*/**** Image B Sound B Extras B-
starring Anne Hathaway, Patrick Wilson, David Morse, Dianne Wiest
screenplay by Ronnie Christensen
directed by Rodrigo Garcia
by Bryant Frazer Even if you haven't read the jacket promo copy, you'll suspect Passengers is up to some kind of supernatural wish-fulfillment from its first few minutes, as a slumbering Anne Hathaway is awakened on a rainy night by a phone call from a colleague who tells her something terrible has happened requiring her presence at a nearby hospital. It's not just that Hathaway plays Dr. Claire Summers, a therapist charged with helping a group of plane-crash survivors cope with their near-death experiences and the accompanying trauma--it's that the chilly, insistently otherworldly production design strongly implies something strange (but comforting, very comforting) is going on, too. Early hints that Claire's flirty, devil-may-care patient, Eric Clark (Patrick Wilson), has gained psychic powers, or that the other survivors are being eliminated, one by one, by a nefarious airline bent on protecting shareholder value, turn out to be red herrings as Passengers works its way to a hoary final-reel revelation that would have felt tired a decade ago.
The popularity of the gotcha! twist ending over the last fifteen years or so can probably be traced back to the success of The Usual Suspects, whose final scenes are an excuse to make the audience look back on the preceding 100 minutes as a partial (or complete?) fiction, a narrative spun by the most unreliable of narrators. I wasn't a big fan of that film, since it looked to me like a wholly unremarkable stab at contemporary noir enlivened only by a tricky Kevin Spacey performance and the big reveal at the end. But it was Citizen freaking Kane compared to The Sixth Sense, a movie that won so many fans with what was, to me, such a transparent bit of gimmickry that I could only shrug my shoulders and move on. The ostensibly clever end-of-film twist has now become so dominant a part of received wisdom in Hollywood that it seems any hack can see his script filmed with a studio budget and an A-list name above the title if it sports a game-changing revelation in its finale.
Which brings me back to Passengers, a romance with a bit of chemistry between its attractive lead actors but none between its characters; a near-somnambulant thriller that floats dead-end story threads half-heartedly through its running time; a drama that seems merely badly written until the final scriptwriter's flourish reveals it to be cloyingly pretentious as well. I can only figure that everyone involved must have felt the picture would be buoyed by a strong third-act surprise that would recast the audience's experience--and Hathaway gives it her best shot, executing an unhinged freak-out at the film's emotional climax that stands as the single stirring moment in the entire 93-minute running time. Alas, it's too little too late. By the time Passengers started to make a lick of sense, it had already put me half to sleep.
The script is credited to Ronnie Christensen, whose previous work includes made-for-TV business like the earthquake movie 10.5, but (based on comments made by director Rodrigo Garcia on the DVD and Blu-ray voiceover track) the original screenplay apparently went through a series of rewrites to change the film's tone. Thus it's not quite clear who's to blame for the cynical feeling of the whole enterprise--the picture plays like somebody consciously decided to blend elements of "Lost" and Peter Weir's Fearless into a schematic psychodrama that comes on with the po-faced sententiousness of a James Van Praagh best-seller. At one point, Eric muses aloud on Claire's search for answers. "Clarity for Claire," he murmurs, drawing too much attention to the script's infatuation with its own schema. Then again, it does also feature lots of people standing around, staring. If that's your idea of eerie, well, Passengers has that.
While Claire begins to suspect foul play on the part of the airline, once she starts investigating the circumstances of the crash she's never allowed to do anything. She can't even call the cops. Given her submissive behaviour when it comes to Eric's attempts at seduction--which suggests the canard that what this focused, successful career woman truly needs is, you know, a good fucking--Claire is not only the worst therapist ever, but an outright sexist construct. And Eric's behaviour is so inappropriately forward that his antics get their own playful soundtrack cues, as if to reassure the audience that the guy is intriguing instead of really, really creepy. Scenes are generally written and staged with so little imagination that you barely have to watch the screen to keep up with the story; at the start of any particular scene or sequence, whatever you suspect will happen next is pretty much what you will see. A gag borrowed wholesale from Alan Parker's Birdy would I suppose would qualify as hommage if it didn't feel like outright plagiarism.
It's hard to find fault with the performances, at least. Supporting players like Dianne Wiest and David Morse are more or less on target in one-dimensional roles, though Andre Braugher can't do much playing a wise black man so inscrutable and sage that even Morgan Freeman would turn the part down. Hathaway and Wilson try their best to work the romance at the centre of the story, but any number of sly and shy glances can't disguise the fact that there's no meat on their characters' bones.
What really rankles, though, is the blandly noncommittal worldview of the thing. A significant number of Americans, perhaps turned off by literal interpretations of Scripture, perhaps repulsed by the ways the far right wing has co-opted organized religion (and vice versa), claim to be "spiritual" rather than "religious." I'm not sure what exactly they mean, but that fits Passengers to a T: Its dimensions are clearly spiritual, yet the filmmakers are dead set against making a committed statement about religion, theology, or God Himself. I'm not religious at all, but I have lots of time in my viewing schedule for filmmakers like Bresson, Dreyer, Reygadas, Bergman, and even Von Trier, who are willing to dramatize and defend their own ideas about what any given Almighty might have in store for us. I don't, on the other hand, have the patience for this namby-pamby bullshit, which has the stones to suggest that dying in an airplane crash might not be such a bad way to go (this film features probably the most ultimately risible mid-flight disaster sequence ever staged) but lacks the gumption to deal with its purported subjects with intellectual curiosity or emotional honesty. Fly me away, please, from this condescending supernatural twaddle.
