I almost didn’t see Passengers, thanks to a series of excoriating reviews that seemed to suggest that there was absolutely nothing redeeming about Morten Tyldum’s second English language film after The Imitation Game. Given that I found The Imitation Game fairly bland as well, there was no great incentive for me to see Tyldum’s follow-up, and yet last week I found myself with a couple of hours to spare at Burwood Westfield and decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did, since this is easily one of the most underrated films of 2016, a deft and unusual combination of horror, sci-fi, romance and screwball comedy that never quite settles or stabilises, lurching between the absurd and the sublime in quite exhilarating and vertiginous ways. Like Denis Villeneueve’s Arrival, it uses science fiction as a way of thinking through futurelessness, and how to live with a compressed or foreclosed sense of the future, although in even more preposterous, penetrating and provocative ways.
Since so much of the film’s power depends upon Jon Spaihts’ script – reportedly circulating since 2007 – it’s hard to discuss it without going into narrative detail, some of which has been – quite understandably – deliberately omitted from any advertising or marketing. Spoilers abound then, from this point on, since from the very moment the film opens the narrative is so unpredictable and inscrutable than any plot point is really a spoiler. In the first couple of scenes, Tyldum seems to be consciously quoting Alien, taking us through a massive spaceship, the Avalon, and finally alighting upon a bank of cryogenically hibernating passengers that are resting, presumably in hypersleep, as the ship moves towards some distant destination. Following a freak meteoroid shower, one of the passengers – Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer – accidentally wakes up, and gradually realises that he alone is awake while everyone else – both passengers and crew – are continuing to slumber. After twenty years of hypersleep, and still ninety years away from the ship’s destination – a new colonial planet called Homestead II – Jim seems to go through the five stages of grief in every scene, forcing himself to come to terms with his situation even as he can’t help but revel in the strange freedom that comes from being alone on a ship equipped for several thousand.
This pretty much makes up the first act of the film. as Jim acclimatises himself to his surroundings with a combination of pathos and comedy that makes it almost impossible to discern what is going to come next. While there’s inevitably something desperate about his situation, the ship as a whole has a perky, corporate, bureaucratic tone that works both as comic relief and to channel blunt despair into something more threatening and unsettling. Partly because the ship itself has such an immaculately and artificially constructed atmosphere, Tyldum’s tone also remains elusive, and as we move through the eerie spectacle of a corporate showcase with nobody around to enjoy it, the film almost seems to be making a point about how redundant a human presence is in genuinely corporate environments. As a result, the ship often seems less like a spacecraft than a replication of contemporary urban space, since while it’s clearly designed to hold people it’s also completely devoid of anything resembling a genuine public sphere, relegating its populace to the remote privacy of individual hibernation. While that environment might work naturally with hordes of people in transit, it’s quite incongruous when traversed by an individual, giving Jim’s solitary presence – he’s the sole character for the first forty-five minutes, with the exception of an android played by Michael Sheen – an inherently comic and unsettling edge.
Among other things, that makes for the first film in which Pratt has really impressed me as a dramatic actor, if only because the queasy tone on display provides him with space to acknowledge his inherently comic attributes while also deforming them into something more emergent and unnerving at the same time. Perhaps it’s just the outer space backdrop, but in many ways it felt as if Guardians of the Galaxy was trying to do the thing – that was, after all, Pratt’s first big cinematic crossover role – but without the same sensitivity to how to handle his persona as is displayed here. If the film as a whole is tonally inscrutable, then, Pratt’s performance is just as much so, with all his comic and witty asides – the first act almost plays as a series of sketches at times – taking on a new and sinister complexion once Tyldum reveals that he has actually been engaging in them for over a year, in one of the distorted time lapses that makes Passengers as a whole so resonant and unsettling.
However, as much as this opening act might play as a brilliant short film on its own terms, it’s not quite enough to sustain a feature, and so it’s only a matter of time before Spaihts and Tyldum bring in a romantic interest in the form of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a beautiful writer that Jim spies while roaming around the hibernation pods. After close to a year of trying to find another way of consoling his loneliness, Jim takes the extraordinary decision that sets the rest of the film in motion and which defines it as a whole – he wakes her up, despite the fact that this will almost surely doom her to spending the rest of her life on board the spaceship with him. Even more disturbingly, he doesn’t admit to her that he has woken her up, but instead attributes it to a malfunction, allowing the two of them to build a friendship that gradually – perhaps inevitably, given the circumstances – blossoms into a charismatic, screwy romance that occupies the second act of the film.
