What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
The third act of Passengers is lousy, but for the first hour and change, it’s actually a pretty interesting movie. Of course, it’s hamstrung by Morten Tyldum’s pedestrian direction (cue uninspiring exterior shot of a dumb-looking spaceship), but what recent studio film has created such an uncomfortable central conflict? You have this guy, played by Chris Pratt, who’s traveling to a distant space colony on what’s supposed to be a 120-year trip, except that his hibernation pod malfunctions, waking him up with about 90 years still left to go. This expository stretch—the guy alone on the spaceship, convinced that he’s weeks away from arriving on a new planet—is structured almost like an Albert Brooks comedy, with Brooks-ian gags involving coffee machines, orientation videos, and a bartending android played by Michael Sheen. But the bar itself is one of several very obvious nods to The Shining. The guy wanders the spaceship (mostly gunmetal gray and Apple white, like all of the dull futures in today’s Hollywood sci-fi movies), lives it up by playing holographic video games and eating robot-prepared sushi, and eventually sinks into suicidal despair, which is when he becomes obsessed with one of the 4,999 other passengers still hibernating on the spaceship. This is the character played by Jennifer Lawrence.
Out of principle, I am all for movies that a) depict a character doing really morally repugnant shit and b) try to work with their point-of-view. I suspect that, like a lot of personal tastes related to film, it has something to do with dreaming, as the only serious nightmares I have are ones in which I am the monster. There is a quote I like very much from one of my favorite American directors of the 1950s, Nicholas Ray, who said, late in life, “Unless you can feel that a hero is just as fucked up as you are, that you would make the same mistakes that he would make, you can have no satisfaction when he does commit a heroic act.” This is a philosophy that applies to the bad shit just as well as it does to the good stuff, because anything that uses sympathy for a character’s motivations to implicate the audience is performing a complex function. Making people uncomfortable in this way is a noble pursuit; it’s easy for viewers to sympathize with victims, but getting them to recognize themselves in a creep can be edifying. And here’s what happens in Passengers: the Pratt character, who is miserably lonely in a very sympathetic way, wakes up the Lawrence character; is immediately overcome with guilt; and then has to live with her on the spaceship, having led her to believe that her pod malfunctioned just like his.
All the suspense—guilt, fear of discovery—is from his point-of-view. The film is very aware of how ugly all of this is; it isn’t throwing out those references to The Shining for nothing. But, look, there’s no way to get from here to a Hollywood happy ending. So instead, Passengers fabricates a “Laurence Fishburne ex machina” twist in the plot and turns into an inane, ticking-clock action movie with one of the most laughably bad endings in recent memory. And yet, for those first two-thirds or so, it seems on the verge of finding something in the vacuum of speculative space. (Additionally, I can’t help but admire the unnecessary amount of thought the script puts into the corporate economics of space colonization and centuries-long spaceflight.) It toes close to stalker-rape fantasy, but that’s what makes it promising, however briefly. I can’t help but wonder what version of this story would work. Perhaps there is a Passengers that plays out from the Lawrence character’s point of view, but that would make identification too simple.
This week, besides catching up with Passengers on a lark and watching a bunch of old Betty Boop cartoons (plus some films I’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks), I saw Free Fire, the new film by Ben Wheatley. Like Wheatley’s last film, High-Rise, and perhaps like all of his films, it’s about the way that kind of civil discourse (especially one that involves capital and class) will abruptly devolve into barbarism if the opportunity arises—society as the monster in a mask. I’m mostly in agreement with A.A. Dowd’s review; the movie is basically one long shoot-out in a single room, but it gets by on visceral and verbal nastiness, because Wheatley isn’t much of an action director and his style is spatially confusing. (Good luck figuring out where any of the characters are in relation to one another.) As in High-Rise, he makes some inspired use of ’70s kitsch as a visual element; in particular, he gets a lot of mileage out of a fire-engine red cargo van that becomes a kind of movie monster in its own right.