NOT ON BOARD
Review by Paul Preston
The trailer for Passengers buries the lead, a lead I’m going to…lead with. Passengers’ preview would have you believe the film is about two people aboard a starship with a long trip ahead of them to colonize a new planet who were awakened from hypersleep early. They are the only two of a full vessel to awake ninety years before they were supposed to, and it looks as if they were going to spend the rest of the film feverishly searching for the reason why. This is not the plot.
The story of Passengers is of a man who, due to a meteor collision, is awakened from hypersleep ninety years before the rest of his starship full of cross-galaxy travelers. He endures a full year and three weeks of loneliness before he can no longer bear it and he AWAKENS another passenger to spend the rest of his life with. This is an entirely different movie. But these are first act developments, to not share them in the trailer is one thing, but for a trailer to manufacture a brand new plot is bordering on mean-spirited. Manchester By the Sea, the story of a Boston janitor who has to come to terms with being a guardian to his estranged nephew, has a MAJOR plot development halfway through it that wasn’t mentioned in the trailer (although dopey critics like Rex Reed dropped it in their reviews). The major plot point was masked in the preview (and for good reason, the slow reveal of the event is the product of brilliant writing), but it wasn’t changed! They didn’t make the trailer look like the janitor and his nephew were CIA assassins trying to blend into their Massachusetts surroundings.
This odd sell of Passengers as “not the movie it is” is certainly a sign of low confidence. They didn’t trust the story they had. And the execution doesn’t exactly inspire more confidence. The story that’s actually there in Passengers is a highly complicated and challenging one. It deals with extreme decisions, high-stakes consequences, pain, isolation and guilt. And the worst part is the filmmakers thought that was too much for us. Another instance of studio movies underestimating our intelligence. It’s the old adage at play that if the material doesn’t raise the audience up, the audience will gladly, quickly and easily lower their expectations to meet it.
Now all this is just to discuss the trailer! But just as the trailer doesn’t want to deal with difficult situations, neither does the movie as it plays out, because all the high emotion that would accompany really delving into the characters’ situation is replaced with a plot to repair the damaged ship. The suspense generated there doesn’t match the satisfaction that would no doubt come from the movie tackling more complex relationships.
In every movie he’s been in so far, Chris Pratt has survived on charm. Here, like Casey Affleck in Manchester by The Sea, he’s being asked for more depth than ever before. Affleck rose to the occasion wonderfully. Pratt doesn’t quite get to the core of his character’s pain as a man cut off from the rest of the galaxy, while being in the middle of it. The character’s situation might’ve been more deeply felt with the likes of Matthew McConaughey. Jennifer Lawrence brings the goods, as ever, but her character’s arc seems to progress the way it does simply because she’s in a movie, not in a way that would be surprising to anyone.
This is a disappointing follow-up for Morten Tyldum, director of the much more impassioned The Imitation Game. Seems they picked him to deliver a hit rather than another thought-provoking film. The real shame is that these two leads are at their career height. People would see them in anything, so it was a chance to stretch the audience for great material with a sell-able duo up front. A chance unfulfilled. So rather than being another Moon or Cast Away, we have pretty people in a holiday movie with no risk or daring. What’s the point of making it then?
EXTRA THOUGHT: This movie ends with a meditative voice over and a reveal of the results of the choices the characters made and shots of the expanse of the universe. Then, a pop song quickly and abruptly overtakes the movie, it’s jarring and made an awful last impression, leaving no time to reflect on the film, just “here, swallow this over-produced pop culture product and please like us.” This is an epidemic in studio films.
Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Release Date: December 21, 2016
Run Time: 116 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures/SONY