Friday, December 23, 2016

Passengers: A bumpy ride

Passengers (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, sexuality and brief chaste nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.23.16

Science-fiction authors figured this out a long time ago: Trans-galaxy “sleeper ships” need functioning human crew members — in some cases, generations of same — in order to handle the dire emergencies that inevitably occur.

Trying to make the most of a bad situation that seems likely to last for the rest of their
lives, Jim (Chris Pratt, center) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) briefly distract
themselves by chatting with an amiable android bartender (Michael Sheen).
That said, and given a current corporate climate that values human life on a par with plumbing fixtures, I’m willing to believe that a huge colony transport would be sent to its light-years-distant destination with 5,000-plus hibernating passengers, monitored solely by ship-wide computers. Cost-efficiency, y’know. Don’t want to waste all the money and resources necessary to feed and house attentive crewmembers.

Passengers is an old-style sci-fi pulp adventure constructed with top-drawer, 21st century movie-making pizzazz. The latter does its best to obscure the hoary melodramatic clichés that run rampant through Jon Spaihts’ original screenplay; for the most part director Morten Tyldum delivers an engaging outer space escapade, with enough momentum to keep viewers entertained.

That’s assuming we can forgive an eye-rolling climax on par with Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, back in the days of TV’s original Star Trek, shouting “Ya canna change the laws of physics ... she’s gonna blow!”

Actually, that’s the lesser of the two key issues that must be overcome in Spaihts’ script. The first is a major plot point, and a deliberate moment of character development; based on the reactions from Monday evening’s preview audience, some viewers won’t be able to get past the moment in question.

All of which I hint at with deliberate vagueness; this film builds suspense by slowly teasing its various revelations.

Our first glimpse of the space-bound Avalon is appropriately awesome, the huge ship’s rotating drive system and passenger quarters protected by a forward-mounted shield array, slowly crossing the screen in an introductory scene that evokes fond memories of the similar first view of the Discovery, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Visual effects gurus Erik Nordby and Greg Baxter have fabricated a golly-gosh magnificent vessel: equal parts opulent luxury liner and bad-ass interstellar convoy craft.

The autonomous shields precisely deflect all stray space debris, until — giving us barely enough time to absorb the vessel’s splendor — encountering an asteroid field surrounding a daunting, moon-sized body. The shields hold, but the impact nonetheless resonates.

Deep inside the Avalon, a hibernation pod winks into resuscitation mode. Moments later, passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is awake and stumbling to his assigned quarters, guided by a chirpy computer hologram guide (Julee Cerda, hilariously vacuous) who assures him that “everything is fine.”

Hardly. It doesn’t take long for Jim to realize that something has gone very wrong. He’s the only person awake on the huge ship, and — thanks to his skills as a nuts ’n’ bolts engineer — he figures out that the ship is only 30 years into its 120-year journey to the colony planet of Homestead II. He’ll be dead long before reaching that destination, when the rest of the passengers and crew will revive.

This ghastly “reveal” is both droll and horrifying, Pratt’s sharp comic timing illuminating Jim’s eventual resignation to his fate, after first entertaining us with his five stages of grief. Although the ship’s many computer aides readily assist within their programmed specifications, dealing with them is the hologram equivalent of the insufferable menus we navigate in automated phone systems, while (for example) trying to book a doctor’s appointment ... and, ultimately, just as useless.

Spaihts has a lot of fun with this comparison, as does Pratt.

Worse yet, Jim is a working-class passenger with an economy-class fare, which limits his options in the automated cafeteria and elsewhere; this, too, is rich with ongoing humor. As are the diligent movements of the little robotic “sweepers” that meticulously scarf up any messes made by Jim, during his clumsier — or angrier — moments.

Pratt deserves considerable credit for holding our attention during this lengthy first act, although Jim does encounter a companion of sorts: Arthur (Michael Sheen), the ship’s android bartender, who holds court in an opulent corner of the huge main concourse. Arthur dispenses fortune-cookie “wisdom” with an alacrity matched only by his facility with bottled spirits. Sheen, forever deadpan, also is a hoot.

(We eventually learn that Homestead Industries, the corporate monolith that owns and operates this spaceship and many others like it, has made its fortune by exploiting the colonist labor and resources on numerous distant planets. Given the multi-century turn-around time between these worlds, the success of such an improbable economic model seems highly unlikely. But that’s one of several, ah, issues that Spaihts’ script capriciously ignores.)

Days, weeks and months pass, Jim vacillating between manic highs and despondent lows. Pratt wins our hearts and minds; we bleed for the poor guy. And we wonder, what would one do, under such circumstances?

Unbeknownst to our woebegone lone traveler, various other shipboard systems are twitching, fritzing and hiccupping. Occasional glimpses of computer readouts — unavailable to Jim, contained within the off-limits flight deck — reveal a mounting cascade of failing systems.

And, soon, the only man awake on the ship is joined by the only woman: Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a New York writer who intended to make the 120-year journey to Homestead II, stay for a year while writing of her experiences, and then return to Earth via a similar 120-year voyage, thus becoming the first person to make such a round trip.

Lawrence is a gifted actress, but not even she can distract us — when Aurora explains this goal to Jim — from the degree to which she overlooks how things would have changed after a quarter-millennium. Aurora’s blithe obliviousness makes her sound, well, kinda dumb. Spaihts continues to be hazy and sloppy, regarding some of the logical consequences of his premise.

It’s also rather distracting, how both Jim and Aurora look and sound like our contemporaries, when they’re surrounded by tech that must be at least a century in our future. Wouldn’t fashion and interpersonal behavior have changed, at least a little?


The character dynamic shifts significantly, as these two strangers warily circle each other. Jim is a blue-collar problem-solver — let’s hear it for engineers! — with the clumsy charm of a guy who’s never had a girlfriend, and hasn’t the faintest idea how to behave around women. Aurora, in turn, is the product of an upper-class upbringing: a sophisticate who jogs and swims laps — the ship’s swimming pool a particularly spectacular concept — while Jim works various problems.

But their shared chemistry is palpable nonetheless, and Tyldum and Spaights quite cleverly torture us with the divergent plot threads: the undeniably sweet nature of the blossoming relationship between Jim and Aurora, juxtaposed against an increasing number of those red “failure” displays in the flight deck computer. It’s the ultimate in Hitchcockian suspense: The ship is slowly dissolving into full-blown crisis, and our main characters don’t know what we know.

But such anxiety only resonates if we care about these characters, and accept their behavior as persuasively believable ... and this is where Spaihts’ reach may have exceeded his grasp. Jim is well drawn, Pratt delivering a nicely shaded performance that gradually reveals the guy’s hidden depths, good and bad. We’re definitely involved, as we watch Jim become a better version of himself.

Lawrence, on the other hand, must contend with a far more complicated emotional arc. Much as we like Aurora’s feisty independence, she’s confronted with all manner of challenges and nasty surprises; the degree to which she repeatedly must “accept the inevitable” definitely stretches our credibility.

Past the breaking point, in my mind. The breathtaking, hell-for-leather climax is absurdly contrived on several levels, mostly for Aurora’s abrupt, 180-degree about-face, which Lawrence can’t sell to any degree. It happens because, well, that’s what the script says.

In fairness, golden-age sci-fi novels also were long on spectacle and adventure, and short on behavioral logic, so Tyldum and Spaihts are faithful to the form. Viewers willing to go with the flow will have a good time with Passengers, but it is necessary to check logic and common sense at the door.

The premise is intriguing, and Lawrence and Pratt are easy on the eyes. That might be enough.

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