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Front Page - Friday, December 30, 2016

Critics Corner: I loved you in ‘Passengers’ - said no one ever

I’m a sucker for a good space movie. Send a ship full of people hurtling through the cosmos and pit them against certain death, and I’m a happy camper.

Too bad “Passengers” isn’t a good movie. Instead, it’s a bad one with an appalling misstep in storytelling masquerading as a happy ending.

Judging from the trailer, I thought “Passengers” would meet my criteria for a good time. In the teaser, actors Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence wake up on a spaceship full of sleeping humans, fall in love and then appear to be drifting helplessly toward a red dwarf. “You die, I die!” Lawrence cries.

“Awesome!” said the 13-year-old in me.

But that’s not what happens. The trailer was a manipulation that hides the rotten truth of the film, which I’m obliged to not reveal. Just trust me when I say “Passengers” earns the scorn of its audience.

I’ll tell you a little bit and let you extrapolate the rest.

Pratt plays mechanical engineer Jim Preston, who’s jarred out of hypersleep when the Starship Avalon hits rocky debris. The Avalon is 30 years into a 120-year journey to Homestead II, an Earth-like planet the ship’s passengers will be colonizing.

Since his sleeping pod is irreparably damaged, Preston faces a lifetime of isolation and will die before the Avalon reaches its destination.

Surrounded by over 5,000 slumbering souls, Preston spends the next year growing a noticeably fake beard, chatting with a robot bartender and sinking into loneliness and depression. The seclusion eventually gets to him and he wakes up Aurora Lane, a beautiful young writer played by Jennifer Lawrence.

“Well played,” winks the bartender, Arthur.

Preston pretends Aurora’s sleeping pod malfunctioned, too, setting up a dramatic reveal.

One of the things that grated on my nerves while watching “Passengers” was the dialogue. The film is clearly a studio product, with every aspect of its production - from the casting of two A-list stars to its ending - calculated to bring in maximum box office. But the screenplay is credited to Jon Spaihts, so I blame him for lines like this:

Preston (over reconstituted eggs): “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. You kill me.”

This compels Lane to shove aside her breakfast tray and crawl over the table to plant a wet one on Preston. I wondered why a writer would respond like that to such a corny line, but OK.

I also cringed at, “For two unlucky people, we sure got lucky,” which Lane says after she and Preston fall in love. Maybe she wrote greeting cards or Harlequin romances.

There’s a video online of Lawrence and Pratt on BBC Radio 1 playing Playground Insults, a game in which they try to make each other laugh by slinging low blows at each other. Their spontaneous play is more entertaining than any of their conversations in the movie:

Lawrence: “I loved you in ‘Everwood’ - said no one ever.”

Pratt: “Why did they call it ‘Joy?’”

Lawrence: “Where do you keep your Oscar?”

Pratt: “You act like Adelle sings. I hate Adelle.”

When your actors can show you up with a little clever improv, you need to reconsider your day job.

Spaihts did cleverly set up the reveal by showing Arthur to be a robot programmed to respond truthfully to every query. But the rest of his script is Hollywood sludge.

At least Spaihts had the forethought to make Preston an engineer. This comes in handy when the ship’s systems begin to fail. If he’d made Preston a botanist instead, he would have been stuck writing lines like, “We’re two peas in a pod” and “Bless my bloomers.”

Spaihts should never be allowed to write another film script. But I hope the people responsible for the look of the movie keep their jobs. Despite its narrative failings, “Passengers” is gorgeous and looks expensive.

The Avalon is a thing of beauty as it soars across a backdrop of infinite stars. I especially enjoyed the striking shots of Preston walking along the hull of the ship. What’s more, the interior of the Avalon has the sleek, futuristic look one would expect of a corporate-owned craft. If I was reviewing “Passengers” solely on the basis of its production design, I’d be giving it two thumbs up.

I also liked the scene in which Lane is trapped in a sphere of water after the ship’s gravity fails. It’s tense and nicely realized through special effects.

Unfortunately, the film’s pesky storyline counters every minor pleasure. The most egregious of its sins is the improbable ending, which is smeared with the fingerprints of Sony’s executives.

I could be wrong about the studio having a hand in how “Passengers” wraps up, but I believe anything that manufactured and false could come only from a board room. Surely even Spaihts felt creepy as he tapped out “Fade to black.” Has no one at Sony heard of Stockholm Syndrome?

Watching “Passengers” was painful for more reasons than listening to Pratt and Lawrence push their way through badly written lines. It hurt mainly because it could have been a better movie. With unknown actors in the lead roles (Pratt and Lawrence do decent work but never shed their celebrity), less corn and a darker ending, “Passengers” might have been an entertaining sci-fi offering.

At least we have the Playground Insults video. We can thank the “Passengers” press tour for that:

Lawrence: “Before our love scene, I had to drink Pepto-Bismol.”

Pratt: “How does it feel to be in the dumbest Marvel movie?”

Lawrence: “You’re so stupid, I make a conscious effort to not use words longer than three syllables.”

Pratt: “Good one. You have me on the ropes...”

1.5 stars