Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Passengers (Columbia Pictures, L Star Capital, Village Roadshow Pictures, Sony, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Passengers, an absolutely marvelous movie made last year and one which was basically a twisted sort of love story with science-fiction trappings. Directed by Morten Tyldum from a script by Jon Spaihts (I’ve never heard of either of those people before and I have no idea how to pronounce Spaihts’ last name) and beautifully photographed by Rodrigo Prieto (him I’d heard of), Passengers is set aboard the spaceship Avalon, in a future in which Earth has reached the limit of its carrying capacity for the human race and a company called the Homestead Corporation is recruiting people to colonize other planets elsewhere in the universe (or at least within the Milky Way galaxy) and thereby spread humanity throughout other worlds. I suspect Spaihts got the idea from the way the United States got its first (white) inhabitants in the early 17th century; as a PBS program I saw some time ago about the Pilgrims pointed out, the early colonists — the British ones in particular — were bankrolled by the 17th-century equivalents of hedge funds and venture capitalists who staked the colonists the money they needed for the voyage and the supplies they would need to establish themselves once there in exchange for a share of the revenues the colonists would produce in farm products and whatever other income-producing activities they would perform.

The gimmick is that the journey from Earth to the planet “Homestead II” will take 120 years, and so the passengers will make most of the journey in hibernation, being kept in suspended animation throughout the 120 years of the voyage and awakened four weeks before arrival so they’d have a chance to get acclimated and learn to work together before they landed and started building the human community. Only, as anyone who’d seen 2001: A Space Odyssey or Planet of the Apes — the earliest science-fiction films I can think of which used the hibernation gimmick — would anticipate, something goes wrong: the ship runs into an asteroid belt, one of the asteroids hits it, and the impact damages the ship’s main computer and inadvertently sets off the dehibernation mechanism inside mechanical engineer Jim Preston’s (Chris Pratt) pod, thereby waking him up 90 years ahead of schedule. Preston spends about a year alone on the spaceship, growing progressively more alienated — he walks around naked a lot of the time (and we get a couple of nice shots of Pratt’s impressively muscular naked back — nothing full-frontal, alas: the filmmakers had a PG-13 rating to protect) and lets his beard grow, and the only companion he has is Arthur (Martin Sheen), the ship’s bartender (who’s really a robot who looks like a normal human being from the waist up but below that has only a metal framework on which he stands instead of actual legs) — until he reads through the logs on the other 5,000-plus passengers on the ship and decides that the one he’d most like as a companion is a young woman named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence).

Aurora is the daughter of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who believed that you had to have interesting adventures in real life to give yourself something to write about (and the list of his exploits Aurora rattles off when she wakes up makes him sound like Ernest Hemingway), and after a life of learning what her legendarily uncommunicative (at least in person) dad thought of her from the way he portrayed her in his books, he suddenly croaks at 17 and she gets on the Avalon with the intent of making the journey, living as a colonist for a year or so, then returning to Earth and writing her story 240 years after she left in the first place. (There’s an interesting clip she carries on her tablet computer — this future generation has come up with a spaceship that looks like a flying corkscrew so it can spin on its own axes and thereby generate artificial gravity, but its computers look pretty much like the ones we have now — showing her friends back on Earth bidding her goodbye and wishing her well even though they know they’ll be long dead by the time she returns.) Spaihts structures his script in three (or arguably four) discrete and discernible acts: Act I in which Jim comes to, realizes he’s doomed to die aboard the spaceship (since it’s still 90 years away from its destination and as a man in his 30’s he’s unlikely to make it that long), tries to rehibernate himself but his skills as a mechanical engineer aren’t good enough to do that, then gets progressively more alienated and more desperate for human companionship (and sex!) until he overcomes the better instincts of his nature and wakes up Aurora, even though that means consigning her to the same fate as he. Act II is the idyll Jim and Aurora have — including a whirlwind courtship aided by the fact that they’re the only ones there, which eventually makes it into the bedroom (oddly, an “Trivia” poster quoted Jennifer Lawrence as saying this is the first movie she’s made in which she’s actually shown having sex with someone, but the poster noted that she was wrong: there were two prior films in which Lawrence had sex scenes, Like Crazy and Serena). Act III is the one in which the idyll is blown when Aurora learns from Arthur the robot bartender — there was no real suspense as to whether she would learn, but only how she would find out and how she would react — that her hibernation pod did not fail spontaneously: Jim woke her up on purpose, thereby consigning her to the same fate as his, being marooned on a spaceship for the rest of her natural life.

