Thursday, 22 December 2016

Passengers (3D) (2016) (Review)


Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are two of the hottest actors on the planet - almost everything they touch turns to gold, or in Lawrence's case, nabs her an Oscar nomination. When the news broke that they would be teaming up, alongside Oscar-nominated director Morten Tyldum, it seemed like an unstoppable film was in the making. Understand the surprise then, when reviews were rather unfavourable and any chances of Oscar potential was dashed within the first wave of critical feedback and reception. Is it truly a bad film, or does it simply suffer from inflated expectations and become a victim of its own potential?

Jim Preston (Pratt), a mechanical engineer and Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a journalist, awaken thirty years into a one hundred and twenty year trip aboard the Starship Avalon heading to Homestead II. While initially struggling, they slowly begin to accept their fate and make the best of the situation and begin to fall in love. However, a dark secret is revealed that changes everything, just as the ship begins to experience more severe malfunctions that puts the 5,000-plus passengers in jeopardy. Undeniably intriguing and equally as thought-provoking, Passengers charted on the 2007 'Black List' of the most-liked unproduced script or screenplay, so it is questionable as to why the script is the film's biggest problem.

Sold on the concept of 'Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in space', the film excels based on their sensational chemistry and performances and the pair manage to command every moment of the runtime. Despite being largely a two-hander - with Michael Sheen popping in every now and then as Arthur the Android and serving his purpose - Lawrence and Pratt make such a compelling duo that no one else is needed; we care deeply for these characters and sympathise with their plight and, without too many spoilers, understand their actions even when they are morally flawed and/or questionable. Sci-fi can often come across as cold and technology-centered, but Passengers is very character-driven at its core, thus making it far more emotionally resonant than is expected of the genre typically. Lawrence's character is afforded some solid character building through her 'character profile' while Pratt's Jim is a little more complicated (more on that later...) but their chemistry - almost a third character in its own right - is the strongest here. Their performances, particularly Lawrence as she is rewarded more range to work with, is spectacular enough to make this film worth a watch and journey out on these cold nights.

Spectacular in its effects as well as its acting, Passengers features some very well-realised special effects and production values which seamlessly integrate into the real-life, offering a luxurious visual treat. Using the latest first-rate technology, one scene in which Lawrence's character is swimming when the spaceship suddenly loses gravity, is one of the strongest uses of SFX this year, terrifically capturing audience's with breath-taking visuals which impress even further with the 3D conversion. It's an imaginative and detailed example of world-building, giving a fresh and occasionally synthetic look to the setting - a facade which slowly begins to crack as the ship's malfunctions dramatically increase. Just as the effects come together, so do the picture's experimentation with a number of different genres (romance, sci-fi, adventure and a fair sprinkling of comedy) that cement this as a blockbuster for all of the family, while still remaining sharp and smart enough for the adults. It explores a genuinely engaging and thought-provoking premise, even if it only occasionally hints at some of them with little consideration past that; class division is one area that really could have elevated this picture even further but it only touches upon this idea briefly. Still, this is a tremendously compelling character drama that just so happens to be set in space, among futuristic technology and practises.

Passenger is certainly not without its flaws. One element of the story kept well away from the marketing (no spoilers here but you can probably take a well-educated guess) undermines the moral complexity of the film and sets an uneasy tone in the lead up to the second act reveal, treading in delicate territory that comes across, well, sexist and invasive. It's a little bit of a struggles to shake off that problematic tone, with the film playing its card way too early (while the first act is great in setting up the film, it sometimes feels a little bit too compulsory). It's not ill-intentioned and doesn't mean to come across as offensive but it's problematic nonetheless. It can be overlooked when the story heats up, Lawrence's character comes further into the fold and you become absorbed in the premise and the (admittedly flawed but still compelling) love story between Aurora and Jim. 

Passengers suffers greatest from inflated expectations and becomes a victim of its own potential. As with The Girl on the Train's own journey earlier this year, a generally solid and entertaining film is delivered in the place most expected an Oscar-worthy masterclass, thus seeming like a disappointment in comparison. Issues with the narrative and a couple of the accidental themes aside, Passengers is pretty enough, compelling enough and superbly acted by its two leads to be well worth the price of admission (even more so if you decide to splash out on a 3D ticket - after all, it is Christmas!).  Don't come expecting a masterpiece and you will be sure to enjoy this for what it is - a two hour escape at the movies.

(8/10)

Summary: Passengers excels based on the excellent performances of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, as well as the sparks they create through their effervescent chemistry, leading to an interesting premise, visually-beautifully but narratively-flawed piece of film-making.

Highlight: The chemistry between Lawrence and Pratt - they are an absolutely brilliant pairing and could rule the world with a more solid script and story to work with.

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