Tuesday, January 3, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Passengers

Passengers was written by Jon Spaihts and directed by Morten Tyldum.

Spaihts previously co-wrote The Darkest Hour (which I'm still convinced was a Siffy Channel movie that somehow played in theaters by mistake) and Prometheus (meh). He also co-wrote Doctor Strange, which I thought was one of Marvel's lesser efforts. How does this guy keep getting work? Blackmail?

Tyldum previously directed The Imitation Game, and that's pretty much it. OK, so he actually directed many films in his native Norway, but it's unlikely you've ever seen any of them, unless you're a devotee of Norwegian cinema. 

Take Castaway, set it on a luxury spaceship, add lots more stalking, kidnapping and borderline rape, then top it off with a dash of Stockholm Syndrome and you'll have a pretty good idea of what this movie's about.

Passengers could have been a thought provoking little morality tale, examining the effects of loneliness and the lengths to which it could drive a person. Unfortunately it 
chickens out in the third act, completely dropping any pretense of thoughtfulness as it devolves into a standard, sci-fi "We've gotta save the ship!" ending. Too bad.

Worst of all, there are absolutely no surprises in the film, as it lurches Frankenstein-like from one set piece to the next. In fact what little revelations there in the movie are spoiled in the trailer.

Keanu Reeves was originally cast in the film as Jim Preston, but ended up dropping out (no doubt after he got a look at the script). The role eventually went to Chris Pratt. Reese Witherspoon, Rachel McAdams and Emily Blunt were all considered for the part of Aurora, before Jennifer Lawrence was ultimately cast.

Of the film's $110 million budget, $12 million went to Pratt, while another $20 million went to Lawrence. You know, there's something really depressing about two people getting paid more money than I'll ever see in my lifetime, just to star in a mediocre sci-fi film.


The Plot:
Sometime in the future (yay, it's not set in any definite year!), the starship Avalon is heading for the colony world of Homestead II. The ship is carrying five thousand passengers (along with two hundred fifty crew) who are seeking a new life on the untamed planet. Because the voyage will take a hundred and twenty years, everyone's been placed into suspended animation, to be awakened shortly before they arrive. The ship is completely automated, and nothing can possibly go wrong.

Something goes wrong, as the ship sails through an asteroid storm instead of going around it like you'd think it would. The shields deflect most of the dangerous asteroids, but one apparently gets through and damages a critical system. One of the suspended animation pods activates, waking Jim Preston (played by Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer.

Jim wanders around the oddly spacious ship, looking for other passengers and crew. Eventually he realizes he's been awakened ninety years too early. He tries to convince the ship's computers there's been a mistake, but they're unequipped to handle such a problem (!) and give him the runaround. He tries to alert the crew, but they're all asleep behind a thick, impenatrable door (!!). He even tries reactivating his sleep pod, but it's set up to only work one time, which makes no sense and seems like a pretty big design flaw to me.

Eventually Jim comes to the horrible realization that he's going to spend the rest of his life on the ship by himself, and will die alone long before it reaches Homestead II.

Jim then begins enjoying everything the luxurious ship has to offer, spending his days drinking, eating and using the various amenities. Why a ship carrying people to a wild, untamed frontier world would have restaurants and shopping centers isn't explained. His only companion through all this is Lloyd, the bartender from The Shining Arthur the robot bartender, who dispenses hollow, pre-programmed psychological responses.

A year alone on the ship nearly drives Jim insane, as he staggers around naked and unkempt. He even considers killing himself by blowing open an airlock, but can't go through with it.

Jim notices a beautiful young woman named Aurora Lane (played by Jennifer Lawrence) in one of the thousands of sleep pods. He looks her up in the ship's computer and discovers she's a writer. He begins watching her video profile over and over, which isn't the least bit creepy or stalker-ish. Jim
falls in love with his idea of her, and starts thinking about waking her from her pod so he'll finally have some company.

He struggles with the morality of such an act for a while, but we all know he's gonna do it, and eventually he goes through with it. Remember, folks, this is the HERO of our story.

Jim tells Aurora her pod malfunctioned like his did. She's terrified at the notion of dying on the ship, and tries everything Jim did to go back to sleep. Eventually she accepts her situation, and starts writing about their plight.