It’s no surprise, then, that this second act manages to be wry, charming and horrifying at the same time. On the face of it, there’s something quite loveable about Jim and Aurora’s rapport, not least because Pratt and Lawrence have a fantastic chemistry on screen (to the point where I wondered why on earth they’d never been cast opposite each other before). Indeed, it’s at this point you realise that, for all its generic mutability, Passengers is a romantic comedy at heart, even if the current state of the romantic comedy means that Tyldum has to distort and reshape it to remain true to the genre. After all, the romantic comedy has waned in the last ten years largely due to the fact that, at its peak, the classic romcom depended on a stable vision of futurity, a good life that can no longer be guaranteed in an era in which widespread precarity and downward mobility are the norm. For a romantic comedy to be plausible now, it has to find a way to internalise and neutralise that horror of futurelessness, something that many of the most moving romcoms in recent years – Enough Said and About Time come to mind – have woven directly into their substance and plot.
There’s something to be said, then, for how starkly Passengers manages to acknowledge this foreclosed futurity, building a romcom sentiment that somehow doesn’t feel authentic despite the fact that the two main characters are destined to live their entire lives on the Avalon, but because of it. The situation is considerably enhanced by the fact that both characters are, in some sense, chasing futurity by boarding the ship in the first place. For Jim, the chance to move to Homestead II is his way of satisfying his frontier mentality and allowing him to carve out his own property and build stuff with his own hands, in a kind of displaced western expansion. For Aurora, the trip represents an opportunity to write a journalistic account of the first moments of arrival that will guarantee her legacy way beyond her own life. In fact, she doesn’t even plan to remain on Homestead II, but to take a round trip in order to arrive back on Earth, as she puts it, “in the future.” While Jim may be working-class and Aurora may be middle-class – the differences between their amenities on board the ship is a constant source of satire – they’re unified by a precarity that, in Lauren Berlant’s terms, is incoherent in terms of class, gesturing towards a foreclosing future that touches everyone on the ship, including one of the captains, played by Laurence Fisburne, who briefly awakens in the third act.
Yet if the prospect of the relationship playing out in its entirety on board the Avalon is horrifying, then the deeper horror of the film is the fact of Jim waking Aurora up in the first place. While many critics have compared this to an act of cyberstalking, it’s really closer to rape in terms of how the film presents it, as Jim violates Aurora’s body and confronts her with a shocking awareness of her own mortality for the sake of his own gratification. Not surprisingly, this is also the plot point that has been most strenuously concealed from advertisements, as well as the plot point with which most critics have taken umbrage. For the most part, it’s been perceived as adding something distasteful to the romantic comedy formula, but my sense is more than it exposes something already there, something impossible to ignore in a renewed era of sexual politics and openness around gender and orientation. After all, if romantic comedies depend on futurity for their meaning, then it is a futurity that is itself defined by heteronormative expectations that depend on not being scrutinised too closely or formulated to programmatically. By establishing a romantic comedy premise as an act of sexual violence, then, it feels as if Tyldum is relegating the sexual politics of the traditional romcom to an almost science-fictional distance, which is perhaps why Passengers feels estranging at its most domestic, and domestic at its most estranging.
Nowhere is that clearer than the extraordinary scene in which Aurora finds out, inadvertently, that Jim woke her up. Appropriately, this happens on the verge of Jim proposing to Aurora – the point that would normally mark the closure and climax of the romcom premise – who transitions from screwy affection to utter horror in one of the greatest testament to Lawrence’s talents as an actress that I have yet witnessed. Nobody who has seen Passengers will forget her face in this scene, as she realises that her best option actually turned out to be her only option and that her source of consolation turns out to be why she needed consolation in the first place. No surprise, then, that it paves the way for a heady and hallucinatory third act that recalls Paul Verhoeven in its taste for the absurd possibilities lurking at the fringes of every tasteful genre exercise, as Tyldum effectively melds those fringes into the substance of his film to provide a series of obstacles strong enough to ensure that Jim and Aurora get back together again, as indeed they must. By the extraordinary final scene in which they sit, reunited, staring out at the next ninety years – “Hell of a life” – it feels as if we’ve witnessed the romantic comedy turned inside out, and the fact that it ends so cosily and comfortingly makes the process all the more disturbing. It’s perhaps understandable, then, that so many critics have felt the need to disavow the film, or lambast it out of existence, but I finally found it exhilarating, not merely for its protean and mercurial tone but for how beautifully it managed to enact the impossibility of genuine romantic comedies, at least as we once knew them, at this point in cinematic history.