Passengers (2016)

2017 #156
Morten Tyldum | 116 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Passengers

This review contains major spoilers.

I got the distinct impression everyone hated Passengers when it came out 18 months ago — it has a lowly 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, and most of the think-pieces penned in its wake seemed to be about how terrible one particular aspect was (I’ll come to that, hence the spoiler warning). It has a 7.0 on IMDb though, which might not sound great, but anything north of 7 isn’t bad on IMDb — there are plenty of popular movies languishing in the 6s. Personally, I rather enjoyed it.

Sometime in the future, shortly after mankind has begun to colonise other worlds, the spaceship Avalon is on a 120-year journey to a new planet with thousands of colonist-to-be in hibernation onboard. Just 30 years into the trip, the Avalon strikes an asteroid field, causing a malfunction that wakes up just two passengers: Jim (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist. Faced with the prospect of never reaching the destination they’d set out for, the pair begin to develop a relationship.

Or so the trailer would have you believe (and this is where the spoilers come). In fact, the malfunction only awakens Jim. After a year alone on the ship, with his only company being a robot bartender called Arthur (the always excellent Michael Sheen), a suicidal Jim comes across Aurora’s pod. Smitten, he watches her video diary, struggles with the morality of awakening her… and eventually does, claiming her pod must’ve malfunctioned too. What a bastard, right? Eventually Aurora finds out and hates Jim for robbing her of the life she’d intended, but this is a romance movie so…

I C You

Obviously, this is the aspect that generated all those digital column inches. Having read some of them, I get the impression that the reason so many people were annoyed by Jim’s dick move is either, a) it wasn’t hinted at by the trailer (therefore people were too busy trying to read the film as a straight-up romance, because that’s what the ads promised, and didn’t consider the actual story it was telling), or b) people seem to really struggle with movies where the lead character makes bad decisions that are either unlikeable or amoral. That’s a general observation I have about audiences, but it seems applicable here. See the numerous “Star Lord is the real villain of Infinity War” hot takes for a similar Chris Pratt-related example.

One of the reasons people being angry about the film’s ethics bug me is that at no point does the movie try to argue that Jim waking up Aurora was a good decision — everyone knows it was a bad, selfish idea. What the film does do is try to make you see why he would make that choice (it takes him over a year to do it, remember), and then shows how everyone eventually deals with the fallout (which is just life — shit you don’t want happens and you have to find a way to handle it). In fact, buried underneath all the romancing and effects whizz-bangery of the film’s climax, maybe there are some decent life/moral lessons, about the need for forgiveness, and accepting, and making the most out of things we can’t change.

No! Bad Jim! Bad!

A lot of people seemed to jump on the idea the film would be better if acts one and two were flipped — if we woke up alongside Aurora, only later learning of Jim’s betrayal. It would certainly have been different. Better? I don’t know. It would shift the emphasis around a lot. Maybe it would’ve made him romancing her more palatable for those who found it objectionable to their core, because while watching it you wouldn’t know what he’d done — but it wouldn’t change what he did, just how you were presented with it. In some ways, then, the movie we have got is the more interesting version: we know what he did throughout their courtship and have to accept that fact.

Moral questionability aside, the romantic plot is actually traditionally shaped: there’s the meet-cute (it’s just a sci-fi’d-up one), the falling for each other, the disagreement and separation, and eventual reconciliation. Maybe such familiarity is fine when it’s being dressed up in shiny new sci-fi surroundings; maybe it was the problem, too: the massive betrayal at the film’s core gets in the way of a traditional happy-sappy arc; if you wanted to go all gooey over their burgeoning romance, it gets in your way. But it’s a more interesting story because of it. In real life, such a horrid act might prompt a definite “walk away and never see him again” response. Things aren’t so straightforward aboard the Avalon. If you wanted them to be… well, so did Aurora, and she didn’t have a choice either. Perhaps the film could’ve spent more time digging into the emotional impact and decision-making of that rather than faffing with a sci-fi-cum-disaster-movie action-packed climax, but when your movie’s this expensive (as much to do with the no-doubt-ginormous salaries of the two stars as it is the CGI, I expect) you need some money shots and jeopardy to draw the blokes in.

