CASTAWAYS IN SPACE
Director Morten Tyldum made waves in 2014 with his film The Imitation Game. Before he explored the life of Alan Turing, Tyldum, born and raised in Bergen, Norway, went to the School of Visual Arts in New York to study film. His directorial debut back was in 2003 with his film Buddy, which was then followed by Fallen Angels in 2008 and then Headhunters (a film based on a novel by Jo Nesbo), before making The Imitation Game, starring such stars as Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, and Mathew Goode. This film (a theatrical look into the life and times of Alan Turing) was met with critical praise, box success (making $ 219 million against its $ 14 million production budget), and was nominated at several awards shows that year, including being nominated in eight categories at the 87th Academy Awards. It won an Academy Award for “Best Adapted Screenplay”. Now, after the success of The Imitation Game, director Morten Tyldum, Sony Pictures (and Columbia Pictures), and Village Roadshow Pictures takes a shot into outer space in the new sci-fi drama film Passengers. Does Tyldum’s fifth feature film reach for the stars or does get lost in the vastness of space?
Deep in the cosmos of space, the Avalon is a massive spaceship, speeding along on its 120-year journey to a colonized planet (dubbed Homestead II) owned by a big-time corporation. Onboard are 5,000 passengers and over 200 crew members, all in a hypersleep hibernation for the lengthy odyssey duration, ready to enjoy the luxury accommodations once the ship is several months away from its final destination. Thirty years into the voyage, mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is suddenly awakened by mechanic malfunction, gradually realizing he’s the only one conscious on-board the Avalon, left to deal with roughly 90 years of isolated solitude with no human contact and never (personally) reaching Homestead II. Unable to fix his hibernation pod or to make his way onto the ship’s bridge, Jim makes the most of his current situation, enjoying the pleasures of what the Avalon has to offer, including spending time with the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). Driven to depression by his loneliness, Jim makes the difficult decision to wake up fellow passenger as a companion, choosing writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in the hopes the stranger will fall in love with him. After come to grips with her current predicament (Jim lies to her and tells her that her pod malfunctioned), the two form a connection, finding a relationship between surreal circumstance. However, the starship Avalon continuously suffers breakdowns and failures, which puts the ships and the thousands onboard at great risk. With the ship on the verge of inhabitable, Jim and Aurora (testing their relationship) have to figure out a way to repair the Avalon in order to save everyone else so that the others can reach Homestead II safely.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Though I haven’t seeing any of his previous work, I have seeing The Imitation Game. Like many, I personally did like this movie. It was interesting story (I had no idea who Alan Turing was) and had an impressive assemblage of British actors to star in the movie. I was secretly hoping that it would winning a lot of awards at the 87th Academy Awards, but (sadly) the film only won one of the its eight categories. (Darn!). Anyway, last year (or what it two years ago) I heard all this talk about a new sci-fi movie that was going to have Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence starring in as well as Tyldum directing it. I then honestly forgot about this movie (for a bit) until I saw the trailer for it, which was released back in September 2016. From then on, I was hooked, eagerly waiting to see this movie. Plus (since I go to the movie theater a lot), I would always (and I do mean always) see this trailer as part of the “20 minute previews” before the feature presentation. Plus, as I’ve said before, I’m huge Chris Pratt fan. Well…what did I think of the movie? Did it meet my expectations? Well, it kind of did and didn’t. Despite some negative reviews from critics, I personally enjoyed Passengers. Its wasn’t my favorite movie of 2016, but it fun ride and (personally) wasn’t as bad as some are making it out to be.
In terms of directing, Tyldum setup a very grandiose film, finding big ideas of traveling through space (on board giant spaceship) to a distant planet. That is juxtapose against the more “human condition” found in the film’s two main character, but more importantly in the conflicted decision that Jim Preston faces and ultimately does due to his loneliness during his isolation. It can bring up some interesting afterthought discussion after Passengers ends about what Jim did was right and certainly can be interpreted in various “What if” scenarios to the public. On the flip side, these philosophical questions are set in Hollywood-style film, with plenty of sci-fi fun to be had, with action centerpiece ending to help stir up intention.
In terms of filmmaking, Passengers is sleekly design in a similar fashion to the Avalon spaceship. The movie’s CG visual effects are great, offering up plenty of creative usage for them (the scene with the zero-gravity swimming pool was neat) as well as some other sci-fi action nuances towards the end. In addition, the concept design layout for the Avalon is also impressive, with Tyldum and his film crew utilizing this unique future setting with different areas (private quarters, main concourse, engine room, captain’s bridge, etc.). I kind wished Tyldum show-off more of the Avalon. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Thomas Newman, is pretty good, with plenty of ethereal sounding flourishes and soft sci-fi-esque melodies throughout. In truth, it kind of remind me of listening to his previous soundtrack work on WALL-E and Finding Dory.
What many will think about after watching Passengers is the “what if” scenario. What I mean is that the movie could’ve chosen a different path than the one it chose to follow to create a more dynamic and compelling narrative. For starters, the movie could’ve been solely about Jim Preston and his solitary isolation. If you think about it…it could’ve worked. A character study into one man’s solitary aboard a futuristic starship with plenty of flashback scenes into his past life on Earth. The movie does showcases this (for most of the first act), but it would’ve been interesting to see the entire movie without the need to bring in Aurora Lane. Another “what if” scenario for Passengers is that it could’ve played more upon the relationship of Jim and Aurora and their day-to-day lives on aboard the Avalon (i.e. them getting married, growing old, etc.). In short, in both scenarios, Passengers could’ve been more of “character” study film.
