Passengers (2016) – 10 Intriguing Elements

This was supposed to be a free-writing exercise before I retire for the holiday season, but I can’t seem to allow myself to work without some sort of structure to it. It’s not a Top 10 list in the normal sense, but I simply had to do something, in regards to reviewing this film. So, without further ado, here are the ten things that I loved about Morten Tyldum’s Passengers—a delightful and moving holiday film—in no particular order…and, of course, free of any major spoilers:

1. Arthur (Michael Sheen). The previews conveyed this movie as being a dark one—well, grim and intense, at least. I didn’t expect to find levity for the more harrowing scenes in the robo—excuse me, android—bartender, Arthur, but there it was. His is a rather human character, full of witticisms and neat one-liners, as well as a few quotable moments. I’ve always loved Michael Sheen, and I was sure that the plot would come down to blows, as far as his character was concerned. But a lot about this movie proved my going-in assumptions wrong, and this was one of them. As we, as a species, move closer to the Final Frontier, such good humor will be more and more necessary to keep things light; leaving home is a big deal, and science-fiction filmmakers certainly recognize that, injecting it into their films as needed. Arthur is a new favorite supporting character, let alone a cybernetic one.

2. The titular passengers, themselves (Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt). These two were made for each other, on-screen. The characters they created—which weren’t a far removal from the types they usually play, but enough so to be different and fun—just meshed. It was fun to see their interplay, their wide arc of emotions, everything. Sexy, intelligent, and able, they truly embody the best of humanity and our engrained frontiersman spirit. Together, they face adversity and overcome—unlikely heroes, but just the two made for the situation at-hand. As for me, I’ll keep my boots safely ground-side, at least until we perfect interstellar flight…

3. The science, done right. This is what really excited me about this film. I’d read an article from Space.com that highlights some critical scenes from the film. It’s a comparison, really, between this and other “serious” sci-fi films—2013’s Gravity chief among them. All the cut-corners science in films like that are revised in this film, and the physical laws of space are—thankfully—as accurate as is humanly possible to mimic. Granted, the filmmaking techniques for this type of movie have grown considerably since 2013, but it’s the fact that the filmmakers went that extra mile to get it right and still make it appealing to casual audiences, while also having it work, visually. If you haven’t noticed by now, it takes a lot to thrill me these days, cinematically—especially where horror and sci-fi are concerned. When I come across a gem like Passengers and can reiterate what made me fall in love, you know the film’s been genuine in its attempt.

4. The danger is real! Most people on this Earth don’t think about what it would be like to die at the merciless, starry hands of deep space, mostly because they know that it will never be a concern for them. But (and without getting too grim), a large solar flare could wipe us out at any second—or, at least, knock our communications for a loop; a killer asteroid could decide that we’re in its way and make a pancake out of our planet; hell, we could even be next on the hit-list of some extraterrestrial juggernaut and not even know it. We live in this galaxy, this universe, and are at its mercy. That’s the issue that Tyldum and company tackle here—that people are, at their core, vulnerable and in need of each other to survive and overcome. Why do I devote my efforts and attention to science-fiction and the pondering of space? Because it is our last great hurdle as a civilization. If we can overcome—if we can have our mettle tested, as a species, and come out the other end stronger—then the stars will be ours for the taking.

5. The atmosphere. The aesthetic for the Avalon is creepy. Why? Because it’s so clean and thought-out. The virtual intelligence aboard is so nonchalant that it’s almost impartial, uncaring, towards those that depend upon it. It’s in the flowing, organic contours and the mirror sheen of the hull that make it enticing and terrifying at the same time. These people are truly aboard a sinking ship, and we feel that, as an audience. It’s what invested me in the film, that the atmosphere and sense of urgency in overcoming each obstacle is made paramount. The sets are beautifully-predatory; each turn offers up a new danger as the ship loses more and more control of its faculties, and one could meet an end just as quickly from drowning in zero-gravity water globules as being sucked through a grapefruit-sized hole in the hull. It’s literally James Cameron’s Titanic in outer space…but the iceberg is already aboard the ship.