Sci-fi money shot

Taken as a sci-fi movie, I really liked it. The concepts are well considered and played out, from the big ideas of how colonisation might work to little touches of how the tech functions. Much of the ship and its interfaces are beautifully designed and realised — I don’t know how much of it was built for real, but I suspect a fair chunk of the main locations are practical, and I do love a big set. I liked Arthur too, partly because I like Michael Sheen, but also because of how he functions as a robot designed to be kind of your mate.

On the whole, I suspect the negative reaction to Passengers is more a case of mismanaged expectations for some audience members rather than it being an objectively bad movie. I guess a lot of critical viewers put themselves in Aurora’s position, but Jim’s dilemma is just as relatable — I mean, not in a literal sense (none of us are ever likely to wind up in such a situation), but in a “what would I do?” way. Clearly, everyone thinks he did the wrong thing, but can you blame him? Would you be able to withstand a life of total loneliness? Maybe you would. Maybe you think you would. Nonetheless, the romance plot is inevitable (because that’s how movie plots work, especially in expensive Hollywood blockbusters), so the time bomb of What He Did adds an uncommon frisson. And the big action climax isn’t bad for what it is.

It's full of stars!

That said, the more you think about it, the more you can dream up variations that would’ve been of even greater interest. Like, what if Jim wasn’t physically attractive? Would Aurora still have fallen in love with an ugly bloke just because he was the only fella there? Or what if he’d died, leaving her to face the same dilemma he had — would she in fact wake someone up too? But those kinds of alternatives are far too challenging for a Hollywood romantic blockbuster. Like, the only way you’d get a physically unattractive leading man would be if it was a comedy and he was funny, and then she’d fall for him in spite of his looks because he made her laugh. But hey, it’s Hollywood entertainment behaving like Hollywood entertainment — should we be surprised?

4 out of 5

The Imitation Game (2014)

2016 #125
Morten Tyldum | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue
2015 Academy Awards
8 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design.



The Imitation GameAlan Turing was a war hero: he led a team of cryptologists who managed to break the Germans’ Enigma encryption, thereby giving the Allies access to tonnes of vital information that (historians estimate) helped shorten the war by up to four years. This information was beyond top secret — so much so that they created a new designation for it, “ultra secret” — so when the war was over, Turing & co’s contribution went unrecognised for decades. Alan Turing was also a homosexual in an era when that was illegal. When he was caught, he was sentenced to chemical castration, which caused (or at least contributed) to him taking his own life. Fine way to treat a war hero, but that’s what you get with discriminatory attitudes.

Discrimination is surely one of the major themes of The Imitation Game, a film that it’s apparently easy to mistake for a drama about the deciphering of Enigma, but which is really a Turing biopic. It takes place across three eras: the 1920s, when Turing (played by Alex Lawther) was a bullied schoolboy; the war years, when Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) faced discrimination across the board, including a commanding officer who thought he was a Soviet spy and teammates who flat out didn’t like him; and the 1950s, when Turing (played by Cumberbatch in gentle older-age make-up) is uncovered as gay and gets the persecution already discussed. As if that wasn’t enough, the best person he recruits for his team during the war is female (played by Keira Knightley), who of course is also pre-judged by some as capable of nothing more than being a dimwitted secretary.

The screenplay by newcomer Graham Moore topped the Black List in 2011, so it’s probably of little surprise that it went on to win an Oscar, but I think it’s fair to say its quality, while good, isn’t that good. The use of three concurrently-told timelines seems to be too much for Moore and/or director Morten Tyldum to handle at times, occasionally flitting to a different era with little purpose beyond “it’s about time we told more of that storyline”. That’s not to say a wholly chronological telling would’ve been more effective — though perhaps it would’ve placated critical viewers who expected (and retrospectively demand) a cryptography-based wartime thriller — but the period juggling clouds the point as often as it illuminates it.

