Okay now that the excitement around the Christmas Blockbusters has given way to awards season I just want to compare the two films I saw on two consecutive nights at different cinemas, and explain why I preferred Passengers.
I’m aware that this is not a popular opinion and I don’t say it for the sake of ruffling nerd feathers. After watching Passengers I was left with a more positive experience and so have thought about why this is. Allow me to unpack what seems to be an absurd and controversial stance.
First thing to note is that I avoided the trailers and reviews. I try to have as little expectation as possible when watching a film. This is to all intents and purposes impossible.
I grew up with Star Wars and loved the first trilogy (had the original VHS boxset, upgraded to gold when they recut them). I even went to the premiere of Phantom Menace and was too young to know the difference. Lapped it up I did, bought a little Jar Jar toy to sit in my collection along with the rest. I didn’t watch the ones after that and left the memory alone until last year when I watched The Force Awakens – which I found to be perfectly fine, entertaininglike but I felt like I’d grown out of it but this was a welcome nostalgic kick.
Now Passengers I think you can safely judge from the poster, the principal cast and its release date. Pit against Star Wars it shows a kind of hopelessness, a cinematic runt that is taking one for the team. Perhaps intended to provide an alternative, and yet it is another science fiction film set in space. But this looks to be a lot plainer, more vacuous and less threatening. It has the charm and allure of its pretty, funny cast – it seems familiar and unchallenging. A comfort film.
A customer had come in recently asking to see a film. Star Wars? No, not that kind of film What kind of film? What Genre? Just a normal film. No genre. This was said in ernest immediately before booking tickets to see Passengers. And it is only in hindsight that I understand what they were trying to say and somewhat share this line of thinking.
Star Wars is an entire cinematic universe, it has been released across half a century and has such rich detail, such realised worlds that each film reveals more and more of that which we don’t know. There is such fandom attached to it as there is the ability for one to get lost in a single facet or character, such as the guy with the ice-cream maker Willrow Hood. It is this ridiculous level of information that I think becomes overwhelming to the layman.
Although Rogue One is bandied about as being a standalone film, it carries the weight of the oeuvre, you feel unfit to watch it without first taking research. Passengers feels like a film you could walk in half way through and not have to worry about missing anything. You could face the other way; or just sit near someone who once watched the trailer and get the gist. You could leave half an hour before the end and you will have certainly made it less problematic. It’s emptiness is inviting.
With Star Wars you’re aware that it has come in waves – the first revered, the second despised, and the third seeming to get back into full swing. With Disney involved and investing so much money as to monopolise Christmas for a few years, the epic scale of Rogue One is exciting, and you feel that excitement when taking your seat in a room full of all sorts of people. It feels like cinematic history that you are baring witness too. You can’t help but have some level of expectation.
Passengers I walked into with a lot more ease, with others who seemed to be out for a bit of fun. It’s a quintessential guilty pleasure film. Though R1 I feel far more guilty for not liking, like I’m being difficult for not accepting it.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
R1 you are thrown into head first, now in the non-canon without even the scroll of text. Within the first 10 minutes there are so many location changes that I was already lost, and then the onslaught of exposition sprayed out of every dialogue exchange. I was confused. For almost the entire film.
The most frustrating thing about this was that it felt like it had been watered down, that they were breaking everything down and laying it all out in front of me and I still didn’t know what to do with it. It feels both very simple and complicated simultaneously. It’s as though they have realised a plot within a detailed world of characters, and afraid of overwhelming the audience, especially the younguns, they spell out every action, every motive and intention, they title card every location, which I would accuse of being patronising if I could keep up with the fucking thing, which I couldn’t. I got the gist. I understood the scenes, and by the end it had come together.
It is so packed with explanations that it feels ridiculous and is made morseso by the seriousness with which it is delivered. Like Marvel films it’s universe entails a bizarre manner in which people speak to one other, something that I cannot get lost in despite my best efforts. It takes itself so seriously that I find I’m not allowed in.
