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Passenegers (2016)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

Written By: Jon Spaihts

Directed By: Morten Tyldum

The Shot

Passengers tells a story that many modern audiences will not be comfortable with, and it leaves those audiences to do much of the critical philosophizing it doesn’t have time for.  But it’s also beautiful and thought provoking and very well acted, and worth an intimate look for those willing to divorce themselves from having to share the same ethics as the characters they’re watching.

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“You look like a whisky man.”

“Why’d you do it?“

For most movies on their premiere release weekend, the ideal experience is to enjoy the film at hand in a theatre full of people.

Though I suspect those with a stake in the picture’s box office numbers would disagree, Passengers is an exception to that truism.

When I saw Passengers this holiday weekend, I was the only person in a large, otherwise empty theatre, and no experience could have better crystallized the atmosphere of Passengers than that.  It was, I think, the absolute perfect setting in which to view the movie.

As for what is being experienced…

I’ll start with the production design and atmospherics for which my empty theatre became an extension.  The entirety of Passengers takes place aboard the starship Avalon, which is carrying 5000 hibernating passengers (and 250 hibernating crew) on a ninety-year journey from Earth to the colony world of Homestead II.  The Avalon is gorgeous inside and and out, but it is gorgeous in a way that echoes astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s description of the Moon as “magnificent desolation.”  For beautiful though the Avalon may be, without living people walking about and truly populating it, it’s little more than a five-star mausoleum with an empty bar.  It is, in fact, gorgeously lonely, and it takes very little time for that emptiness and loneliness to seep out past the screen and into the theatre… thereby providing the perfect atmosphere for the story at hand, for if one doesn’t buy into that feeling of emptiness and loneliness even with all of the posh trimming of a luxury starship, nothing about the story at hand can work.

I truly don’t think it would have worked as well had the theatre been crowded instead of empty.

With the atmosphere established, it’s time to tell a story, and that’s where Passengers walks an interesting wire.

It’s well-nigh impossible to discuss the single most crucial point about the story of Passengers without spoiling everything.  (Even the trailer – which definitely shares too much – manages to keep a lid on.)  What I can say is that however beloved this screenplay might have been on the “Blacklist” nearly a decade back, its brand of ethics and human relationships would likely have played better back in the early 1960s, and are bound to trigger some pretty major backlash from a large section of the modern audience on multiple levels.  Granted, such things can be fodder for great, thought-provoking discussion, but Passengers has a definite runtime to stick to, leaving any such discussions to be dealt with on a thin surface level at best.

Understanding the medium through which this story is being told – a motion picture – I, personally, am willing to accept that, whether or not I agree with how the characters behave.  (Novel concept, that: the ability to enjoy art that does not necessarily reflect oneself.)  Again, Passengers is a movie: if it actually did devote the screen time necessary to fully flesh out all of its moral and ethical questions and the complete psychology of its characters, the movie would be unbearably long and unwatchable, and I’ve already sat through Interstellar, thanks.  (Though admittedly, that was too long for different reasons.)  If I wanted the story to do more of the work for me, I’d wait for a novel.  Taken as such, I think the story here is presented very well, buoyed by a strong atmosphere and outstanding performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt (who carry a pretty major burden, considering that they are the only people on screen for most of the film, and often it’s just one of them).  Props are also due for Michael Sheen, who brings more life than one might have considered possible to his stuck-in-place robot bartender character.

Any further depth… well, that’s what we bring into the theatre ourselves as the audience, don’t we?  Passengers may not have time to deal with all of its issues, but it does bring them up, and even now, much later, I’m still thinking about them.  To me, that’s a good working definition of a successful movie.  Indeed, the more I think about Passengers, the more I like it… and that, too, seems like a good working definition of a successful movie. 

Will it work for everyone?  No; I don’t think it will.  But for me, Passengers does, and if you can’t find yourself an empty theatre to experience it in, then I suggest finding some combination of the biggest screen available (the visuals of the Avalon and the spacescapes demand it) and a very small audience to share the moment with.

It really is gorgeously lonely.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2016

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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