And Act IV kicks off when yet a third person is unexpectedly awakened from hibernation: ship’s officer Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne, playing much the same role he played in the Matrices: the avuncular expert who clues the young leads on what’s happening to them and why), who suddenly appears out of nowhere and wonders what a tree is doing growing on the deck of his spaceship. (Jim planted it from the stores of baby trees that the colonists were supposed to use to terraform Homestead II, but it’s still a nice bit of visual surrealism to see it rooted to a metal surface.) Mancuso doesn’t last long — it’s quickly established that he’s already fatally ill when he’s revived — but he holds out long enough to clue Jim and Aurora that the failing hibernation pods are only the start of a cascading set of failures throughout the ship that jeopardize its very existence and the lives of the 5,000-plus people still aboard in functioning hibernation. Mancuso gives Jim and Aurora not only some sage advice but also his bracelet, which gives them the ID they need to go anywhere in the ship they need to fix it. (One thing I especially liked about Passengers is its satire on today’s status obsessions: as a first-class passenger Aurora could access any of the Starbucks-style coffee drinks offered by the ship’s vending machines, but as a third-class passenger Jim could only get plain coffee — and though he asked for cream and sugar, the machine obstinately served it to him black. The smarmy voice of actress Emma Clarke, who reads the instructions and tells Jim and Aurora where they may and may not go, sounds perfect, like every synthesized woman’s voice who’s ever annoyed you on a voicemail system.) They finally realize that the ship’s entire power plant is about to go critical and the only way to repair it is to go outside the ship to replace the main computer part, which was hit by that asteroid back in reel one, causing the cascade of failures, ranging from the breakfast vending machine spewing out a flood of Cheerios to the ship’s maintenance robots falling down to the artificial gravity suddenly failing and then resuming again — as happens to Aurora when she takes a dip in the ship’s swimming pool (which is built so one end of the pool is part of a viewing chamber that allows you to view space) and all of a sudden the pool’s water, no longer held down by gravity, rises up in a ball and encases her, threatening to drown her until … I was hoping Jim would come along, see her outstretched hand, and pull her out of the giant water ball to safety, but no-o-o-o-o: instead gravity suddenly resumes on its own, plunging both her and the water back in the pool while splashing its outer rim. (Later Jim takes a bone-jarring fall in mid-air when he’s caught in a sudden spell of weightlessness and then, equally suddenly, gravity resumes.)

Anyway, Jim repairs the ship’s computer but at the cost of his life — he dies when he runs out of oxygen in his spacesuit — but Aurora figures out a way to use the ship’s Autodoc to bring him back to life even though she doesn’t have the authorization to do that and has to use Mancuso’s ID to give the Autodoc the order to revive Jim. Later they realize that the Autodoc could be used to put someone in a state of simulated hibernation that could keep them alive as long as the real thing, and Jim offers to stay behind so Aurora can be put back in hibernation in the Autodoc and land with the other colonists 88 years hence on schedule (though one poster wondered why, on a ship with over 5,000 people, there was only one Autodoc). Aurora, however, turns down his offer and the two decide to remain alive and live out the rest of their lives on the spacecraft even though that means they will die without seeing another planet or any other humans. Then there’s a tag scene set 88 years later when the ship finally lands on Homestead II and the other passengers awaken from hibernation — and find a fully earth-like environment inside the vessel, left behind by Jim and Aurora so their lives aboard the Avalon could be as earth-like as possible. What both Charles and I were expecting that Spaihts and director Tyldum didn’t have happen was for Aurora to get pregnant — after all, she and Jim were having an awful lot of sex and there was no evidence they were using protection — and for the colonists at the end of the voyage to meet, not Jim and Aurora themselves, but their descendants. Then again, for Jim and Aurora to reproduce Adam-and-Eve style, they couldn’t go beyond one more generation unless they sired both men and women and those people participated in brother-sister incest à la Die Walküre (or Flowers in the Attic), and even the implication of incest would have blown this film’s PG-13 rating (“for sexuality, nudity and action/peril”) and pushed into R or maybe even NC-17 territory. Nonetheless, Passengers is a marvelous movie, and though I didn’t see a scene that would have had to be done with the revolving-room technique (a camera bolted to a room set, both of which revolve, while the actors stay at the bottom and appear to be defying gravity) — one poster had said to expect one — that got me thinking about the cinematic genius who invented that gimmick, Buster Keaton, and the film in which he used it, the final sequence of The Navigator (1924).

It was later used by Fred Astaire and Stanley Donen for the “You’re All the World to Me” number in Royal Wedding (1951) and by Stanley Kubrick for the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the waitress aboard the moon shuttle appears to be upside down, but it was Keaton’s invention and the reference to it on the Passengers page made me realize that Passengers is really a high-tech science-fiction version of The Navigator. In The Navigator, Keaton is a young man who’s stranded on an otherwise abandoned ship, floating around at sea with no working engines, and he thinks he’s alone and then realizes a woman (Kathryn McGuire) is on board with him, and one of the key sequences — the two try to figure out how to make breakfast for two with a stove, pots and utensils designed to cook for hundreds — has its echoes in the breakfast scenes of Passengers. (One of my regrets about Keaton’s career is that he never got to make a science-fiction film; when Charles and I watched 1930’s science-fiction musical Just Imagine, I couldn’t help but imagine Keaton in the comic lead played by Swedish dialect comedian El Brendel: no doubt Keaton would have loved to get his hands on those stunning futuristic sets and improvise gags with them.) Charles and I noticed other stories that were being referenced in Passengers, including Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and E. M. Forster’s science-fiction story “The Machine Stops” (in which for several generations humans have lived without having to work or do much of anything because giant machines take care of all their needs — until the machines reach a point where they wear out beyond their built-in capabilities for self-repair and the current generation of people suddenly realize they have to learn how to do things for themselves again), but it was still heartwarming that at least part of this movie has its roots in the protean genius of Buster Keaton. Aside from that, Passengers is a marvelous film, well balanced between science-fiction and romantic elements, vividly acted by the principals (though, despite the extensive cast list, only four people really get any significant amount of screen time, and one of them is playing a robot), well directed, imaginatively written and well worth watching.