Now Passengers is a whole different kettle of batshit. It gives you a by the book run down of the technology in this world and restates constantly each narrative progression. We actually watch the same sequence of events twice, just trading out Chris Pratt for Jennifer Lawrence. If R1 has watered down it’s plot than this is a homeopaths nightmare. It has two characters primarily. The third is a tool for exposition (The fourth I shall leave alone right now).
Passengers is about a colony of astronauts set to arrive at another planet in 90 years but a fault in the system has one passenger wake up too early from hypersleep, condemned to die alone. Spolier: he decides after a montaged year of trying to fix his pod, playing basketball and dancing, to wake up another passenger because she looks just like Jennifer Lawrence and he has fallen in love with her through her writing.
Although brimming with flaws and plot holes I could think of little changes to the story that I think would have made it a far more interesting and challenging film. There was enough breathing room in this chewing-gum-for-the-eyes movie that I was able to ponder the moral question at its core, to think about its implications, ways that I would have liked to see it play out or subverted.
What would have been interesting to me, would have been to have play out as a horror film. Most of the shots could even be kept the same. Even if the sound was muted completely, the appearance of Pratt in the back of the frame would become far more unsettling. As it stands the soundtrack was truly appalling. Scored with the default ringtones of a Blackberry, the sentiment felt hollow and misjudged. It instructed you to not think about the darkness of the character’s deception, to forgive and forget the most interesting part of the film.
The lack of exploration of these ideas reveals the values of the film and I think presents a disturbing message. A handsome and charming character does something heinous and creepy but is forgiven by way of his charisma. Perhaps this is a reflection of the status that accompanies celebrity or even presidency. Especially as it comes closer to the end of Obama’s final term, you realise the status attributed to these likeable figures and how they are so much more forgivable for their atrocities. Passengers seems to promote this idea though I don’t think it is intentional in the same way as The Wolf of Wall Street.
The exception to both films is comedy.
Passengers is fronted as a comedy but it isn’t funny. There is a chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence but it seems to be bleeding in from behind the scenes. On screen they are boring and not very funny. It’s actually closer to genreless than comedy in this respect, but it should have been a horror!
Now for all of Star War’s self-important seriousness, one of the best elements of the film was it’s few moments of comedy, and these were all provided by the android of this instalment K2. I think the reason he works so well is that he is ironically the most recognisably human character. He is flawed and delusional; super-intelligent and presents his knowledge sarcastically. C3P0 had a similar quirk, he had the capacity for millions of languages and yet bumbles, bickers and hesitates. Unlike most of the human characters who speak with this unreal, trite delivery.
The villains, mostly clad in black and with the angular movements of the Third Reich possess this mechanistic quality. And so it is these awkward hyper-intellectual androids, or cute animal-like little robots in R2D2 an BB8 that subvert the idea, they make the other familiar. And yet the humans remain puppets for the story spouting exposition riddled with the made up language of the world, being sure to explain each and every on the way.
I think I would have much preferred this film if there were no explanations. If I were left in the dark guessing at who was who, and instead just enjoying the spectacle of things going pyewn-pyewn and exploding.
The last act of the films is where they completely reversed. R1 had a beautifully unexpected fatalist ending. The way it linked up to the canon of films was satisfying and the last moments of the film in which you see Vader go full badass was great. Ending poignantly on the late Carrie Fischer. It wrapped up everything beautifully.
In the case of Passengers it took everything interesting about it’s conceit and undid its affect. Not only does the film want desperately to forgive Pratt’s character immediately after he has woken Lawrence, but the end of the film is engineered justso that he comes out as hero. It not only absolves him of his crime but explains it as necessary for everyone’s survival. That plus it throws in Laurence Fishburn, some plot holes and a deus ex machina plot device in the shape of a medipod. And how does Jlaw save Pratt’s life when she thinks it’s too late, she picks every resuscitation procedure available – she uses ALL THE SCIENCE. Lo and fucking behold…
This moment got laughs out loud from the crowd – but we knew what to expect going in. It was stupid but at least it was fun.
Since I wrote this Nerdwriter fixed the film! So simple: