Plot leaves Pas­sen­gers adrift

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

In one of the best of his time­less come­dies, The Nav­i­ga­tor (1924), Buster Keaton finds him­self and the girl he loves all alone on a large ocean liner drift­ing to­wards an un­known des­ti­na­tion. That, in essence, is the plot of Pas­sen­gers, a sci-fi movie with a great cen­tral idea but no no­tion of how to pro­pel the premise to a sat­is­fac­tory con­clu­sion.

That premise kicks off some time into the fu­ture when an over­pop­u­lated and en­vi­ron­men­tally di­min­ished Earth is clearly no longer the best place to live (“over­priced, over­pop­u­lated and over­rated” is the mantra). Wel­come, then, to Avalon, a star­ship car­ry­ing 5000 pay­ing pas­sen­gers and a crew of 255 on a voy­age into the far reaches of outer space where a planet with all the req­ui­sites to sus­tain life as we know it is be­ing colonised by an en­ter­pris­ing cor­po­ra­tion.

Known as Home­stead II (we’re not told what hap­pened to I), this nir­vana prom­ises a won­der­ful new life for those coura­geous souls will­ing to make the trip — and it’s quite a trip. The jour­ney is planned to take 120 years, fly­ing on au­topi­lot, and all the pas­sen­gers and crew are placed in a state of sus­pended an­i­ma­tion, sleep­ing their way into the fu­ture un­til the sys­tem will awaken them four months be­fore touch­down. That, at any rate, is the plan — but an un­ex­pected me­teor storm has dam­aged the Avalon in ways that only grad­u­ally will be­come ev­i­dent. Surely the sci­en­tists and engi­neers of the fu­ture would have fac­tored in me­teor storms? It seems pretty ba­sic, but of course in this case with­out the storm there wouldn’t be a movie.

It’s the me­teor strike that causes Pod 1498, con­tain­ing en­gi­neer Jim Pre­ston (Chris Pratt), to mal­func­tion 30 years into the jour­ney, re­leas­ing him into the vast in­te­rior of Avalon, which is set up like an elab­o­rate cruise ship, com­plete with a bar, fancy res­tau­rant, gym, swim­ming pool, video cen­tre — ev­ery­thing you could want (no casino, though — that seems strange) even though it’s all go­ing to be un­used for an­other 90 years. The res­tau­rant wait­ers are ro­bots, but the bar has a bar­tender, an avun­cu­lar an­droid named Arthur (Michael Sheen) who is Jim’s only com­pan­ion. Arthur, who looks alarm­ingly like the bar­tender in The Shin­ing, is sym­pa­thetic, un­der­stand­ing, amus­ing — and has a seem­ingly un­lim­ited sup­ply of al­co­hol of all kinds at his dis­posal.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the out­side world seems im­pos­si­ble; a mes­sage to Home­stead HQ elic­its the re­sponse that the ear­li­est re­ply may take 55 years (“Apolo­gies for the de­lay,” says the friendly robot voice). By this time Jim has checked out the other un­con­scious pas­sen­gers in their pods and Aurora (Jen­nifer Lawrence) has caught his at­ten­tion. How won­der­ful it would be to have her as a com­pan­ion. His dilemma is an acute one; he faces an­other 90


years alone, yet if he awak­ens Aurora, like the hand­some prince awak­ened Sleep­ing Beauty, he will have a com­pan­ion but will deny her the life she had planned for her­self.

Af­ter some ag­o­nis­ing, and help­ful in­put from Arthur, he makes his de­ci­sion. This is the key scene in the film, al­though you can’t help feel­ing that a stronger ac­tor than Pratt may have given Jim’s dilemma the Ham­let-like di­men­sion it surely re­quires.

So now there are two, but screen­writer Jon Spai­hts seems not to know where to pro­ceed from there. That there will be a love story goes with­out say­ing; a “date” in the res­tau­rant (amus­ingly, Aurora is a Gold Class pas­sen­ger and so is able to ac­cess a higher stan­dard of food than Jim) and a space walk. But it seems the com­mer­cial de­mands and ex­pec­ta­tions of a scifi movie call for a big cli­max, so the Avalon be­gins to mal­func­tion in dra­matic ways and it’s up to Jim, Aurora and a briefly res­ur­rected crew mem­ber (Laurence Fish­burne) to save the day.