Jim and Aurora grow closer over the course of a year, and make the best of their shipboard life. Eventually they fall in love.

And then Arthur accidentally spills the beans, telling Aurora that Jim deliberately woke her up. She's understandably enraged at Jim, accusing him of murdering her, which I can't argue with. Jim gives her his best puppy dog eyes and apologizes, as the movie honestly wants us to side with him and hope he wins her back (!).

The shipboard failures increase in frequency, and Chief Deck Officer Gus Mancuso (played by Laurence Fishburn) is awakened from his pod. He's able to use his security clearance to enter the bridge, and discovers the asteroid strike caused a cascade failure that'll destroy the ship unless they can fix it.

Gus examines Aurora's pod (why does that sound dirty?) and realizes it was tampered with. He tells Aurora about it, but she says she already knows and she loathes Jim for ripping her life from her. Gus says something like, "Eh, whaddya gonna do? He's a guy and he was lonely." Amazingly, Aurora actually thinks about this for a moment, instead of being repulsed by Gus as well.

We then find out that Gus' body was irreparably damaged when his pod woke him up, and he's dying. He tells Jim and Aurora the problem is somewhere in the vast engine room, and they have to fix it quickly. He gives them his ID bracelet so they can access all areas of the ship and promptly dies.

Aurora's still pissed at Jim, but agrees to work with him to save the ship. They discover the ship's reactor was damaged by the asteroid strike, and is the cause of all the problems. They manage to fix the reactor, but have to vent the exhaust before it can work properly again. Unfortunately the vent hatch won't open, and Jim realizes he'll have to operate it manually from outside.

He suits up and exits the ship. He finds the vent hatch and activates it, but it won't stay open. He'll have to jam it open with his body while Aurora vents the reactor exhaust, which means almost certain death for him.

You'd think Aurora would be happy that she'll get to watch the bastard who ruined her life burn alive. Instead she has a change of heart that comes out of nowhere, and says she doesn't want to lose him and spend the rest of her life alone on the ship. He tells her there's no choice, and she reluctantly vents the reactor.

Their plan is successful, but Jim's blown off the ship and into space, his suit leaking oxygen. Aurora suits up and zooms out to save him. She manages to grab onto his severed tether and reel him in. She places Jim in the Autodoc, but it informs her that he's dead. She orders it to resuscitate him
, and he's miraculously brought back to life. Hooray, all is forgiven! She's perfectly fine with the fact that a perfect stranger stole her life from her for the most selfish reason possible!

After all this, Jim conveniently discovers that the Autodoc has the ability to place one person in suspended animation. Unfortunately there's only one unit on the entire ship (for 5,250 people!). He tells Aurora to get into it, so she can have her life back.

Eighty eight years later, the crew and passengers of the Avalon wake up. The discover a makeshift farm, complete with crops and animals, in the middle of the ship. They also find a copy of Aurora's terribly-written book, indicating she chose to stay awake and live out her life on the ship with her captor Jim, proving that the Stockholm Syndrome is alive and well and living in the future.

• Credit where credit's due– at the very least, we're never told the year in which the story takes place (as far as I know). Regular readers of my blog know that one of my many pet peeves is when a sci-fi story features extremely advanced technology, but then takes place in the far off year of 2050.

• The Avalon is definitely a movie spaceship. It looks like some sort of triple helix or spindly corkscrew, almost drilling its way through space. There's no way anyone would ever design a real ship like this, and no Earthly reason for it to look the way it does– other than because it's kewl.

Kudos to whoever designed it for making it spin though, which really would supply artificial gravity to the ship.

• An observation: The Passengers poster features a series of dots and dashes directly below the logo. They spell out "SOS" in Morse code.

The Avalon detects a field of asteroids ahead, so it increases power to its shields and plows right through them. Um... if the autopilot can do all that, why not just go around the asteroids and avoid them altogether? Surely such a short detour wouldn't affect the travel time that much.

Answer: Because the movie needs a crisis so the plot can happen.

• The Avalon is designed to transport over five thousand passengers in suspended animation. Four months before they reach their destination, they'll all wake up and take classes to learn new skills and the basics of "colonial life."

If that's true, then why does the ship have a Grand Concourse, complete with a shopping mall, restaurants, a posh bar, arcades, a basketball court, a pool and even a movie theater? Aren't they all gonna be too busy learning how to milk cows and churn butter to have time to play Dance Dance Revolution? Why waste valuable ship space with all that stuff if it's only going to be used for four months?

