Plot leaves Passengers adrift
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
A SCI-FI MOVIE WITH A GREAT CENTRAL IDEA BUT NO NOTION OF HOW TO PROPEL IT TO A CONCLUSION
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