Regardless, it blusters through with a relatively brisk pace (for what is essentially a heritage drama), supported by several excellent performances. Oscar-nominated Cumberbatch is the obvious headline — he’s Alan Turing in the Alan Turing biopic so of course he is, but it’s a very strong performance. His Turing is surely somewhere on the autistic spectrum, which at best has speculative historical basis, but Cumberbatch embodies well that social awkwardness with hidden inner genius. It would’ve been easy for him to slip into familiar traits from that other antisocial clever-clogs he plays, Sherlock Holmes, but at worst there are only vague and infrequent nudges to our memory of that performance. Rather, I’d argue he fully subsumes himself into this role. Surely that Oscar would’ve been his were it not for Eddie Redmayne’s even more remarkable turn as Stephen Hawking. (Well, Oscar voters might’ve plumped for Michael Keaton instead, but they’d’ve been wrong.)

Also up for the golden man was Knightley, who does give one of her better turns as Turing’s sort-of-sidekick. The pair have a fairly complex relationship — both halves are key to conveying that, and they both do. At least as remarkable as either is young Alex Lawther, who arguably gets the film’s stand-out acting moment in his final scene, where a tumult of emotion is contained beneath a stiff-upper-lip surface in a tight close-up. On the strength of this, an actor to watch out for. The rest of the cast don’t get the same depth of material, but Charles Dance and Mark Strong provide exceptional value, as always, and Rory Kinnear does his best to bring some nuance and interest to a part he’s overqualified for.

To return to the issue of the film’s reception, some people seem to be angry with or offended by the notion that the war was won as much — maybe even more — by men in rooms breaking codes than by soldiers on the ground doing the actual fighting. However, I can’t help but think that’s actually one of the points the film is making — that soldiers are the obvious ‘heroes’, because they’re there doing the shooting, but the people behind the scenes telling them where to go do that shooting are just as important to the overall victory. I mean, if you watched this film and still think the boots on the ground are the only thing that won the war, and by extension that intelligence isn’t all that important, then maybe you missed something.

Perhaps that just stems from a frustration at some of the film’s other issues. It clearly has a flexible relationship with historical accuracy — well, what biopic doesn’t? Without wanting to spoil plot developments, some viewers feel the film suggesting Turing knew of the spy at Bletchley Park is insulting to his memory, because in real-life he didn’t even know the individual. Alternatively, is it not a way to integrate that part of the Enigma story into a film that otherwise wouldn’t have a satisfactory way to touch on it? Everyone’s mileage will vary on whether that should’ve been done or not.

And let’s not even get into opinions on how the film dealt with Turing’s homosexuality, which swing wildly between “it was just a footnote, why didn’t it get more attention?!” and “why did they allow that to dominate a film about codebreaking?!”

There’s no denying that The Imitation Game contains an interesting story about an important aspect of the war, starring a fascinating and complex central character. How well it handles those aspects if more a matter for debate, as it doesn’t develop some elements as well as it perhaps should have, and the heritage stylings always turn some off. If you ignore or gloss over some of those faults and take the film at face value, it’s a 5-star effort with a well-told primary narrative and strong performances. If you do listen to the niggling faults and the “what could have been”s, it sinks back down a little.

Without meaning to sound too judgemental (though when has that ever stopped me?), those factors making me think this is the kind of film “normal people” will probably love a lot more than “film fans” — which probably explains why it’s in the IMDb Top 250 but all the most-liked reviews on Letterboxd have exceptionally low scores. Personally, I’m going to side with the populous: not everything has to be a groundbreaking feat of Cinema to be a story worth telling and told well, and if it is indeed some kind of “historical revisionism” to say that there’s nothing wrong with being gay and the way Turing was treated post-war was horrendous, well, I’m OK with that revisionism.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of The Imitation Game is on Channel 4 at 9pm tomorrow.