And even if they do have time, doesn't it seem kind of... cruel to let the passengers get used to this spoiled life, only to have it snatched away from them once they land on the planet?

Of course the answer to why all this stuff is there is so that Jim and Aurora can spend their lives living it up on a luxury cruise liner.

• Doesn't it seem kind of dangerous for the Homestead Corporation to wait until four months before planetfall to start teaching agriculture and woodworking to the passengers? 

Did they really send a bunch of pampered city folk to an untamed planet, expecting them to start farming and building houses with only a couple classes under their belts? 

This colony's doomed! Maybe it's just as well Jim and Aurora never made it there!

• When Jim wakes up prematurely, he tries to tell the ship's automated systems that something's gone horribly wrong, but all he gets is an electronic runaround. He can't even get into the crew quarters to wake them, because they're behind an impenetrable door.

The idea that there would be no contingency plan to wake the crew in case of an emergency is beyond ridiculous. There's no such thing as a foolproof system! Would you want to get on a sleeper ship that couldn't fix any of the problems that will certainly arise during a 120 year voyage?

This is classic plot trickery on the part of the screenwriter, designed to put Jim and Aurora in an impossible situation with no easy solution.

After Jim wakes up, he takes a shower. He does the classic "Movie Shower Pose," in which he stands with his head down and one arm touching the wall. Has anyone in the history of the world ever done that? Even once?

NOTE: I couldn't find a photo of the Shower Pose from Passengers, but this one's close enough.

• Jim panics when he realizes he woke up ninety years too soon, so he sends a distress email to the Homestead Corporation. He's then surprised when the computer says it'll take nineteen years for the message to reach Earth. 

Um, Jim's supposed to be an engineer, right? So he's gotta know he's light years away from the planet. How can he NOT realize his message will take decades to reach home, and even longer for a reply? 

Surely something like the fact that he's on a 120 year one-way trip was covered in the pre-flight briefing. Is he still suffering from hibernation sickness here? 

I think this is supposed to be a humorous scene, but it just makes Jim look like an idiot. 

• Jim gets frustrated when he goes to the main cafeteria and can't order fancy Starbuck's coffees or a premium breakfast because he's not a "gold level" passenger. Yet he's able to go to any of the ship's fancy restaurants and order anything he wants there. 

Um... why would it be a problem in one location and not another? And even if it was, why not just go to the French restaurant and order a cappuccino?

• Like most people in the audience, I was sitting in the theater wondering why Jim just didn't get back in his hibernation pod, turn it on and go back to sleep.

The script explains why this won't work. Sort of. According to Jim, the passengers were all placed into suspended animation at a separate location, then transported to the Avalon where they were hooked up to their hibernation pods. The pods can only maintain suspended animation; they can't induce it.

Wow. I bet the screenwriter pulled a muscle bending over backwards to come up with that cockamamie explanation. And of course none of it makes a bit of sense. It'd be like having a phone that can only receive calls, not make them.

• During Jim's first space walk, he's so moved by the beauty of the galaxy that a single tear runs down his cheek. Um... there ain't no gravity in space, so the tear should have either pooled around his eye or possibly have floated off his face and into his helmet.

He was still attached to the hull by his magnetic boots at this point though, and the ship was spinning, so I supposed it's possible that centrifugal force was providing a bit of artificial gravity to pull down his tear. So I'm willing to give them this one.

• The plot of Passengers is very similar to the cover story of Weird Science #20, which was first published back in 1951. 

In it, a group of people are placed in suspended animation on spaceship that's headed for a new planet, and will take one hundred years to get there. They're all told that due to the stresses of suspended animation, each person can only be frozen and thawed once. 

A man named Sid rigs his hibernation pod to wake him up after two years. He knows there are fifty beautiful women onboard the ship, so his plan is to wake one, tell her their pods malfunctioned, have his way with her for a year, then kill her when he gets tired of her. He'll then thaw out another beautiful babe and do the same thing. Lather, rinse, repeat for the next forty eight years.

OK, so I'm not accusing screenwriter Jon Spaihts of stealing the plot of this comic, but you've got to admit it's a pretty amazing coincidence.

