Passengers (2016) by Morten Tyldum
Review by Andrew Swafford
“The characters are so likeable!”
It’s one of the most common ways to praise a film, and it usually implies a ringing endorsement. This is especially true when describing a movie like Passengers, which has a big enough budget and a sleek enough look to be easily dismissed as corporate product. As Jennifer Lawrence’s character says in the film, we like stories because they make us feel less alone, and nothing ruins the illusion of human intimacy like realizing you’re being sold something. So we crave likeable characters.
Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt possess a type of über-likeability: they’re just like us! J-Law is (professionally) “known as one of the most relatable people out there,” demonstrating her Normal Person-ness by sharing embarrassing stories on talk shows, swearing, tripping in heels on the way to collect Oscars that she is nominated for by playing women-who-don’t-necessarily-have-their-shit-together-just-yet in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy. Pratt, in a similar fashion, slowly accumulated his reputation as a loveable loser by playing a beardy manchild who performs Nickleback-esque jock rock in the most adorable way possible on Parks and Rec for six years before beefing up for the corporate overlords and starring in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World.
(I hope none of this comes across as cynical sneering--I do genuinely enjoy watching both of these stars, especially Pratt in Parks and Lawrence in Winters Bone.)
The relatability of Pratt and Lawrence is surely helped by the fact that both started their careers with decidedly non-Hollywood bods---two guesses on which one was given shit about that from the press--but now both have sculpted themselves enough to turn sideways and emerge from swimming pools dripping wet on the covers of Men’s Health, GQ, Glamour, and Vogue. Part of me (okay, a lot of me) wishes both had resisted joining the ranks of the underwear gods for just a little longer, but now they’re perfectly, supremely likeable stars--both personally relatable and conventionally attractive.
And so here The Likeable Ones are, together at last, using star power to sell something that is rarely distributed anymore: a true-blue genre picture with an original screenplay, connected to no existing franchise, intellectual property, or real-life events. The poster illustrates nothing other than Lawrence/Pratt as familiar faces, the title is vague, and the trailer is actively deceptive, selling a meet-cute in space that is surely to culminate in some sort of high-stakes action setpiece, when in fact, Passengers tells a profoundly different story.
In reality, (if you absolutely don’t want spoilers, click away, but what I’m about to describe is literally just the premise of the film:) Passengers is about Pratt waking up from cryosleep, alone, 90 years too early and subsequently going into severe Cabin Fever before deciding to awaken the beautiful Jennifer Lawrence, robbing her of a full life in order to grant himself a romantic partner. One can understand all the opaque commercialism--this is much too dark and morally dubious of a premise to sell as light holiday season entertainment.
There’s so much precedent for disturbing sci-fi, though, and director Morten Tydum steeps his film in a sense of cinematic history with set design and cinematography homages to Alien, Solaris, and 2001: A Space Odyssey throughout. There’s even a second Kubrick shout out in the form of a Shining-esque art-deco gold ballroom (see header image), with Michael Sheen playing a slightly uncanny android bartender who offers Pratt his only quasi-human contact before Lawrence is shaken/damned. That nod to horror is telling, as all of the classics that Passengers brings to mind (as well as contemporary films about lonely, trapped humans like Moon and Ex-Machina) are downright creepy, often. And on paper, Passengers is too--as film critic William Bibbiani stated, this is “10 Cloverfield Lane if John Goodman was the romantic lead." The film allows us to consider romance as murder, however briefly, and invites the audience to consider if they too might commit the same sadistic act.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate to the screen, and tone becomes Passengers’s biggest weakness. At no point does the film summon a true sense of violation or psychosexual macabre. For a film about the dark side of human nature (one character states: “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him”), Passengers has all the darkness of a Target commercial during a Halloween sale. The credits play to an Imagine Dragons song, which says a lot. One imagines there might be another cut of the film with less twinkly romantic music and fewer male-gaze-ing shots of Lawrence’s cleavage, but...
Maybe not. This is where casting becomes an important sticking point: Pratt and Lawrence are well suited to mask the film’s disturbing subject matter and and sell tickets using nothing other than their faces, but they’re just too perfect for the film to be true to concept. It is easier for an audience to forgive Pratt for his transgression due to Lawrence’s beauty (lingered upon by the camera a bit too often) as well as the innocence of his own boy-next-door chummy persona.
John Goodman as kidnapper/molester in 10 Cloverfield Lane and Jack Nicholson as abusive spouse/father in The Shining are consistent with common prejudices about “creepy old men,” which Chris Pratt is still about 15-20 years too young to suggest. (On the flipside, try this: as a fun thought experiment, think of a heartstring-pulling romance like A Walk to Remember or The Notebook and mentally recast the male lead as Steve Buscemi to see what stalkery undertones reveal themselves.) Casting the unassuming Pratt in this role could have been very interesting, too. Anthony Perkins’s beyond charismatic performance in Psycho is evidence enough that the boy-next-door can make for a much needed pushback against societal expectations of what evil looks like.
However, watching Passengers, one gets the feeling that someone in charge (either Tyldum or the Sony corporation) just couldn’t bear to let hunky Pratt actually convince an audience that he's capable of indulging such malicious, quasi-murderous desire. His evil act is accompanied with enough aw shucks deliberation, golden-hearted remorse, and humanistic musical flourishes to let him off the hook--and the dreamy, organic (sexy!) way that his romance with Lawrence unfolds in Act 2 allows the audience to all but forget the moral transgression of Act 1. (Not to mention all the arbitrary and mechanical contrivances of Act 3 that I won’t get into here.) I still like the originality of Passengers overall, but the tone of the film always stays on this side of “safe,” gutting the film of its potential to be a gutsy, interesting, original studio genre effort. God forbid our characters aren’t likeable.