Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review: "Passengers"

“Passengers” is a lot cleverer and more contemplative than I took it for.

The trailers make it look like a dopey romance-in-space story starring the ridiculously cute couple of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. They’re two passengers on a massive colonization ship from Earth who get woken up from hyper-sleep 90 years too early, and have to face the prospect of their own mortality while falling head-over-heels in love -- quite literally, in zero gravity suits.

Talk about the ultimate Meet Cute: “They found love along the way to a galaxy far, far away.”

Instead, director Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”) and screenwriter Jon Spaights (“Doctor Strange”) give us something more ambitious and much darker. The syrupy love story is still there, but it’s leavened with moral quandaries and existential threats. The last act is pretty typical we-must-save-the-world action sequences, but what comes before sets it up convincingly.

Their ship is headed to a lush green planet across the cosmos. The Homestead II looks a lot like the ship in “Wall•E” -- a luxury ocean liner in space, with robots to cater to their every need. Except the 5,000 passengers and 258 crew are only supposed to wake up when they’re four months out from their destination.

Something goes wrong with the hyper-sleep pods, and as it happens, the two most attractive people onboard wake up. Aurora Lane is a journalist who found her life on Earth constraining and hungered for adventure. Her idea was to travel to the colony, spend a year living there and write a book about it, then travel back again in hyper-sleep, so she’d end up 250 years into the future.

Jim Preston is a much more down-to-earth guy. A mechanic living on a planet where it’s cheaper to buy new things than fix old ones -- sound familiar? -- he yearns for a place where his skillset is valuable. He dreams of building his own house on a distant planetside.

Their only other real companion is Arthur, a legless bartender android played by Michael Sheen. All the other robots are mechanized automatons, but Arthur’s been programmed to listen and react to psychological issues. He’s even smart enough to recognize his limitations.

“These are not robot questions,” he cautions at one point.

After an appropriate amount of sorta-courtship, Jim and Aurora eventually abandon hopes of saving themselves and dive deep into their “accidental happiness.”

Now, something happens in this movie that I can’t really tell you about. I kind of want to, because it’s critical to our discussion of why “Passengers” is a superior sci-fi film. Although the plot development has apparently been alluded to and/or outright discussed in articles about the movie, I can’t assume you’ve read them. The trailers certainly don’t spell it out. So I’m bound by my oath as a respectable critic not to say anymore.

OK, stuff that. I’ll talk about it, but not before uncorking one standard-issue Spoiler Warning®. Please, skip down so as not to ruin your experience.

Ready? Alright, the deal is that Jim’s hyper-sleep pod really does go kerflooey, but after spending a good chunk of time alone trying all sorts things to save himself, including getting back to sleep, he deliberately wakes up Aurora on his own -- after studying her profile and becoming smitten. Also, she looks like Jennifer Lawrence.

Now, it may sound creepy that a guy would do this, effectively condemning another person to death long before they reach their destination, just so he won’t be alone. And it may sound even creepier that he chooses the hottest girl on the ship to satisfy his primordial male urges.

The reason this sounds creepy is because it’s incredibly creepy and gross. Hiding-cameras-in-the-toilet creepy and gross. But because Pratt projects such an innate decency, and because the filmmakers take pains to explore the depth of his despair, we at least understand his choice without condoning it.

(Personally, I’d have woken up the person whose profile said they were a scientist who knows a lot about hyper-sleep pods, but that’s me.)

End Spoiler Warning®. I’d have used bigger ones but hey, these things aren’t cheap!

For those just rejoining us, suffice it to say that “Passengers” is much more than it seems on the surface. It’s a smart and sexy movie that also has some deep thoughts beyond the pretty façade. It’s less Star Wars and more Philip K. Dick.

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