|Click for hi-res BD captures|
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The picture quality on Passengers' Blu-ray release is absolutely adequate and thoroughly unexceptional. Encoded in AVC (MPEG-4) at reasonably high bitrates (on a BD-50), the 2.35:1, 1080p transfer displays no obvious compression artifacts and there's no reason to believe the colours and contrast aren't faithful to the filmmakers' intentions. Still, it's a middle-of-the-road presentation, with the image looking somewhat grain-reduced, albeit not to an egregious degree. There is noise in the picture, however, that doesn't resemble anything native to a piece of celluloid. (It's more like you're watching the film through a haze, but it's not too bad.) The sound is similarly competent but unremarkable, the front-heavy mix making subtle use of the surrounds. Flashbacks that take place aboard the airplane bring the surrounds to life, and a few of the music cues use the full soundstage, their dissonant electronic sounds bouncing around the rears before the piano notes come in up front.
I remember barely being aware of the existence of Passengers before it was dumped in, then almost instantaneously pulled from, our local multiplex late in 2008, and TriStar's lack of confidence in the material is in evidence on the slapped-together DVD and Blu-ray jacket art, prominently displaying a head shot of Anne Hathaway that looks almost nothing like Anne Hathaway. With hair insanely feathered, big brown eyes inexplicably lightened, and any unique facial characteristics aside from that tiny dimple in her lower lip airbrushed out of visibility, she more resembles the tough-but-winsome star of some unaired Joss Whedon pilot than she does the charming, slightly awkward young woman who makes several passages of Passengers almost entertaining. The tagline on the cover--"The line between this world and the next is about to be crossed"--shamelessly panders to the "Crossing Over with John Edward" set even as it borders on false advertising, suggesting a spooky ghost story.
The disc's supplements are only slightly less perfunctory. They're anchored by the aforementioned commentary track, in which director Garcia and actor Wilson congratulate one another on their good taste, laud the cast and crew, and talk about Wilson's method. It often verges on a two-man mutual-appreciation society, although their questions for each other are pretty good. Wilson gamely offers insight into how he approached different scenes and Garcia talks about how production designer David Brisbin and cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo took their cues from the film's locations in designing its look, an aesthetic that favours the blues and greens apparently found naturally in the Vancouver cityscape. They point out which backdrops are locations as opposed to which are sets or green-screened in, and Garcia acknowledges that the film went through several writers, potentially explaining the maddening diffuseness of the finished product. Absent is any real consideration of how Passengers fared in post-production, aside from a conspicuously-dropped comment by Garcia about how difficult it is to make a movie compared to how easily it can be trashed. It's not clear that Garcia was talking about this film, but his words briefly pricked up my ears, as I had been wondering if the picture's 93-minute running time was an indication that ace editor Thom Noble had cut it to the bone to appease the suits (as is sometimes the case when the commercial prospects of a release start to make studio bosses nervous). Well, maybe he was referring to the film's critical reception--the commentary was recorded a couple of weeks after Passengers' theatrical release--which could be characterized as a trashing from which Garcia would still be smarting. Aside from that remark and the one about the multiple rewrites, the yakker is your usual exercise in positive thinking and cautious speaking.
Also included are three standard-def deleted scenes (letterboxed to 2.35:1 and sans commentary) that, taken together, would extend the film's length by just over six minutes. "Claire Finds Out the Truth" (3 mins.) teases a bit more nuance out of the Claire-Eric relationship; "Claire at Norman's House" (2 mins.) depicts a conversation between Claire and one of her patients that was perhaps cut because it drops an extra clue to the story's trajectory; and "Claire's Dream Sequence" (2 mins.) lays it on incredibly thick, dramatizing a dream Claire has about flying kites with her estranged sister. Two featurettes are offered in 16x9 HD (MPEG-2). The first, "Analysis of the Plane Crash" (16 mins.), is an OK short about the creation of visual effects for a flashback sequence depicting the ill-fated flight that was shot on a big phoney fuselage set jostled by hydraulics and surrounded by green screens. VFX supervisors Doug Oddy and Eric Nordby and digital compositor Dan Brittain are interviewed alongside Brisbin and Jadue-Lillo. The combination of film clips, interviews, and B-roll footage is interesting enough for a few minutes, but quickly becomes repetitive. "The Manifest & Making of Passengers" (23 mins.) is a completely unremarkable making-of seemingly targeted at prospective viewers rather than at Blu-ray owners who've already committed to the purchase or rental. That is to say, it's a whole bunch of filmmakers trying to convince us they've done something profound while dancing around the actual point of the movie, discussing the story in coded terms that don't give away the surprise. The producers keep insisting the film is really about how Claire learns to take more risks and come into her own, which is perverse considering the ultimate circumstances of her story, but never mind. Beyond the boring, character-by-character rundown of the performances that's all too common these days, there is some talk about cinematography and production design that's comparatively interesting. The mini-docs are edited by Robb Hanson and produced by Mark Rowen and Samantha Somers.
The package is rounded out with a typical Sony Pictures assortment of trailers. The in-house come-on reel, "Blu-ray is High Definition!", plays before the main feature along with trailers for Rachel Getting Married, I've Loved You so Long, and Seven Pounds. Tucked away under a menu option are previews touting Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway, "Damages" Season 1, The Da Vinci Code, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, Lakeview Terrace, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, and Premonition. Originally published: June 30, 2009.