There’s lots to be said about the state of sci-fi in 2016, where certain films and even some long-form television series continue to pique audiences interest and the trappings of the genre fuel the biggest of blockbusters. Yet the spark at the heart of this type of tales – the mix of the speculative, the sublime, and above all, the smart – continues to fuel many extraordinary works.
Passengers is not that kind of film.
It’s an old caveat to make by now – all the ingredients are in fact there, ripe for something terrific. Take Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, bulwarks of the box office, two bona fide movie stars getting together on an interplanetary ark and forced to be attractive beside one another. Then add director Morten Tyldum, the Bergen-born brain behind cerebral caper Headhunters, who found a certain flavour of populist success with Imitation Game.
I’ll exercise whatever privilege I’ve got to avoid what seems a complete misreading of the story as sexually assaultive and simply make this plain – one doesn’t need to take the trailer’s pithy summary and become irritated about misogynistic intent, and one may even be surprised to learn that this notion of loneliness, selfishness, and regret is in fact the film’s strongest “idea”. You don’t have to ignore the actual attempts at crafting something provocative to excoriate the film – you simply have to look at the goddamn birds.
Why are there birds? Why does a bearded Andy Garcia pantomime awe while gaping at a set? Why am I “ruining” the abhorrent last moments? Because everything before that – from a silly swimming pool to an airlock excursion is completely, utterly hoary. Somebody, either on the production design, writing or direction wanted to be Kubrick when they grew up, smashing the bar from The Shining with the spinny ship from 2001 in order to at least appear erudite. These keystones just make you want to watch better films, leaving your mind wandering to better times spent contemplating one’s existence while cinematic expression unfolded for you.
Yet above all what we needed were the stars of this spacecapade to shine, for chemistry to broil and charisma to be infectious. We needed to love these characters even if we hated them a bit, to empathize with their humanity and understand both their emotions – be they lust, anger, remorse, acceptance, or even hunger. Yet even when munching food it’s not believable, let alone when planting a tree, sculpting a ring or petulantly taking a passive-aggressive jog.
Passengers is all the more irritating as I can envision that under more deft control there’s a real movie here, something that’s equal parts thrilling and unsettling. It’s that core precept that’s at once fantastical and very base, the real human need for companionship and the obvious insanity that true loneliness begets. We need to be made to feel that moment of awful, to see ourselves pulling the virtual trigger in order to ride along with the romp. Instead we’re left apart, with nothing else to do but either judge or simply dismiss.
Passengers is bad, but bad in ways that detractors who will refuse to see the film can only dream about. It’s narratively bad, cinematically bad, even at times aesthetically bad – bad in ways almost shocking throughout. It squanders Pratt’s good nature, it piles on an increasing concern about Lawrence’s continued viability as an important performer given that only key directors seem to be able to bring about anything other than hackneyed drivel from her. These two instruments are left dented by the travails of the film, a director who has now fully gone from crafting an arthouse diamond to maudlin drivel.
It’s taken long into the year for one of the worst of the year to rear its head, but this one snuck in just in time. I leave with a simple word of advice – anybody that shat on Arrival needs to watch Passengers and punch themselves in the face, partly out of penance, mostly because even self-abuse is likely more entertaining than this villainous dreck.