A new year may have already started, but the films of 2016 will keep trickling into Rochester theaters throughout the next month. But while they make their way here, I'm still catching up on the massive number of new movies released over Christmas week (eight in total), including "Passengers," from director Morten Tyldum ("The Imitation Game").
The movie has been in development for years, in fact its script made it to the Black List -- the yearly survey naming the best unproduced screenplays currently making the studio rounds -- all the way back in 2007. "Passengers" is set aboard the starship Avalon, a ship making a 120-year journey to a new planetary settlement called Homestead II, when two of its thousands of passengers are awakened far too early.
The film would be a perfectly fine entry in the big-budget, sci-fi action genre, but there's an essential element of the basic premise that's been excluded from the film's marketing. This detail raises some intriguing moral questions that the filmmakers clearly don't know how to handle, as they settle for transitioning "Passengers" into a big, silly action movie to avoid actually dealing with them. But in order to get into some of these issues, I'm going to have to reveal some major plot points. So if you don't want the movie spoiled for you, read no further.
A malfunction in the ship's sleep chamber causes Jim (Chris Pratt) to be awakened 90 years before the Avalon reaches Homestead II. With the rest of the passengers and crew still in cryostasis, Jim knows he will end up dying long before reaching the ship's final destination. He tries everything he can to fix his situation, but is ultimately unsuccessful. He spends an entire year completely alone, save for an android bartender (Michael Sheen) that's his only companion. As desperation and loneliness eat away at him, Jim begins to consider suicide.
Then one day, he sees Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), another passenger still in her sleep chamber, and he's captivated by her. Reading her files and watching her personal videos, he learns that she's a journalist. Eventually Jim convinces himself that he's in love with her, so he decides to wake her up.
Jim spends time wrestling with this decision, knowing that waking Aurora up will doom her to the same fate that he was so desperate to avoid, but he goes ahead with it anyway. Once awakened, Aurora goes through the same desperation that Jim did a year prior, but eventually settles down, because at least they have each other.
For a time, Tyldum treats the film's premise with intelligence. As Jim and Aurora fall in love (not that they have many other options), we wonder how things will play out if she finds out their relationship is based on one unforgivable act. When she does eventually learn the truth -- not from Jim, but because Arthur accidentally tells her -- her reaction is given the proper seriousness. Aurora calls him a murderer, and she's absolutely right: Jim may have been desperate, but his ultimate decision amounts to "I don't want to die alone, so I'm making you die with me."
But then the film abruptly shifts gears. Unbeknownst to Jim and Aurora, crucial systems on the Avalon have continued to malfunction, spelling disaster for everyone on board. Suddenly the film becomes a race against time as the pair must work together to save the day. The film's interesting ethical questions are swept aside in favor of turning the plot into something much more conventional. These developments serve to negate Jim's terrible actions, but it's a cheat.
The character of Aurora is treated like a rat in a maze, as writer Jon Spaihts ("Doctor Strange") gradually closes off every narrative pathway available to her. From the moment Aurora learns about Jim's deception, everything about the plot is designed in a way to justify what he did and make her fall in love with him anyway. He may have cyber stalked her and manipulated her into spending eternity with him, but the film rewards him for his actions.
Worst of all, the film buys into Jim's belief that they're meant for one another. And because he's Chris Pratt, the audience is supposed to be ok with his. One audience member near me audibly gasped and whispered "Oh, Arthur..." when he lets Jim's secret slip, as though the robot was the one doing something wrong by cluing Aurora into the fact that her lover's a creep.
But Pratt and Lawrence are movie stars, and "Passengers" only works as well as it does because they're charming and appealing -- Pratt's charisma is the major reason that Jim doesn't immediately come across as a complete monster. It's always going to be at least somewhat enjoyable to watch gorgeous people do interesting things in gorgeously designed sets (and the production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas is pretty fantastic), but all that prettiness still can't cover up the film's inherent ickiness.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A review of "Hidden Figures" will be posted on Sunday, January 8.