Release: Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Written by: Jon Spaihts
Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Morten Tyldum is a Norwegian director who has been on the fast-track to success ever since bursting on to the world stage in 2011 with his critically acclaimed Headhunters, an action thriller based upon a novel by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø and featuring a Scandinavian cast. He’s never looked back since. From there he made a movie based upon the life and achievements of British mathematician Alan Turing, the 2014 Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game in which Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed the father of what we recognize today as artificial intelligence. Two years later Tyldum finds himself collaborating with two of the world’s most box office-friendly stars in Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence on a romantic/science fiction adventure called Passengers.
With each subsequent venture behind the camera, Tyldum has increasingly found himself surrounded by luxuries filmmakers the world over could only dream of one day having for themselves, if only just for one project. He has a knack for attracting big names and turning profits. There’s little doubt Tyldum has been privileged — so much so that it’s difficult to gauge how deserving he is of his status. His big-budget blueprints are going to endure, despite them lacking personality or any sense of novelty, unlike something produced by the likes of, say, Christopher Nolan, a household name who routinely challenges his audiences to, god forbid, use their brains while rummaging through buckets of popcorn. By comparison, Tyldum’s meteoric rise feels less justified.
Mainstream filmmaking at its most indistinguishable is the best way I know how to describe his oeuvre, and Passengers all but confirms the director has no intention of suppressing the urge to pander to the masses, especially when it is to the tune of $130 million in global receipts in less than three weeks. His new film is essentially Titanic set in space, but with a moral twist (or is that, a twisted sense of morality?) — the only element that differentiates this interstellar adventure from a plethora of other doomed-vessel melodramas. Tyldum’s latest posits that people need people, that we have not been created to exist alone. It’s a theme well worth exploring, but once again I found the same generic, unexciting direction that robbed The Imitation Game of its potential similarly blunting the cutting edges of Passengers‘ would-be high-brow narrative. What could have been thought-provoking is instead estimated as “something audiences should really go for.”
The story is about a mechanical engineer named Jim Preston (Pratt) who wakes up 30 years into a 120-year voyage between Earth and a colonial planet in a distant galaxy. He is among the 5,000 passengers board the starship Avalon, blissfully sleeping away the years until they reach Homestead II, along with another some 200 crew members. A computer glitch causes Jim to awaken from suspended animation and when he realizes what has happened he sets about trying to solve the problem rationally rather than panicking or wallowing in despair, with the faintest aroma of Ridley Scott’s The Martian arising in the opening stanza. A year passes and Jim is unsuccessful in getting back to sleep, although he strikes up a “friendship” with a cyborg bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen). Unable to share an authentic human relationship with Arthur, Jim starts to slip into the despair he has spent a long time trying to avoid.
That is until he comes across a pod containing an Aurora Lane (Lawrence), whom he learns about via a digital portfolio explaining her background as a writer in New York City. He even becomes familiar with her personality from his investigations. He visits her pod frequently, reading about her and imagining what it would be like to have someone else to share in what will in all likelihood be the remainder of his life on board the Avalon. He struggles mightily with the decision to wake her up, which would necessarily and similarly doom her to a premature death.
The morality play is made fascinating because of the star power Tyldum has been afforded. The leads prove why they are paid what they’re paid as they breathe life into a robotic screenplay. The establishing first third sets the stakes high and Pratt makes it easy for us to buy that Jim really doesn’t want to use his engineering prowess to effectively murder a fellow passenger. And it’s kind of a brave new world watching Pratt embody a character who ultimately isn’t very likable. Lawrence isn’t at her best as Aurora, yet it’s something of a miracle she turns a snobby, self-aggrandizing writer who values prestige over anything else into a person we end up wanting to actually succeed. But for my money, the underrated Michael Sheen makes the most compelling argument for what makes us human, playing the part of some futuristic vision of The Overlook Hotel barkeep in whom a steadily unraveling Jack Torrence frequently confided. Arthur hasn’t been wired to keep secrets. He doesn’t know how to lie or judge. The android offers a contrast that imbues Passengers with the humanity its poorly written flesh-and-blood characters, or at least Jim’s troubling actions, do not.
Unfortunately it’s those sorts of stereotypes and broad statements that could come to define Tyldum as the most recent example of a foreign director making one too many compromises. Six films deep into a directorial career with only a third of them being English-language features, he’s already ‘gone Hollywood.’ He has no distinctive voice. No masterful, inventive way of presenting his Big Movies’ Big Themes. Nor does he frame his stories in ways we have never experienced before. Passengers only gets weaker and more familiar as it plods onward to a thoroughly disappointing action-packed finale, when the Avalon’s technical malfunctions become more frequent and more serious and as Jim and Aurora put aside their differences in order to work to find a solution together.
The destination, such as it is, is so underwhelming (and so expected) it begs the question as to whether the film needed to dive into the morality play at all. Aurora stays mad at Jim for a long time, perhaps even an appropriate amount of time, but the film seems to equate a broken tether with a broken heart. The denouement is not only lazy, it’s disingenuous. It made me long for the pure innocence and the schmaltz of Jack and Rose’s forbidden love. The melodramatics are as damaging to the intellectual constitution of the story as the asteroid is to the ship’s computers and reactors.
Debating the merits of the finale is pointless really because it’s clear Tyldum isn’t in this for the art of storytelling. The Avalon is one of the more visually pleasing spacecraft we’ve seen in some time and the thick ribbons of stars across a canvas of black has rarely looked so beautiful and yet so terrifying. I could write love letters to Passengers‘ production design. There’s a sleekness that cannot be overlooked, that only a film built on this kind of money can provide. The more cynical side of me, the part that enjoys thinking while watching, can’t help but feel Tyldum is making a bid for becoming the most Hollywood-friendly foreign-born director in history. Honestly, that’s not the worst thing in the world. There’s nothing amoral about making a lot of money doing something you love.
Recommendation: I think it says something that the most interesting ‘character’ in the film is the spaceship Avalon. The luxury space liner is a thing of beauty. Passengers is a senses-stimulating film, aggressively so when it comes to the visual elements. It’s a gorgeously rendered production, but it lacks the soul and conviction needed to carry the weight the story deserves. And while I’m not as upset about the implications of the way Jim’s actions are basically excused by film’s end as others have been, I understand where the anger is coming from. This is like Titanic set in space, with Rose suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and instead of Jack being a swell fella, he’s actually a selfish jerk. If you just read that one line and that’s all you knew about the film, then Passengers sounds pretty interesting. And maybe it will be to those who have a stronger tolerance for formulaic blockbusters.
Running Time: 116 mins.
Quoted: “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him.”
All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.