The Hollywood Blacklist (not the one that saw communists unable to work in the 50s) has become a hot ticket for screenwriters. A list of the most liked screenplays that have yet to be produced has given birth to several films many really like: Juno was a Blacklist screenplay, as was Argo. In fact year on year most of our considerations are for blacklisted screenplays. None more so than Passengers.
Written by Jon Spaihts, Passengers was a screenplay so well liked that Ridley Scott hired Spaihts to pen a screenplay for an Alien prequel, what he called Alien: Engineers, which eventually became Prometheus. He also co-wrote this year’s Doctor Strange, next years The Mummy and an upcoming follow up to Pacific Rim.
This film follows Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), who awakens on the starship Avalon after 30 years asleep in a stasis chamber only to find out there’s another 90 years to go. He becomes besotted with Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), so he wakes her up, and the two court one another.
The film, directed by The Imitation Game’s Mortem Tyldum is a very mixed bag, as with all science fiction films it has to be noted all the films this owes a debt to, and they are numerous, so much so it becomes something of a game, try to name all the knock offs. First off there’s the waking up in pods taken from Alien (no surprise given Spaihts history), The Martian style scenes of Chris Pratt doing Chris Pratt things around a spaceship, although many of those scenes seem to have been lifted by Spaihts for the opening movement of Prometheus, and the film watching and exercise is similar to Michael Fassbender’s David 8.
When the science fiction things begin, they absolutely call to mind various other things. The corridors that go upwards clearly seems to have been inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, the go to movie for all science fiction, while the empty scenes of two people living life as best they can seem to resemble George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. When walking out in space occurs it’s straight from Gravity’s space hugging and holding on. The space travel from Star Trek, the space suit race to save the ship from Interstellar. In fact name a science fiction film, and it’s been done here, even the slightly obnoxious ship from Dark Star.
But the film this owes the most to is Kubrick, just not the one you would expect. The film resembles The Shining, with the ship every so often throwing a curve ball at the people, robots going wrong, lights shutting off – in these scenes Tyldum goes less for Hal 9000 and more for the Overlook Hotel – with an always present sense that there is something sinister going on. From the trailers is appears to be a conspiracy, but the reveal is a little more disappointing. It often appears to be The Shining at the forefront when they enter the bar, with Michael Sheen’s barman robot Arthur, who clearly is doing an impression of Grady in Kubrick’s classic.
Now, it’s not all a patchwork or awful, the visual effects are very arresting, and the zero gravity is convincing, while Michael Sheen and Laurence Fishburne are both great in their roles, bringing charm to the fairly flat romance at the heart of the film.
While a stand out scene sees Jennifer Lawrence swimming in a pool when the gravity shuts up and she must try to swim out of a giant sphere of water is visually arresting and incredibly tense, and a malfunctioning Michael Sheen appearing to be a death cry, the real saviour of the film is Thomas Newman’s score, which sounds both textbook Newman and also slightly different. It works perfectly with the film, reminding you of his work on films like The Adjustment Bureau or The Shawshank Redemption.
In the end this isn’t the great film it could have been, and actually if the antagonist was the ship (Hal 9000 style) the film could have really been something else, but with no villain, and the stakes being fairly dull this is a passable, slightly dull in places film with a great score and a sometimes enjoyable science fiction romp. But if you want space adventure see Rogue One.