Saturday, 14 January 2017

Movie Review: Passengers (2017)



Movie trailers, by their very design, are rather strange devices. At the base line, they are meant to intrigue the audience into possibly checking the film in question through basically whatever means are necessary. This usually involves quick-cutting the most visually interesting moments together, combined with music that will rarely if ever be a part of the film itself. Since I made it my mission to everything that I possibly can at the cinemas, trailers don’t have the same effect on me as they used to (for the most part, at least), but they are still interesting to watch as part of my general fascination with marketing. Some end up underselling their film by not isolating what generally makes the film good, instead focusing on the surface moments that make it look worse than it actually is, some oversell their film by combining the film’s best moments to make the film look better than it is… and then there’s trailers like those for today’s film. Seeing as this isn’t even the only film out right now to do this, I figure it would be worth getting into with some depth before the potential flood begins: What happens when a trailer shows you a film that is markedly different from the final product? This is Passengers.


The plot: Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), two passengers on an interstellar craft set for a new human colony, wake up before the others do. About 90 years before the others. Faced with a potentially long life stuck with each other, a romance begins to bloom between them. However, that may have to wait as it seems that the incidents that caused them to wake up when they did are connected with numerous technical faults happening all over the ship. As the only two people capable of doing anything, they have to find what’s wrong with the ship before everyone turns up dead. Or, at least, that’s what the trailer depicts as the story.

Of the many reasons that trailers that potentially misrepresent a given film, one of the bigger ones is that it may not exactly appeal to mainstream tastes; as such, they cut together a preview that makes it look poppier than it is. The film itself, however, is certainly a lot darker than what you may expect from the marketing. Without putting too fine a point on spoilers, I’ll just sum it up like this: Jim wakes up first and, for the entire first act, he’s the only one awake. What we get at the start is basically the same examination into how a human deals with isolation while hurtling through space that quite a few sci-fi stories have touched on recently, and it’s here where Chris Pratt really shines. He’s one of those actors that is almost impossible not to like, and the way he portrays his character’s sense of liberation at having no-one to stop him from doing what he wants is quite enthralling… until the loneliness kicks in. He may have Michael Sheen’s incredibly personable bartender to converse with, but even with the most fine-tuned of A.I., we still need that genuine human interaction. When that sinks in, and we see how it affects Jim, it is genuinely heartbreaking… especially when we see him ponder about how far he is willing to go in order to end his own solitude. I have shown kindness to darker morality in films before, and this hits a sweet spot within that for me: It made me connect with the character, learn about his mindset and, even if I don’t condone what he ultimately does, understand why he takes the actions that he does.

As a sci-fi story, this cribs a lot from 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to a conspicuously circular hallway shown in a few scenes. However, more so than the architecture or even the isolationist mood, it’s the depiction of humanity’s relationship with technology that feels most reminiscent of Kubrick’s work. The script itself manages to convey what it needs to within the story using very little technobabble, along with some nicely minute detailing to make everything fit as the plot requires it. There’s also a very learned understanding when it comes to what A.I. can offer a story like this and it fits within many different modes because of it. It’s a source of comfort like with Sheen’s bartender, and it’s so good seeing him put his talents towards a film that deserves them (unlike, say, the Twilight Saga), a source of comedy like with the floor sweepers who provides some nice sight gags, and also a source of frustration as we see how some machines are built too perfect. It echoes that same sense of hubris that the best sci-fi stories made their mark with, showing humanity as being so self-assured that they have perfected their devices that they don’t even consider the possibility that something can go wrong. It adds a nice dose of ironic comedy to the proceedings, which only accelerates once we get closer to what exactly caused the ship to go haywire.

The film is marketed as a romantic story and, in places, it is and it does so remarkably well. Pratt and Lawrence have tremendous chemistry together, something aided by them being two of the most bankable actors working today, and even the grim undercurrent involving how they ended up meeting each other is made palatable because the romance is written as well as it is. Then again, the film ends up going for a lot of different tones as the film continues: exile drama, romantic comedy, survival thriller, rumination on the nature of humanity and its advancements. But with how many moods it goes for, often switching back and forth between them, it is remarkably smooth in how it transitions between them. It’s gripping as a drama, it’s cute as a romance, it’s tense as a thriller and it’s quite sharp as a look at mankind’s technological inventions. Of course, it starts to go a bit wonky… okay, really wonky with the ending. For a film that isn’t exactly afraid to delve into the darker implications of human interaction, the ending of the story is so sugary and tonally jarring (yes, even considering the myriad that we get) that it pretty much has “test audiences” written all over it. It presents the audience with a suitable karmic conclusion to everything that we’ve seen, and then it goes for a Love Conquers All ending; I guess that fidelity to the legends of sci-fi extends to even the weaker instances of it.

All in all, I get why people aren’t warming up to this movie. Even ignoring how the trailer represents it, this can be a very dour sit that makes some unsettling observations about human interaction and where the lack of it can lead people. Personally, I quite liked it because I was able to vibe with the tone that the film was going for, and the acting as well made the rather heinous decisions more palatable because we know who they are and why they are doing the things that they do. As our first real introduction into the cinema of 2017, I have no other films to directly compare it to, but considering how I started out last year with Point Break, this is a far better first step into the new year proper.

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