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We Need to Talk about “Passengers”

January 4, 2017


The makers of Passengers are lucky that I posted my list of the year’s 10 worst movies before I subjected myself to their atrocity in an act of New Year’s desperation: There were no other films playing near me that I hadn’t seen and weren’t cartoons, Assassin’s Creed or Why Him? But why me? Why couldn’t have an assassin spared me of this torture?

Full disclosure: I thought Passengers looked terrible from its trailer alone. What I didn’t know (major spoilers ahead… but can you really spoil something this rotten?) is that the trailer is horribly misleading: The actual movie is even worse. First of all, Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t even wake up for the first 30 minutes. That leaves Chris Pratt wandering around a spaceship, having awakened 90 years too early, with only a robotic bartender played by Michael Sheen — who seems more human than Pratt, by the way — for company. I don’t think Pratt even had to act in the scenes when he’s weightless; the guy’s got no natural gravity, no gravitas. For the first half hour, Passengers plays like 2016: A Space Idiocy.

Then J. Law finally wakes up… or I should say, Pratt wakes her up. He’s been stalking her for a year as she lies comatose in suspended animation and falls so deeply in love with her that he has to rouse her, thus ensuring she’ll die before reaching the vaunted planet Homestead 2, a kind of do-over for Earth. (I wish they’d done a do-over for Jon Spaihts’ script.) But Pratt doesn’t tell J. Law he woke her up, and she falls in love with him… until the robo-barkeep spills the beans. It’s never really explained why a robot would be on duty when no customers are expected to turn up for another nine decades, but that’s the least of this story’s problems.

J. Law gets pissed, understandably, for Pratt having essentially “murdered” her, but along comes Laurence Fishburne as a kind of “Magical Negro,” as Spike Lee dubbed characters like The Green Mile‘s Michael Clarke Duncan and The Legend of Bagger Vance‘s Will Smith whose sole function is to help white people realize their dreams. Fishburne’s captain suddenly wakes up, gets sick and dies… but not before convincing these two crazy kids they can’t live without each other.

So J. Law forgives Pratt and decides not to go back to sleep because she wants to spend the rest of her life with him… alone on a spaceship. We’re supposed to see them like Jack and Rose on the Titanic, star-crossed lovers on a doomed ship, but Passengers plays more like a pro-Stockholm Syndrome propaganda film. The woman exists only as a subordinate to the man, to satisfy his desires — no matter she’s a gifted writer who’ll never live to see her greatest story read by anyone other than him.

Even an Oscar winner like J. Law can’t make this story believable. She’s mainly used as a prop, often stripping down to a swimsuit (although Pratt gets the obligatory butt shots) and ending up in a soaked tank top. Is this a movie or a wet t-shirt contest?

Passengers was poorly directed by Morten Tyldum, who earned an Oscar nomination last year for The Imitation Game. That seems apt, since this feels like an imitation of better films like Gravity and The Martian. (Hell, even Interstellar was less ludicrous.) The special effects and music appear to have been lifted from Battlestar Galactica — the 1970s version. The script once languished on “Black List,” the annual rundown of allegedly great screenplays that haven’t been filmed. This one should’ve stayed on the Black List. Or in a black hole.

In space, no one can hear you scream. But in the theater where I saw Passengers, everyone could hear me scream with scornful laughter at one of the most inept films I’ve endured in this or any other year.

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  1. I’m a screenwriter myself, and the Black List is as politically driven as the Oscars. I’m not saying good scripts don’t place on it (and often good scripts make for terrible films), but the way the Black List works is a screenwriter’s reps basically nag creative execs across town into voting for a given spec. Like the Oscars, it’s all about campaigning. And the irony is that very few of the development executives that actually vote have even read any of those screenplays; more often that not, they’ve merely perused the coverage. Because in Hollywood, if other people seem to like something, then I like it, too — but not before it’s already got some heat on it. It’s all a popularity contest; merit has little if anything to do with it.

  2. Thank you for this review — I’ll definitely be staying away from this movie!

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