A TALE OF TWO MOVIES
It was the best of movies, it was the worst of movies, it was the age of CGI, it was the age of mediocre writing.
I have this idea for a movie: Charles Dickens is a penniless hack living in an orphanage in London. He accidentally gets sucked into a time machine and is transported to the present where he reads the opening lines to this review and watches all of Jennifer Lawrence's films before he's involved in an auto accident and dies, only to wake up in his orphanage in London with vague memories of Jennifer Lawrence's measurements which just happen to be the combination to a lock box he has always had under his bed in which there is a ballpoint pen, a package of Post-It notes, and an original copy of the script to Avatar on which has been handwritten, "Re: Neytiri character, I never said she was nuts, I said ..." The rest of the note is lost in a water smear.
If only I could get this to Disney execs.
Sand and I saw two movies this week. One got good reviews -- not the best, but not bad. The other got bad reviews -- not the worst, but still pretty bad. Based on what the professional reviewers said, we first opted for the well-reviewed movie. So off we went to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. If you're old enough, you might remember that the original Star Wars movie opens with Princess Leia spiriting away the stolen plans for the evil Empire's Death Star weapon system just before she is captured by the really evil Darth Vader. Rogue One is the story of how those plans got stolen. And that's not a bad thing. Star Wars was a wonderfully imaginative story, and I think that it could be mined for a lot of entertaining tales. This one, however, felt as though it began with Jack Webb intoning his famous lines, "Ladies and gentlemen, The Star Wars story you are about to see is true. The names have changed to protect the innocent." It was a kinda pretty film, and the artistic style of the original series was preserved, and this story did in fact dovetail with the original, but it just seemed to lack a soul. It was, in a word, boring. In trying to pay homage to the original, this movie was more like the original preserved in formaldehyde. The humor, such as it was, was forced. The acting wasn't bad, but the characters were pretty shallow, and the actors took themselves too seriously. There was too much angst in the movie; Star Wars is a farce after all, not a tragedy.
So I didn't like the movie that the critics thought was pretty good. Sand and I naturally wondered if the critics were as wrong about Passengers as they were about Rogue One.
Director Morten Tyldum, who previously had given us The Imitation Game, this time around gives us an interesting tale set in space, on an ark ship carrying five thousand settlers in suspended animation on a 120-year journey to a new colony. Unfortunately, only thirty years into the flight, one of the "hibernation pods" malfunctions, and passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is awakened. With only an android bartender for company, he faces the prospect of living out his life alone in space. After a year of what amounts to solitary confinement, a disturbing and compelling idea occurs to him -- he can awaken another passenger. It would end his desperate loneliness, but it would condemn that person to death in space. In the meantime, another problem is manifesting itself. There is something wrong with the ship, and there is a series of increasingly critical malfunctions beginning to occur.
It's pretty obvious to all who have seen the trailers that Jim decides to awaken his fellow passenger, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), and I won't spoil anything if I tell you that Jim opts to let Aurora believe that her pod malfunctioned. But it is just not true that in space no one can hear you lie, and when Aurora figures out that Jim purposely woke her, their relationship begins to fall apart just as rapidly as the ship.
The story is clever, but it's not without its flaws. I might wish for a better ending, and you don't want to look too closely at the science of the ship mechanics, but if you give a little bit on the assumptions, you're rewarded with a nicely-paced story that keeps your interest from beginning to end. And the characters are very satisfying: not badly written and given life by the quality of acting that you would expect from Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, and from the quality of acting that is a bit of a surprise from Chris Pratt. I liked these characters and their portrayal, and Michael Sheen does a bang-up job as the android barkeeper.
I also loved the design of this space ship. If I ever go into space, I want it to be aboard a ship like the Starship Avalon. Passengers is not as good Tyldum's previous effort The Imitation Game, and won't be garnering any Oscar nominations (except maybe a nod for Production Design), but it's good entertainment.
So I liked the movie that the critics thought was pretty bad.
Trust me, you just can't trust the movie critics.
I knew that I wanted to see Passengers from the first time I saw a poster for it. Frankly I didn't even know what it was about, it simply had Jennifer Lawrence in it, and that was good enough for my ticket.
But I checked out the story on IMDb anyway, because I hate surprises. I found that the tale was about the hibernation ship Avalon bound out on a 120 year trip to the colony planet Homestead II. A mechanical malfunction causes two sleeping passengers to wake 90 years too early. Their dilemma: could they live the rest of their lives on a ship, just the two of them?
But there's another dilemma: just what caused the first two hibernation chambers to open early, and why are the ship's automated systems getting weirder and weirder?
Passengers asks a modern movie-going audience a couple interesting questions. First, do you have enough courage and imagination to live your life alone? Sure, Chris Pratt's character Jim Preston has everything he needs to live out his life, but does he want to be isolated, when what he signed on for was to do a job in a new world -- in which he could make a difference? And Jennifer Lawrence's character was doing a time-travel stunt, planning on going to Homestead II for a year and then returning back to Earth after 240 years away, for fame. Getting old in space wasn't in her plans. Like many people today, digging within themselves to find a meaningful life isn't on the books.
Second, can you accept that life is what it is, and however high or low that life is, bring your own meaning into it? Or do we only accept life if it's what we wanted in the first place?
Professional critcs heaped great scorn on Passengers, and I'm not sure why. The sets were lovely, Pratt and Lawrence are delightful to watch, and while the ending wasn't what I thought it would be, it was for me, satisfying and thought-provoking.
And much better, in my opinion, than Rogue One which we had gone to see two days before.
Almost everyone in my generation knows the plot of Rogue One, so there's no need to be coy about it: Luke Skywalker and Han Solo needed to deliver Princess Leia's plans to the Death Star to the Rebel forces to defeat the evil empire. Okay, so this is how Leia got the secret plans.
About ten minutes into the movie, I knew that choosing this film had been a dreadful mistake. I didn't bother to look at my watch to see how much time was left -- whether it was a half-hour or two, it was going to be far too long.
Back in the original Star Wars, the special effects were a surprise and a wonder. When the Millenium Falcon took off into the sky, it was jaw-droppingly amazing. To see a CGI takeoff staged exactly the same way in Rogue One was plain old boring, and throughout the movie, visual references to iconic Star Wars scenes made me cringe repeatedly at the hokum lathered over what could have been a good story.
Obviously I didn't like the movie, and would not go see another "Star Wars Story" again. But one last point. Throughout the 133 minutes, people get killed. Especially storm troopers, until dying armored people could have made an entire landfill necessary. But that was supposed to be okay, because they were taking orders from the evil baddies. Too much, too much.
If you are heavily invested into Star Wars imagery and fandom, you'll probably like it. Enjoy.