101. Passengers (2016)

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the trailer for Passengers before almost every film I’ve seen for the last three months.  That’s okay, though, because I’ve been looking forward to it.  It made my list of 10 Fourth Quarter 2016 Films to Be Excited About for a reason, you know.  Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are both genuine movie stars and two of the most likable people in the entire industry.  Combine them with a unique concept and Passengers is likely to appeal to audiences of various demographics.

The basic premise is that 5000 people are put into a cryogenic sleep and sent off into space with the goal of colonizing a new inhabitable planet.  The trip is set to take 120 years, but two of the passengers, Chris Pratt’s Jim and Jennifer Lawrence’s appropriately-named Aurora are woken up 90 years too soon, with no way of re-inducing sleep.

I haven’t read any other full reviews of Passengers, yet. I tend to wait until I’ve seen and written about the film before I read other people’s detailed thoughts.  However, I saw that my favorite critic referred to the ending as “sexist” in the headline for his review, which surprised me a bit.  As a result, I was on the lookout for what could be interpreted as sexist towards the end of the movie.  I have to say . . . nothing obvious jumped out at me.  I can see where maybe someone could twist the events that take place into something that could be interpreted as such.  Maybe.  But it would really have to be forced.

The truth of the matter is that referring to the end as “sexist” is an incredibly reductive criticism of a fictional situation that is far more complex than most – even within the world of science fiction.  It’s impossible to know for sure what any of us would do in their places, much less what other people would and should do.  This seems to be a case of events being labeled as “sexist” because a woman makes decisions for herself based on her circumstances and not based on what forward-thinking society as a whole has unilaterally decided women should hold important.  Aurora is a strong character who has the same needs and desires as the rest of us.  She makes her own choices and then follows through on them without the need for approval from anyone else.  If Jennifer Lawrence – another strong woman – doesn’t find the film sexist, then I don’t see where I could.

Speaking of Jennifer Lawrence, she gives a natural performance that makes the hardest aspects of acting look easy.  It’s the best I’ve ever seen her.  Chris Pratt has had meatier roles (Star-Lord is going to be tough to top) but he plays his part perfectly.  Passengers is a two-person show and director Morten Tyldum picked the right two people.

The narrative is full of twists, turns, and reveals that unfold at a logical pace.  There are scenes of excitement, but I would hesitate to call the film an action movie.  But there’s a consistently building tension as it’s clear from the opening scene that something is happening in the background and the longer it goes unaddressed, the worse it’s going to be for our protagonists.  Where the film is most gripping is in its psychological component.  What would happen to a person, mentally and emotionally, in that situation?  It could go any number of ways and the film explores a couple of interesting paths.

The characters sometimes make utterly selfish decisions, yet it’s entirely understandable.  That doesn’t necessarily make it defensible, but certainly understandable.  And that’s the fun of the film.  There’s a depth and realism to the characters that grounds the film in reality, despite its fantastic premise.  There is one story beat that didn’t quite sit right with me, though.  Without spoiling it, I’ll say that it has pros and cons; it adds more depth to the characters and relationships and it also helps to avoid the trappings of a convenient yet overwhelming coincidence, but it’s also clichéd and the wait for the secret’s reveal temporarily takes priority over the film’s more pressing (and more interesting) practical problem at hand.  It feels like conflict for the sake of conflict and, though I appreciate where the filmmakers are coming from, I think the film would have been a little bit better off without this particular component.

Despite that single hiccup, Passengers is a pretty fun ride.  I enjoyed Chris Pratt, as always, and I enjoyed Jennifer Lawrence more than ever.  The questions raised by the premise are fascinating ones and are simultaneously fun and frightening to contemplate.  If I had to sum up the experience in terms of previous films, it plays much like a combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Titanic in terms of the concepts.  But the themes and characters are unique unto itself and are the true strength of the film.  There’s a lot of competition out there, right now, but Passengers should hopefully be able to hold its own – both creatively and financially – in the crowded marketplace.

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