• The weirdest part of the movie for me were the scenes between Jim and Arthur, the robot bartender in the Avalon's incredibly spacious and lavish lounge.

For some reason all of these bar scenes are virtual shot-for-shot recreations of the ones in The Shining. The layout of the bar is almost identical to the one in the Overlook Hotel, and Jim drinks alone in it, just like Jack Torrance did. And Arthur the android is creepy, off-putting and slightly sinister, just like Lloyd, the bartender in The Shining.

Heck, Arthur even dresses exactly like Lloyd!

There're too many similarities here for this to be a coincidence– it has to be some kind of homage. But why? Why stuff a tribute to a classic horror film into a glossy, modern sci-fi epic? Especially when there don't seem to be additional tributes to any other movies.

The bar scenes in The Shining are disturbing and unsettling. Did the filmmakers hope that by aping them, those feelings would somehow rub off onto Passengers? Who knows? I honestly don't get why these scenes are shot the way they are.

Unfortunately the only thing the bar scenes accomplished was to make me wish I was watching The Shining again. Note to filmmakers: don't remind your audience of better films while they're watching yours. 

• After a year of being alone on the ship, Jim just can't stand it anymore. He decides to wake up Aurora, which is one of the most selfish and despicable acts I think I've ever seen in a film. Aurora says it herself Jim just straight up murdered her, stealing her life and dooming her to die in the sterile environment of the Avalon, all so he'll no longer be alone. In effect he kidnapped her to use as his very own sex slave.

Or course when Aurora inevitably finds out she's livid with Jim, and rightly so. He then tries to woo her back, and in a very bizarre turn, the movie actually asks us to sympathize with him, and even root for the two of them to get back together!

Amazingly she actually does end up forgiving him, which is pretty much the textbook definition of the Stockholm Syndrome.

I have a feeling the fact that Jim is a strapping lad who looks like Chris Pratt went a long way toward Aurora (and the audience as well) ultimately accepting what he did. Imagine for a minute if Jim looked like Danny DeVito. Do you think she'd have forgiven him then? Not bloody likely

• If Passengers had had the guts to follow through on Aurora's reaction to Jim's despicable act, it could have been a riveting psychological story. The movie ain't got time for brainy stuff like that though– it's got explosions to get to, and the creepy abduction angle is completely and abruptly dropped in the third act, as Jim and Aurora find out the ship's going to explode, and have to set aside their differences in order to save it.

Gosh, if Jim wasn't a sociopath who selfishly woke Aurora, she'd have died anyway when the ship exploded. So it's a good thing he robbed her of her life! He saved her (and the rest of the passengers) by forcibly taking her life away from her. See? It all worked out in the end!

• For me, one of the most disappointing aspects of Passengers is the fact that there's nothing even remotely approximating a plot twist in the film. The plot plods along from one scene to the next, without the least bit of style or flair. 

Jim wakes up. He's all alone on the ship. He can't stand it, so he wakes up Aurora to keep him company, saying her pod malfunctioned. they go on dates and fall in love. She finds out what he did and hates him. And so on. Bleaugh.

Heck, I'd have settled for finding out the entire movie was a dream Jim had while in suspended animation. As dumb as that idea is, at least it would be unexpected!

So how's this for a script fix? We begin the film with Aurora waking up. She wanders around the ship, confused as to why she's the only one awake. She then bumps into Jim, and they realize a malfunction has woken them ninety years too early.

They make the best of their shipboard life and start to fall in love. Aurora starts noticing Jim behaving oddly, but dismisses it as a reaction to their plight. Then Arthur the android reveals the shocking truth to her (and the audience)– Jim was the one who actually woke up first! He couldn't take the loneliness, so he woke her to keep him company. Gasp!

See? Much better. Jim's still an indefensible asshole, but at least now there's a slight twist to the story, making it much more interesting.

Passengers features the ultimate in product placement. Aurora watches YouTube videos on a Sony-branded holographic tablet device. It's basically a small tube that projects a virtual screen above it– sort of like a high tech scroll.

This is a Sony film, so I guess it's only natural they'd want to slap their logo all over it. But they just advertised a piece of non-existent technology that won't be available for a hundred years. Got it.

