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29 Dec 2016

Sweet When It Should Have Been Sinister: 'Passengers' Is Doomed Thanks to a Major Plot Problem

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Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers.

Two of Hollywood’s biggest and most lovable stars labor away in Passengers, a pretty but dumb movie that doesn’t have the guts to be as ugly as it should be.

Chris Pratt plays Jim Preston, a mechanic dedicated to starting a life on a distant planet. He and 5,000 other passengers are in suspended animation aboard a ship taking a 125-year journey. That ship has an unfortunate encounter with a meteor shower, and Jim’s sleeping pod awakens him … with 90 years to go on the trip.

What to do? Jim soon realizes his plight. He’s fortunate in that the ship is a cruise ship, so it has a nice gym, OK food and pretty suites. The novelty runs out after a year, and a lonely, Robinson Crusoe-looking Jim (with a terrible fake beard) gets it into his head to do a very bad thing.

I’m delivering a spoiler of sorts here, but if you’ve seen commercials for this movie, you know that Jennifer Lawrence is in it, and her character has to enter the plot at some point, right? Besides, you can’t really spoil what stinks already.

Jim, after exhausting all conversation possibilities with the ship’s android bartender (Michael Sheen), opts to wake up Aurora (Lawrence). What’s more, he doesn’t tell her why. He also doesn’t tell her that he studied her for a good long while, and woke her up because he thought she was really smart and, yes, super hot. In one year of isolation, he’s become a freaky creep.

Where does director Morten Tyldum go wrong, besides having a really hard name to spell? He’s working off a Jon Spaihts (also hard to spell) script that insists upon being happy and triumphant, while it would probably work better as some sort of horror movie.

These characters are essentially lost in space and given a lonely death sentence, yet the film fights for ways to make it a sappy love story between Jim and Aurora. Oh, sure, Aurora gets a little pissed about the whole waking-her-up-to-die thing, but the script calls for Jim to be some sort of hero rather than her captor.

The movie shows Aurora getting angry, but she eventually comes around, because, you know, it’s Chris Pratt, and he’s really cute. Had some portly weirdo with snot coming out of his nose woken her up, this would’ve been an altogether different movie. Passengers seems to say that if you are really good-looking, you can do unspeakably awful things and get away with it.

Hmm. Actually, the movie might be onto something here.

Still, even if there’s a shred of truth to the whole good-looking-folks-get-the-best-of-it premise, this would’ve been a better movie had Aurora taken a beeline to the weapons room and went on a Jim hunt. To be a love story, Aurora’s awakening needed to be an accident as well. By allowing Jim to do this horrible thing and essentially get away with it, the movie blows an opportunity be something other than a pretty picture.

The movie is good-looking for sure, and I really liked the design of the ship. That’s one of this film’s few redeeming qualities—that, and the fact that Jennifer Lawrence really can act, even when she’s in a junk movie. She can almost salvage the most-mundane dialogue and make it sound good. Almost.

It’s very appropriate that the year is ending with a big, vapid, underwhelming blockbuster, for this was the year when there were many of those. Passengers won’t frustrate you so much for what it is, but what it could have been.

Imagine if somebody like Stanley Kubrick got hold of this premise. Oh man, that would’ve been a movie to be reckoned with. Instead, we get a pretty space opera with a happy ending.

Passengers is playing at theaters across the valley.

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