Passengers

Cast: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia

Director: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Jon Spaihts


Space is a great setting for making movies about isolation. It is a vast, empty void where, as Alien observed, no one can hear you scream. Small wonder then that there is a great range of superb sci-fi films depicting this very idea from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Gravity. Passengers seeks to take the idea even further with its story of a forlorn man who is driven by his inconsolable loneliness and obsessive desperation to commit a terrible act. There is a compelling premise here that could have made for a fascinating film, sort of like a cross between The Shining and Vertigo set in space. The problem is that this film is more interested in portraying a fashionable Hollywood romance between its two attractive, likeable leads than it is in properly confronting the themes that have been set up. Thus we are instead treated to manipulated emotions, contrived storytelling and weak characterisations, all of which serve to enable Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to enjoy their dark, insane, unhealthy relationship.

The starship Avalon is undergoing a 120-year journey with its 5,000 passengers to inhabit a new planet when it suffers damage passing through an asteroid field. As a result of this accident Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up 90 years too early on a ship with no other conscious people and no way of going back to sleep. In the year that he spends alone on the ship his only companion is the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). In a moment of despair Jim happens upon a pod belonging to Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and is enamoured with her. After learning everything he can about her and (somewhat) struggling with his own conscience, Jim decides to wake her up so that he finally won’t be alone any more. He and Aurora (who is unaware of his action) meet and fall in love, but their love is threatened by the truth of their meeting, which will inevitably be revealed to her, as well as by the sustained damage suffered by the ship.

This is a dark, some might even say sadistic, premise for a film. The film however decides that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence must be allowed to fall in love and end up together because… well, because they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Even if there was a believable way to spin their relationship into a positive one, the chemistry they share isn’t potent or alluring enough to justify it despite both of them being charming and attractive actors. There is a sense here that we are supposed to buy into their union based on the strength of their individual personas (because, for heaven’s sake, they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence!) but the characters and dialogue they are given are just too bland and conventional for them to have any real kind of a spark. It gets worse when the inevitable revelation is made and Aurora correctly denounces Jim as a murderer because then the movie has to somehow make them get back together. The way they accomplish this is all at once cheap, forced, predictable, misguided and sexist.

I suppose there are some technically good aspects in this film that ought to be praised. Michael Sheen for instance gives a terrific performance in a role that he clearly had a great time playing. The film looks good in terms of its visual effects and production design, especially in the scene where Aurora’s swimming routine is interrupted by a malfunction in the ship’s gravity, but it isn’t exactly something to behold. The designs, such as that of the double-helix-shaped ship, are serviceable in giving the film the sci-fi look it wants but they never startle or astonish. I can also say that Tyldum’s direction is quite competent, but isn’t nearly as inspired or inventive as the films he clearly drew inspiration from (the most obvious of which were both made by Kubrick). At times the flow and composition of the film looks and feels so plain and unsurprising that I suspect the spaceship’s autopilot could probably have directed it.

D.H. Lawrence once called Jane Eyre a pornographic novel, criticising the way he felt Brontë had to manipulate her characters’ emotions and circumstances in order for them to end up together. That is basically how I feel about Passengers. There is no thought, no depth and no feeling to this film. The movie cares only about one thing and that is getting Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to lock lips and look good doing it. The grim desolation that drove Jim to commit his crime, the heavy toll that the guilt takes on his soul, the rage, devastation and probably even violation that Aurora feels upon learning the truth; all of that is secondary. So great is the crime of trying to pass off such a disturbing concept as a positive love story that it outshines the crime of bringing together these two likeable, talented stars and not using them to their full potential. This movie is not a romance, it is wish-fulfilment; plain, stupid, unintentionally disturbing wish-fulfilment.