I'm sure the fact that Jennifer Lawrence's character is named "Aurora" has nothing whatsoever to do with Sleeping Beauty. Nope, purely a coincidence!

• We see a brief shot of the Avalon's vast storage hold, and it contains what appears to be a submarine.

This actually makes sense! These people are on a hundred and twenty year long trip. If they forget something, there's no going back home to get it, so they'd better be sure they bring along everything they could ever possibly need. There's probably an ocean on Homestead II, and they may need to explore it at some point. Hence, they brought a sub!

• How's this for some heavy duty nitpicking? We learn that the ship is travelling at half the speed of light, and it's currently about thirty years into its journey. That means it's around fifteen light years from Earth. So far so good.

At one point the ship decides to slingshot around the star Arcturus. Slingshotting is a real thing, and a way for a spaceship to use a planet or star's natural gravity to alter course or get a boost of speed. 

Unfortunately Arcturus is around thirty six light years from Earth. If they've really been travelling at half the speed of light for thirty years, they'd still be a good twenty light years away from Arcturus at this point. Whoops!

If the movie absolutely had to have this scene, why not look up a star that's fifteen light years away?

By the way, I'm not some part time astronomy professor. I found out Arcturus' distance with about thirty seconds of googling.

• Passengers treats artificial gravity the same way all sci-fi movies do– wrong.

As the shipboard malfunctions increase, we see a warning sign that reads, "GRAVITY LOSS." Everyone and everything inside the ship immediately begins floating into the air. There are so many things wrong with this scene I don't know where to begin. 

First of all, it appears the Avalon generates centrifugal force, aka gravity, by spinning. This is all well and good, and scientifically accurate. The only way the ship can lose gravity is if it quits spinning. 

It would take a really long time for the ship's rotation to slow to a stop. During that time, the gravity wouldn't abruptly stop– it would just gradually get weaker until it disappeared altogether.

Of course in the film the ship instantly loses gravity and everything goes a' flyin.'

Secondly, even if the ship did somehow instantly lose gravity, there's no reason for everything to start floating away. Remember your high school physics class? Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. If you were sitting quietly in a chair on a ship and the gravity suddenly went out, you'd likely remain in your chair until you made some sort of move.

There'd certainly be no reason for all the water in the ship's swimming pool to suddenly fling itself into the air and form an inescapable liquid sphere for Jennifer Lawrence to drown in.

• In the third act, Jim goes outside the ship to manually open the reactor vent. Unfortunately the vent won't stay open, meaning he'll have to hold it open and likely die as the reactor plasma is released.

The thing is, Jim's holding a makeshift heat shield in his hand when he realizes all this. Couldn't he just jam that into the vent to keep it open and come back inside?

• At the end of the movie, Jim discovers that the ONE automated Autodoc on the ship can put someone into suspended animation. He wants Aurora to get into it, so she can make it to Homestead II. This of course means he'll likely be dead by the time they reach their destination in eighty eight years, and they'll never see one another again.

First of all, it's too bad Jim didn't discover this hidden feature of the Autodoc two years ago. Then he could have crawled into it, gone back to sleep and he wouldn't have had to ruin Aurora's life!

Secondly, is there really just ONE Autodoc on the entire ship? One for all five thousand passengers and two hundred fifty crew members? That seems unlikely. I hope two people never get sick at the same time!

Third, what if Jim and Aurora took turns in the med-pod? Jim could get in it for a year, they could spend a week together, then Aurora could get in for a year. If they traded off like that they'd age forty four years instead of eighty eight. Still not a great solution, but at least they'd still be alive when they reached Homestead II, and get to spend a little bit of time there.

That would be a practical solution though, not a romantic one, so it can't be considered.

• Andy Garcia must have one hell of an agent. He's billed fifth in the credits, despite the fact that he doesn't show up until the final thirty seconds of the film, and has absolutely zero lines. 

I'm honestly struggling to understand why they bothered to cast a recognized actor in this tiny bit part in the first place. They could have easily put the studio's night watchman in a uniform and stuck him in front of the camera and no one in the audience would have ever known the difference. 

Was this originally a bigger part that got cut down to nothing?

Passengers could have been an interesting psychological tale if it'd had the guts to stick to its premise, but unfortunately it wimps out and becomes a standard, mediocre sci-fi tale. Skip it and watch The Shining again instead. I give it a C.

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