Screw the Critics #3: Passengers

A continuing segment in which Lily, intrepid blogger, goes head to head with the most dastardly of foes: Rotten Tomatoes. Group-think be damned! In this segment, we look at the panned Morten Tyldum movie Passengers starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.  Who will win? Hint: it’s Lily. 

Rotten Tomatoes Consensus: Passengers proves Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence work well together — and that even their chemistry isn’t enough to overcome a fatally flawed story.

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Neither the trailer nor the critical reviews did Passengers any favors. The trailer painted the movie as a bland romantic comedy with a space adventure element, while the critical reviews soundly panned it for that exact same reason. Perhaps the trailer influenced their opinions more than they’re willing to admit, but what I’ve found with these reviews is that the critics went into Passengers expecting a far different movie than what they received, and those expectations are what killed their enjoyment of a movie that is far more exciting, nuanced, and human than they care to admit. I wish I could talk about this movie without spoilers, but they’re so integral to the plot that I can’t discuss the movie without it, so you’ve been warned.

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Synopsis: Jim Preston, a mechanical engineer, is one of 5,000 passengers on the starship Avalon, where through a medically induced hibernation, they sleep until the end of their 120 year to journey to the planet colony Homestead II. An unplanned collision with an asteroid field causes Jim’s hibernation pod to malfunction, causing him to wake up 90 years before the ship will land. Doomed to a life in complete isolation, Jim finds himself with a difficult ethical choice. Should he wake up the journalist Aurora, a passenger on the ship with whom he falls madly in love, and condemn her to the same life, or live alone until death?

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This premise is an unsettling one, and certainly not the ethical-dilemma free romance presented in the trailer. Critics found the movie’s handling of this dilemma unsatisfying; mainly, they didn’t feel like the moral ambiguity of Jim’s actions were dealt with in a just way. I disagree. First, it’s not as if Jim made the decision to wake Aurora on a whim. He spends an entire year in solitude, a fascinating sequence that is reminiscent of Castaway, and it’s clear that he’s suffering every minute of every day. There’s no one to talk to except Arthur, the android bartender, and his character is so vacuous that it’s no surprise that Jim considers killing himself. It’s only then, on the brink of death, that he first sees Aurora. To him, she is hope.

His love for her is certainly creepy, yet completely human. He falls for her beauty and clings to her writing as if its the only human contact he has left, and indeed, it is. He talks to Arthur about her as if he’s known her his whole life, yet they’ve never met. Director Morten Tyldum emphasizes Jim’s desperation, but he doesn’t excuse his actions. Jim and Arthur have a very explicit conversation in which Jim tells Arthur that he knows waking Aurora is morally wrong, but that he doesn’t think he can help himself. Whether that’s repulsive is up for debate, but it’s certainly realistic and human.

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The romance between Jim and Aurora develops quickly in the film, but it never seems unnatural. At first she is wary of Jim, but as the only other passenger on the ship, and a very handsome one at that, they become friends and then lovers. In some ways their romance is too easy, after all, what are the chances that Aurora would be such a perfect match for Jim, but it makes more sense when you realize that Jim chose her specifically to be his partner. His waking her up was no accident. Would it have been a more interesting movie if Aurora was aggressive or disinterested or found Jim unattractive? Undeniably yes, but that is expecting far too much risk taking from a Hollywood blockbuster.

The strongest part of the movie is the crumbling of their relationship. When Aurora discovers that Jim purposefully woke her up, the anger at losing her life rears up again. In one scene, she steals into Jim’s room while he’s asleep and starts beating him, almost killing him with a hammer, until she stops herself. A weaker movie would have had her fall into his arms as her passion drained, but Passengers doesn’t contain its conflict. There is no easy reconciliation. When Jim speaks to her over the ship’s intercom begging for forgiveness, it brings to mind such grand gestures as Lloyd Dobler’s boombox and Heath Ledger’s song in Ten Things I Hate About You, but Aurora refuses to grant him that forgiveness. All she can feel for him is hatred.

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That changes during the film’s third act, when the future of the ship is jeopardized. A life spent alone no longer seems as terrible as a sudden and fiery death upon an imploding airship. The third act isn’t as interesting as the first two, but it’s not meant to be. It’s chock full of action and Chris Pratt posturing and grandiose “come back to me” statements. It reminded me of Titanic in space; it could have almost been a different movie. It was satisfying and sweet like a KitKat bar, but it held nothing of the emotional weight of the first two thirds of the movie. Still, I have no problem with its inclusion. Sometimes to be a blockbuster, it is necessary to include blockbustery action scenes. Why else hire Chris Pratt? That doesn’t diminish the intriguing questions and truly human drama of the movie’s main part.

I think the essential question of the movie, namely should one put the quality of other’s lives before their own, was explored as deeply and efficiently as it could have been, but there were other connected questions that I would have loved to see explored. For instance, I wanted Aurora to question Jim’s hidden intentions; she says that Jim “murdered” her by waking her up before the end of the voyage, but in a way his actions were similar to a sexual predator, since he woke her only because he was attracted to her. If he wanted companionship, he could have woken a man, but no, he chose Aurora because he intended to have a sexual relationship with her. Again, I’ll say that a more interesting movie would have been one where Aurora spurned his advances, but I think that movie would be a lot darker than this one, and even harder to sell.

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The story isn’t perfect and it’s not nearly as complex as it could be, but Passengers isn’t meant to be that type of movie. It’s a fun, glossy, big budget space movie that happens to have an unnerving central premise. That unexpected factor alone makes it a better movie than all of the blockbusters that came out this year because at least it surprised me. It made me view both Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in a new way, Chris because for once he wasn’t playing a smarmy wiseass, and Jennifer because this was the first age-appropriate role for her in years and she nailed it. Plus, it was a gorgeous movie, with stunning effects, and a wonderful score. From a blockbuster, what more can you want?

Lily’s Final Consensus: Passengers doesn’t deliver what it advertised, but for once that’s a good thing. The story is strange and uncomfortable, and for all the ethical questions it answers, there are a dozen more to chew on. Inventive and visually pleasing, Passengers is one more enthralling space movie in a genre that is only continuing to grow.

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