Passengers is a curious film.
If I asked you the question: ‘What goes plink, plink, fizz?’ Your brain would likely whir and buzz for a few seconds like an old, lumbering Windows ’95 PC booting up, before your mouth receptacle flapped open and replied something derivative along the lines of, ‘Alka-Seltzer,’ or ‘Berocca’ – some tablet designed to relieve a terrible hangover or indigestion. Am I right? Was that your answer? I bet it was. It is the New Year after all, so that distinct sound is still resonating deeply in your mind, you alcoholic cretin.
It would be a good answer, if a little prosaic. But you would be wrong. What goes plink, plink, fizz? Answer: Two babies being dropped in a vat of acid.
I, like you fellow reader, thought I knew the type of film ‘Passengers,’ was going to be when the trailer first hit our screens: Big Sci-Fi Hollywood Blockbuster. Check. Two stupidly gorgeous actors that fell on every beautiful stick on their way down from the sashaying extravagance of the stupidly beautiful tree. Check. Plot: The spaceship Avalon is headed from Earth to a planet called Homestead II, filled with 5,000 passengers to help colonise it. Unfortunately, Engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) awaken 90 years earlier than they had expected, with no way of going back into hyper-sleep and effectively becoming stranded on the Avalon. Check. This was the concept I had going in.
So I was a little surprised when plink, plink, fizz occurred and two small, skeletal remains bobbed up in my metaphorical glass. Passengers isn’t just about two people stranded in space. It isn’t just about the beautiful CGI effects (notably a swimming pool losing gravity.) The whole narrative arc is based on an ill-conceived decision of selfishness, of unsatisfactory forgiveness and Macho-Man Randy Savage redemption. But we’ll get to that in a second.
It’s a little hard to move forward without revealing spoilers, so fair warning that a few fat spoiler cows are about to be dumped on your plate like a pile of smelly viscera. At the start of the movie, we’re introduced to the Avalon, a behemoth of a vessel that is the space equivalent of a QE2 cruise ship. Facilities on board include a bar, a shopping mall, and swimming pool, restaurants and luxury apartments. A meteor shower occurs which jars the craft and causes Jim Preston’s hibernation pod to malfunction. He awakes and soon learns his terrible fate; that without the proper access to the bridge (he’s a lowly engineer so doesn’t have the right to enter without the proper pass bracelet) he’s stranded on the ship for 90 years without the ability to re-hibernate. After trying in vain to send messages back to earth and repair his pod, he begins to accept his fate.
We’re treated to a montage of Pratt enjoying all the amenities that the ship has to offer, which includes DANCE-DANCE REVOLUTION Hijinks! Basketball hijinks! Fine cuisine hijinks! Getting drunk with robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) hijinks! This results in Preston losing a year but gaining a weird looking Kurt Russell beard from ‘The Thing,’ which made me immediately think of the episode from Friends when they mistake their neighbour for a yeti. Or a filthy blacksmith from Conan the Barbarian.
After a year of on-board hijinx-ery, Jim is close to offing himself by taking a quiet stroll into space (cue Team America song, ‘I’m so Ronery,’), but he stumbles on another hibernation pod that inhabits Aurora, and this is where the film starts to get a little creepy. She’s beautiful and Jim takes an instant shine to her. It may be that just a mere moment ago he was contemplating suicide, but fuck that now, he’s seen a beautiful girl and has fallen head over tit in love! I’m sure that’s what the writers and director were trying to go for, anyway, in an innocent, ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ vibe of course – but when we see Pratt drunkenly flopping around her pod in his boxer shorts, devouring all information about her from the ship’s logs, it comes across a bit pervy and stalker-like.
I was surprised we didn’t see a montage segment of Jim masturbating furiously over bikini-clad pictures of Aurora on her Facebook page. Sniffing panties hijinks! Jizzing on top of her cryo-pod hijinks! Weeping into an empty bottle of whiskey at the end of the night hijinks! I’m sure that there would have been enough material to keep good ‘ol Jim going for another couple of years, at least.
After battling with his conscience for a while, Jim wakes her up. He makes out that it was another malfunction on the ship and reveals the ominous news that they’re 89 years away from the planet they plan to colonise. She will not make it to Homestead II. She will likely die on the ship of old age. Or suicide. Whichever comes first, I guess. Jim tells Arthur that he’s woken her up, but to keep it a secret (dramatic subtext, see – think we’ll see that secret uncoiling like a deranged kiddie that’s been handed a slinky? Yeah, ‘course we will) and before long the two fall in love. Awwww.
The chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence is a highlight of the film; these two A-List actors are at the top of their game and it shows, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from Hollywood’s biggest and charismatic stars. Michael Sheen plays the part of the robot bartender with aplomb, but if the script had been tighter he could have been made into a memorable character. When the deranged kiddie finally unspools the whole slinky and the secret is revealed, the film takes on a weird ‘ah man, I heard your parents were divorcing,’ dimension. Pratt falls into hapless Andy Dwyer mode from Parks and Recreation, sullenly brooding around the ship like a puppy that’s been smacked with a wet, rolled up newspaper. Lawrence becomes indignant, as you would rightly expect if you’d just found out that Creepy McCreep Face has woken you up to be their eternal plaything. If any other actor had played the character of Jim, I guess there wouldn’t be a gnawing sense of pathos that Pratt elicits in this performance, but his character is undeniably pathetic.
The film aims to rectify this in the third act by announcing the form of Laurence Fishburne, waking up just in time to reveal that the ship’s systems had, unbeknownst to Jim and Aurora, been failing the whole time since the meteor shower hit at the beginning of the film. If they don’t fix the core in time, then none of the 5,000 passengers will get to colonise a new planet. Jumping at the chance to prove himself ‘worthy’ to Aurora, like a dog that has just skidded its anus across the carpet and now wants you to play catch with it, Jim goes on a spacewalk to manually open an air vent door for the nuclear cooling system. It smacks a little of how a misogynistic, old pulp writer of the fifties would perceive the world in terms of how men display their manliness to women, but in the end revokes this for the pair to have some space nookie make-up sex. Some of the best sci-fi explores ideas about science, religion, politics or culture that will resonate with or challenge the audience. Passengers attempts to refine the ‘what would you do alone on a desert island?’ question but have simply set it in space. It veers between romance, action and drama like an uneven fridge on wheels, but even if you do believe in forgiveness, you’ll be hard pushed to leave the theatre without rolling your eyes and wondering what may have been with this visually stunning, sci-fi romp.
Review by Anthony Self
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