However, with the narrative set as it is, the paragraph above is more of a “hypothetical” one for Passengers. The problem is that the movie has those ideas above, but doesn’t elevate them to what it could’ve been. Yes, the movie explores the idea of Jim’s isolation and loneliness, but only during the first act. They also explore the ups and downs of Jim and Aurora’s relationship, but mainly in the second act. The third act of the is where the sci-fi action comes into play and, while some look CG effects look great and are creative, this part of the story seems a bit rush and would seem that Tyldum and the film’s screenwriter Jon Spaihts box themselves into a corner and only had few options to go from there. In addition, once things start to get moving towards the end of the first act, you (the viewer) should know where the film will ultimately end, which makes Passengers a predictable and bit formulaic in its narrative story. Thus, Passengers, despites having all the right ingredients to make a very great high-brow sci-fi movie, chooses the more trodden down path of being slightly convenient in its story, making its lofty goals a bit out of reach.
With the narrative plot being a bit predictable, the characters of Jim Preston and Aurora Lane have to be well-liked for viewers to care about these two throughout the course of the film. Luckily, Tyldum has casted two very likeable stars to play these two, finding actor Chris Pratt and actress Jennifer Lawrence as Jim and Aurora. I will state that I’m a huge Chris Pratt fan. I loved him the TV show Parks and Recreation, Guardians of the Galaxy, and most recently in The Magnificent Seven. So, basically, like anything that he does. That being said, Chris Pratt is great as Jim Preston. Continuing his recent trend of being a lead man in movies, Pratt does carry the movie on his shoulders, especially the film’s first act, and does hold his own. In truth, Pratt does get to show off his more dramatic side in Passengers, performing in a bit more serious role with Jim Preston and his conflicted issues of isolation and loneliness. Acting as the counterpoint to Pratt’s Jim is Jennifer Lawrence who plays Aurora Lane. Famous for her roles in The Hunger Games movies (love her Katniss Everdeen) as well as Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Lawrence has a likeable charm as Aurora and does her best to elevate the character from screenplay to on-camera. However, of the two, Lawrence’s Aurora is the weaker one, finding Aurora’s motivates and overall actions in service to the narrative at hand rather than a well-rounded character.
As a whole, both do great jobs in their performances (one of the strongest aspects in Passengers), but their portrayals of Jim and Aurora won’t be there defining career acting moment in their careers. Still, despite some nitpicks to their characters, both Pratt and Lawrence do make a likeable pair, finding a solid (if not strong) chemistry with one another. Their romantic relationship grows during the film’s second act, finding the pair using their charm and personality in way that’s both believable and natural. Personally, I loved these two together as Jim and Aurora and Tyldum casted two other actors (i.e. Tom Hardy and Amanda Seyfried or Jake Gyllenhaal and Alicia Vikander), it just wouldn’t be the same and I probably wouldn’t like the movie as much.
Beyond Pratt and Lawrence, Passengers has a very limited supporting cast. Of course, the biggest one side character in the film is the bartender android Arthur, who is played by actor Michael Sheen. Sheen, known for his roles in The Queen, Frost / Nixon, and the Showtime TV show Masters of Sex, has that likeable sense of charm that he brings to Arthur, providing some light words of wisdom to both Jim and Aurora as well some humorous bits in the movie and ultimately making him the most memorable character in Passengers. Following him is actor Laurence Fishburne, who plays the character of Gus Mancuso, the Avalon’s chief deck officer. Fishburne’s performance is solid, but his character is more like a catalyst to propel the story’s events forward rather than being s supportive player to Jim and Aurora. Lastly, in a very minor role (almost like a “Stan Lee” cameo appearance), is Andy Garcia as the Avalon’s captain, Captain Norris.
Love, lost, isolation, and the hard decision must make are the fundamentals beats in the new sci-fi movie Passengers. Director Morten Tyldum newest film portrays a very surreal situation of what a person must do (whether good or bad) in yearning for human companionship. Tyldum offers up a sleek and visually appealing sci-fi setting (on aboard the Avalon) as well as finding Pratt, Lawrence, and Sheen in great roles. However, the narrative is nothing original, the third act is a bit rushed, and the movie itself is predictable throughout the course of its cinematic journey, focusing primary on the impossible situation at hand rather than a character study or of the world that Tyldum projects on-screen. Personally, I liked it. Sure, it wasn’t perfect and could’ve been better if the narrative went a different direction, but (as a whole) I enjoyed the movie and wasn’t a disappointment with it as some were with it. With that being said, I would say that this movie is a spilt between recommended and an iffy-choice (for those who are on the bubble with this film). Basically, if you’re a fan of Pratt or Lawrence, you’ll like this movie more than most. All in all, it may not be the most poignant, original, or compelling of the 2016 movie releases, but Passengers is still an engaging feature film with two likeable actors, plenty of sci-fi nuances, and an interesting position to pose a hypothetical / philosophical question. For what it’s worth, take a trip on the starship Avalon and the enjoy the ride (i.e Passengers). I certainly did.
3.7 Out of 5 (Recommended / iffy-Choice)
Released On: December 21st, 2016
Reviewed On: January 7th, 2017
Passengers runs for 113 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity, and action/peril