Thursday, 5 January 2017

Zero gravity: "Passengers"

Passengers, Hollywood's idea of grown-up sci-fi for the holiday season, turns out to be mostly fancy packaging. It has a couple of the hottest (and, crucially, most bankable) stars of our moment, in Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt; they're working under the gaze of a newly Oscar-nominated director (in Morten Tyldum, late of The Imitation Game), and to a screenplay from the increasingly prominent (and bankable) scribe Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange); and it all takes place on a gleamingly designed spacecraft - in essence, an interstellar cruise ship - on which it might well be fun to spend a couple of hours, if not a couple of months. What more could you want? 

It has a functioning first act, at least. Aboard the good ship Avalon, carrying some two thousand cryogenically stored migrants from an overpopulated Earth to the colony planet of Homestead II, Jim Preston (Pratt) is awakened by a dramatic meteor storm. To his creeping dismay, he realises he is the only passenger to have been roused from his slumbers - a troubling malfunction, given that the craft is a full ninety years from its ultimate destination. This early stretch is thus somewhat like I Am Legend crossed with The Martian, striving to solve the problem of cosmic solitude: after absorbing this initial existential blow, Jim takes refuge in the ship's not inconsiderable leisure resources, shooting hoops and dining at the top table, enjoying post-prandial confabs with android bartender Michael Sheen. 

Pratt, still testing the parameters of his stardom, brings to this task some of the clownish distractibility he displayed in his breakthrough role as the puppyish Andy Dwyer on TV's Parks & Recreation: it's quite a good gag that, left entirely alone, Jim should revert to the same slobbishness in space that he might fall into back home, cultivating a beard-and-beergut combo with which to catch all his complimentary food and drink. It is, it transpires, crucial that our hero should start to resemble Robinson Crusoe - a man helplessly, indefinitely cast away - for one day, just over a year into his seclusion, he stumbles across a potential girl Friday in the form of Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a writer making the same trip, but still very much sealed in transit. Here is someone a man might shave and shape up for, and in setting Jim to ponder pushing the release button, Spaihts and Tyldum are surely framing a more specific question for their audience: what if you had the chance to spend some quality alone time with Jennifer Lawrence? Would you take it?

The resulting fantasy - for that's what we're dealing with here - has been decried as creepy and stalkerish, and these would be valid criticisms if the film were anything other than flimsy to its core; if it were of our world, rather than merely a shit-hot pitch left to balloon outwards in the L.A. sun. (A more valid criticism: Passengers is a film that demonstrates exactly how far out of touch Tinseltown has become from the rest of the galaxy.) Unlike, say, 2009's Moon, which took time to consider what it might be for a man to find himself lost in space, Tyldum's film is all chicanery: it's just not interested in the ethics of altering the trajectory of another person's life (or about lying to her when you do). This questionable meet-cute is simply presented as the answer to a plot problem, a way for Spaihts to keep the movie wheels spinning for a full 120 minutes.

What follows has the look of four or five movies in one, none of them especially well developed. The second act is zero-gravity skylarking, eagerly watching Pratt suit up and Lawrence strip down to her lingerie, and thereby encouraging us to think: golly, don't they make a swell couple? Well, sorta, although Tyldum's direction takes a turn for the sappy around this juncture, pitching the pair into the cosmos on a zipwire, egging on Thomas Newman's florid orchestrations, and heavily insinuating that this one giant leap into the unknown is Very Much Like Falling in Love. (The courtship scenes are where Passengers starts to resemble Solaris, albeit a Solaris itself taken out of the deep freeze a good ninety years too soon: it gets drippy.)

Anybody who's made the mistake of keeping their brain running will be wondering why these two grown adults seem to take endless delight in the onboard kids' stuff - the dance games! the unlimited cereal refills! - and whether a writer such as Aurora wouldn't start to tire of spending her afternoons inside a giant floating Dubai. (That said, the extracts we hear of her intergalactic magnum opus don't exactly suggest a great, inquiring mind.) As a pared-down vision of the sexes operating in isolation, the material is never as barbed or as funny as TV's The Last Man on Earth, its tone limited by the commercially desirable certificate - a stricture that also neuters any horror we might feel when Aurora wakes up for a second time, this time to Jim's fateful actions back in the holding bay.

Nothing here could be used to refute the notion that, above a certain budgetary level and beyond the business-as-usual domain of the franchises, the studios are now only interested in turning out extended Twilight Zone episodes, purged of the moral and philosophical grist that might keep an audience up at night. The assumption is that we're here solely for a good time - and yet, by constantly redrafting the rules of its own game (some might say cheating), Passengers can't even deliver that. Spaihts can evidently run you off plot by the yard, like ribbon, and there are passages here that suggests a facility for tying it in bows - there's always some crisis going on or being neatly resolved - but once unpicked, there's just nothing here we might usefully take into the New Year with us. Hold onto your receipts.

Passengers is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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