6. “In space, no one can hear you…” Gasp. This is an intense film, to be sure. These unfortunate folks are alone. This is not a realization that’s leveled with easily, and we see that. Every corridor and room is confining, and the internal framing on the filmmakers’ part is expert in conveying this. Despite how freeing this pioneering venture is supposed to be, it’s still a one-way trip they’re making—whether or not they survive to make it to their destination, or get overtaken by the vacuum that is striving to kill them in new and creative ways every second. It’s almost Lovecraftian, this film, in its presentation; we want to make our mark on the infinite blackness, but we are hopelessly unprepared to shoulder the weight of that desire.

7. Speaking of calls to other sci-fi… This movie is full of references and nods to beloved science-fiction classics, both old and new. There are echoes of Ridley Scott’s Alien in the clean aesthetic of the Avalon’s interior, the scope and scale of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and the self-wrought “sinking ship” feeling embodied in Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (not to mention Laurence Fishburne’s appearance in both films), just to name a few. That Jon Spaihts—the writer of 2012’s controversial Prometheus and this year’s acclaimed Doctor Strange—lent his imagination to the project made it allthemore exciting. Both films had a scope unheard of in other films of their respective franchises, and I can’t help but think that part of that was due to the unique creativity inherent in his screenwriting.

8. The visuals. Unfortunately, the gate between us and the Frontier is barred, for the time-being, but that doesn’t mean we can’t bring the Frontier to Earth. Computer-generated visuals in the past decade, alone, have become much more refined, and the latest result in that long pursuit of nigh-perfection is Passengers. The backdrops in this film are stunning, to say the least, and really give one watching a sense as to just how alone these two characters are in the void. A lot of the set is built by hand, which I always praise, but it’s a marvel to see how far we’ve come in regards to CGI in recent years. It’s sci-fi—along with the unstoppable juggernaut that is superhero films—that showcases this attribute of filmmaking best, and where we can expect its next great advances. With the help of surveyors such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the creative minds of genre moviemakers, the sky isn’t the limit anymore.

9. Relatable characters. “All movies want us to feel, or to think,” a wise professor of mine once said. “The best want us to do both.” I’m gratified to have found such relatability to the circumstances befallen Lawrence and Pratt’s characters. They both need and want each other. They feel heartbreak, betrayal, and an overwhelming sense of gravity towards one another, as they realize that neither one is making it out of their predicament alive without help from the other. It is through that plight that they truly come to know what it means to be human, accept their limitations and each other’s, and become unsung heroes to everyone else aboard—but not without the due trials. Characters that remind me of where I’ve come from or make me look forward to where I’m going just invest me that much more in a film. Kudos, Tyldum and company, kudos.

10. The key to the “comeback market”. It’s not a term coined by any professor or film theoretician, but neither is “market saturation”. It’s common sense: too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and nowhere is this more evident than in the entertainment industry—superhero films aren’t there quite yet, but it’s coming. Ask anyone. Science-fiction and horror, especially, have become largely-stagnant genres since the turn of the century, but they’ve brought it upon themselves. That’s why I so look forward to each new sci-fi venture that seems even a bit intriguing (see my review of Arrival for more on that) and continue to hold out hope for a truly astonishing horror film. Perhaps The Bye Bye Man or another, later film in 2017 can finally deliver that to me, with the promise of many a psychological thriller and sci-fi epic coming in the New Year of movie-going ahead. We shall see where these genres go in the years to come, but for sci-fi, at least, there’s a glimmer of hope that recent releases such as Arrival and Passengers can reinvigorate their genre—spark new inspiration in the minds of wishful, young writers. This is certainly their time to shine.

Next review: A Monster Calls (Jan. 6th)

Written by Evan Kern

Just a twenty-something filmie trudging through adulthood. Taking it day by day, movie by movie. Words are life...

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