Passengers (2016)

(On Cable TV, July 2017) Hmmm. As much as I’d like to like Passengers a lot, there a bit too much nonsense, mismatched tones and wasted opportunities to be entirely comfortable with the result. On the one hand, I do like that it’s an original Science-Fiction movie (for Hollywood values of “original”, which is to say one that only has half a dozen predecessors in print SF) and one that’s slickly made: the setting is terrific, and the film has the budget to fully presents its environment. I love the first half-hour, in which a man wakes up alone in a gigantic spaceship, 90 years from its destination: With a bit of tweaking, it could stand in for the first section of an adaptation of Allen Steele’s terrific short story “The Days Between”. Chris Pratt is pretty good as the desperately alone protagonist, stuck in a nightmare caused by automated arrogance. Never mind that the plot doesn’t make a bit of real-world sense yet, because there’s more to come. The film becomes uglier as our protagonist decides to wake up a carefully chosen passenger, essentially dooming her to the same drawn-out death than him. That moral choice is not indefensible as a plot point, but it does set up expectations that are dashed when the film moves on to “but there was a catastrophe on the way, so it’s all OK!” as an excuse for his actions. A harsher conclusion would have made the gesture carry more weight, although it likely would have robbed Passengers of its mainstream appeal. There are quite a few logical and scientific errors later on, and they do sap the movie of its accumulated goodwill. Not much of the film’s problems can be blamed on its very short cast, though: Chris Pratt makes for a credible everyday man, and while we’re past peak-Jennifer Lawrence adulation, she’s rather good in a role that asks for some very dramatic moments. To be fair, I also liked Passengers a whole lot more watching it moment-by-moment than I would have expected by reading some of its harsher reviews—at times, the vitriol-versus-film ratio reminded me of the Prometheus episode, in which a slickly-made SF movie gets roasted for factors that don’t faithfully reflect the entire film. It’s also worth noting that what bothers people most about Passengers is an integral part of the film’s plot, and that it’s never avoided or downplayed. If this sounds like a half-hearted defence of the film, then I suppose it is—Passengers doesn’t have what it takes to be a great SF movie, but it definitely has its strong moments and haunting sequences. Passengers also shows, in many ways, how mass audiences are now willing to accept and play with concepts that used to be cutting-edge SF a few decades ago—as much as I can quibble with the errors, the distasteful nature of its premise or the way it plays safe, it’s also a polished piece of space-set SF the likes of which I’d like to see more often.

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