★★

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Doctor Strange

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stulhbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton

Director: Scott Derrickson

Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill


2016 saw a continuation of the superhero trend that is dominating Hollywood right now with at least five major movies being released prior to Doctor Strange. In this kind of climate it’d be difficult for any one of these films to distinguish themselves from all the others. On one hand we did get Deadpool which won audiences over with its R-rated content and rule breaking but we also got X-Men: Apocalypse, a half-hearted, generic rehash of its previous instalments. Although Marvel is certainly guilty of following formulas that can get tiring at times, their films have mostly succeeded in this regard due to the different elements and genres they’ve been able to bring to their cinematic universe. Over the last couple of years for example they’ve made an espionage thriller in The Winter Soldier, a space opera in Guardians of the Galaxy and a heist movie in Ant-Man. In keeping with this tradition Doctor Strange depicts a genre unlike any other seen in the Marvel franchise: the mind-trip movie.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly successful and arrogant surgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident. His former girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), also a surgeon, tries to help him move on but Strange is determined to restore his hands through risky and experimental procedures. His obsession soon leads him to Kamar-Taj in Nepal where he is taken in by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Celtic sorceress. There Strange discovers the existence of astral planes and other dimensions and is taught the teachings of the mystic arts. However Strange is quickly forced into action when a rogue sorcerer called Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) threatens the Sanctums that the Ancient One’s order is sworn to protect. With the help of friend and mentor Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange must master his abilities and defeat Kaecilius before he can complete a ritual that threatens their very existence.

When viewing Doctor Strange as a mind-trip action movie, the most obvious comparison to be drawn is Inception. Like the Nolan movie, Doctor Strange contains many action set pieces that bend and distort reality in spectacular ways. When the sorcerers enter the Sanctum, all bets are off as they freely defy the laws of nature in their mystic battles. Gravity becomes subjective, perception is skewed and time is not absolute. The film also undertakes a slightly more philosophical approach than the typical Marvel movie as Strange must learn to master his own failings before he can master the art of sorcery. He never does lose his arrogance, on the contrary he learns that arrogance is part of what makes him a great sorcerer, but rather learns to live and fight for a cause that is greater than himself. This arc is not unlike that of Tony Stark in the earlier Marvel films, but Strange has enough of its own identity both in its protagonist and as a film that it doesn’t feel like a simple retread.

Benedict Cumberbatch (in keeping with the law which holds that he must be in everything) plays the newest hero in the MCU canon proficiently with both humour and gravitas. As he portrays Strange in his narcissism, cockiness and resoluteness, it is near impossible to imagine any other actor in the role. The whitewashing that took place with the Ancient One is rather glaring (especially in a movie about a white man adopting and mastering an Eastern discipline and surpassing all of his ethnically variant peers in the process) but to Swinton’s credit nobody can play otherworldly quite like her. Although this film continues the Marvel tradition of underwriting its generic non-Loki antagonists, I found Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius to be one of the least generic ones to date. I cannot for the life of me remember what his motivation was but I do remember him being intimidating and clashing well with Strange in their scenes together. There’s also quite a fun character to be found in Strange’s cloak, very much in the vein of the magic carpet in Aladdin.

I can understand that someone with superhero fatigue might find the whole ‘origin story’ aspect of this film tiring, but for me Doctor Strange has a lot going for it. I like that the climax for instance did not boil down to a punching and kicking contest. Strange’s triumph is instead a result of his ingenuity and occurs in quite a clever and creative way. I also like Strange as a character, I liked the new dimension that this film added to the Marvel universe and, above all, I enjoyed the movie’s superb, psychedelic visuals (which pay off especially well when seen in 3D). Those who watch this film looking for weaknesses are certainly going to find them. The whitewashing is evident, McAdams’ role is little more than a token love interest and the typical Marvel formulas and tie-ins can be obtrusive. Still there is a lot to enjoy and a lot that is different from all the other blockbusters we’ve seen in recent years. Doctor Strange is a feast for the eyes that contains all the thrills and humour that Marvel is known for and was a relief to watch after a summer of disappointing blockbusters.

★★★★