, and the directing talents of Academy Award nominated director Morten Tyldum. The production is absolutely top notch, and won Academy Award nominations for Best Production Design and Best Original Score. And despite the controversy it's sustained, "Passengers" looks like it's going to at least break even at the box office, and will probably be profitable in the long run.

However, "Passengers" has been a spectacular bust critically, and nearly all the discussion around it has been focused on a major plot point that I'm going to spoil here. Our hero, Jim Preston (Pratt) is faced with an intriguing ethical dilemma. Having been woken up from cryogenic hibernation ninety years too early in transit to another planet, and unable to return to sleep, Jim faces living out the rest of his life alone aboard an automated spaceship. He could wake up another hibernating passenger, but it would doom them to the same fate. And after a year of obsessing over a woman named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), Jim decides to wake her up, hoping that she'll reciprocate his feelings.

From that point, the movie could have played out in any number of ways. It could have been a thriller or horror scenario, where Aurora has to fend off Jim's advances. It could have been a psychodrama, where Aurora is forced to consider making a similar choice. Instead, "Passengers" made it into a romance, where Jim and Aurora do fall in love and ultimately live out their lives on the spaceship together. Pains are taken to show that Aurora does consider Jim's actions reprehensible, once she finds out what he's done, and she makes the final choice to stay together. Still, the film still comes off as too glib about the serious dilemma at its core. Jim gets off much too easy, and Aurora still feels victimized. Spaihts has tried to explain in interviews that the film is ultimately about forgiveness, namely Aurora's ability to forgive Jim, but that doesn't really come across right either.

I think the biggest problem with "Passengers" is that its second half follows the template of your usual space adventure movie, full of action scenes, disaster scenarios, and typical heroics. Saving the ship suddenly takes precedence over dealing with the tensions between Jim and Aurora, forcing them to interact and work together. Jim's willingness to sacrifice himself is a narrative shortcut to show us that he's really a decent guy after all, and that he's worthy of Aurora's affections. However, it's not a convincing one. I think that "Passengers" ending happily could have worked if this had been a different kind of movie, one more character focused and less concerned with being a blockbuster. I'm not at all surprised to learn that "Passengers" was originally a much more modestly budgeted, smaller scale film with Keanu Reeves and Emily Blunt attached.

I love heady science-fiction films, and accept that sometimes extra dramatics and action scenes are necessary to make them more entertaining. "Arrival," for instance, had the subplot with the Chinese general I found wholly unnecessary. However, that addition didn't take focus away from the major themes of the story, or replace the emotional climax. The heroine still had to deal with her more personal problems separate from the other crisis. "Passengers," unfortunately, conflates its romantic and action-based conflicts, which feels like a cheat. Doing something heroic doesn't change the fact that Jim behaved appallingly towards Aurora, and it should have taken a hell of a lot more to get the two of them back on speaking terms, let alone back into a relationship.

And it's a shame because "Passengers" has such an interesting central dilemma that could have yielded much better things. Better framed and better handled, it could have been a real conversation piece instead of yet another example of problematic gender politics in recent mainstream cinema. There have been such interesting science-fiction films dealing with gender issues lately, like "Ex Machina" and "Her," so something like "Passengers" feels positively retrograde. I reiterate that "Passengers" could have avoided being such a problematic film with a little more care and attention toward the fundamental mechanisms of its story. Because not all the fancy CGI or expensive stars in the world could have made this better.

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