These scenes, apart from a strik­ing se­quence in a swim­ming pool dur­ing a loss of grav­ity, are han­dled with sur­pris­ingly lit­tle ten­sion by Nor­we­gian di­rec­tor Morten Tyl­dum, who came to promi­nence with his Jo Nesbo adap­ta­tion, Head­hunters (2011), and who made the ex­cel­lent Enigma drama, The Imi­ta­tion Game (2014). With Pas­sen­gers, labour­ing un­der the bur­den of a vast Hol­ly­wood bud­get, su­per­stars and high con­cept, he seems to have lost his way.

While not wish­ing to give away the fairly pre­dictable plot de­vel­op­ments, I should men­tion that the film’s fi­nal scene — with its mo­men­tary con­tri­bu­tion from Andy Gar­cia — is one of the sil­li­est con­clu­sions to a movie in quite a while. Still, it all looks good — there is fine pho­tog­ra­phy by Rodolfo Pri­eto — and Law- Al­lied rence, though gowned in the most un­likely wardrobe, is an ac­tress ca­pa­ble of bring­ing depth to the most con­ven­tional roles. She gives Pas­sen­gers a dis­tinc­tion it hardly de­serves. I’ve de­layed writ­ing about Robert Ze­meckis’s World War II spy melo­drama, Al­lied, which opened on Box­ing Day, be­cause, frankly, I hardly know what to make of it. Any mod­ern film that con­tains the line “I’ve loved you since Casablanca” is surely beg­ging for com­par­i­son with one of the supreme ex­am­ples of Hol­ly­wood at its finest, but you can be sure that Brad Pitt and Mar­ion Cotil­lard are no sub­sti­tutes for Humphrey Bog­art and In­grid Bergman.

The ac­tors play Max, a French Cana­dian, and Mar­i­anne, an el­e­gant Parisi­enne, who meet in Casablanca in 1942 where they’ve been as­signed to pose as hus­band and wife and carry out the as­sas­si­na­tion of the Ger­man am­bas­sador in this cor­ner of French North Africa. Of course they fall in love dur­ing the as­sign­ment and, af­ter es­cap­ing — with un­be­liev­able ease — back to Eng­land, they marry. But, and of course there’s a but, is Mar­i­anne who she claims to be?

Ze­meckis has made some en­ter­tain­ing films dur­ing a long ca­reer (among them the Back to the Fu­ture tril­ogy and For­rest Gump), but he seems strangely dis­en­gaged here while the screen­play by Stephen Knight (writer-di­rec­tor of the su­perla­tive Locke) is undis­tin­guished. The film fails to con­vince in so many ways, start­ing with the ini­tial meet­ing be­tween Max and Mar­i­anne in a patently ar­ti­fi­cial stu­dio set of the fa­mous Moroc­can city (the sets in Casablanca were pretty ob­vi­ous, too, but that was an­other era). Once the ac­tion shifts to Eng­land, it all be­comes even less be­liev­able. This is a wartime Lon­don in which few seem to pay any at­ten­tion to the strictly en­forced black­out re­stric­tions; where tele­phones have a sin­gle ring, Amer­i­can style, rather than the dou­ble ring used in Bri­tain; where whisky and other forms of al­co­hol seem to be in plen­ti­ful sup­ply; and where a les­bian cou­ple openly kiss and cuddle in a way that would have been un­think­able then.

It’s as though no­body re­ally cared about mak­ing the film con­vinc­ing on the most ba­sic level, so the temp­ta­tion is to tune out. It rather looks as though Pitt did just that — his per­for­mance here is the most per­func­tory I’ve seen him give. Cotil­lard, on the other hand, does her best with the ris­i­ble ma­te­rial, but — like Lawrence in Pas­sen­gers — de­serves a whole lot bet­ter. She has a line in the film, “I keep the emo­tions real — that’s how it works”, but con­vinc­ing emo­tions are among the first ca­su­al­ties of this lack­lus­tre af­fair.

Mar­ion Cotil­lard and Brad Pitt in the lack­lus­tre

Chris Pratt and Jen­nifer Lawrence in Pas­sen­gers

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