Passengers (2016)

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Dir: Morten Tyldum

Starr: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen

Viewed: Cineworld Renfrew St, Glasgow (Screen 10)

NOTE: This review goes into some detail about the film’s plot. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first, even if the main point of my review is to state just how much of a failure Passengers is.

“These are not robot questions.”

(Arthur draws attention to precisely what kind of questions Jim is asking)

 

“Do you trust me?”

(Jim asks Aurora before there first space jump, to which she should answer, no, no, and NO again)

 

For the few people out there that have always thought a modern day remake of the indentured servitude melodrama Rachel and the Stranger (1948) would work particularly well in space, then Jon Spaihts’ is about to disappoint you too. Passengers is a miserable mess of a film that manages to somehow sabotage a potentially interesting idea, not once, but twice. What is in effect a three-hander with plenty of scope for creepy psychological thrills and claustrophobic intensity, has all its dangerous edges smoothed away at the point of casting Chris Pratt as Jim Preston. Pratt’s amiable, affectless modern masculinity is predicated upon his near complete lack of sexual threat. He’s big, but he’s goofy; good looking and wise-cracking, but with a constant undercurrent of niceness. Inexplicably screenwriter Jon Spaihts gives the audience a fantastic location (the self-sufficient spaceship Avalon) and a disturbing central premise (what would you get up to if you knew you were the only conscious person among 5,000 unconscious interplanetary colonists?), but then chooses to focus upon an absurdly-realised romance and an utterly fudged action ending. For the record, Preston’s unravelling loneliness does not excuse his ‘act of killing’, and the obsessive way in which he controls and manipulates Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, is anything but ‘romantic’, unless your idea of ‘romance’ has a 15th century flavour about it. Lawrence is, by a long way, the best thing about this film, but I wonder just what kind of film she thought she was signing up for?

 

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Love is in the air? Or is that a psychopathic stare of intent? For large parts of the film Jim (Chris Pratt) is watching Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence. This voyeuristic tendency creeps into other areas of the film when the director frames Lawrence, so that her body is little more than an object to be gazed upon.

 

Spaihts’ script would have done well to heed the promotional tagline of the first entry in a franchise that he wrote the last instalment of, namely Alien (1978) and “In space no one can hear you scream”.  Prometheus’s (2012) woeful plotting was partly the fault of Spaihts (who co-wrote it with Damon Lindelof). Horror film critic Kim Newman has written about the overlaps, in terms of technology, between the universe of Passengers and Prometheus, hinting at a possible franchise linkage, which may go some of the way to explaining the incongruous nature of Andy Garcia’s brief appearance. But what do I mean by that tagline? In Alien there was a crew, progressively picked off one by one by the titular alien, until only Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was left to defeat the creature. This was a monster movie in space, that toyed with the emerging aesthetics of the slasher genre, and made much from the dark industrial nature of the spacecraft Nostromo. Passengers, by comparison, takes place on the brightly lit and hyper-consumerist Avalon, featuring a bar straight out of The Shining (1980), manned by an android, or is he a robot as even it seems confused about this issue of identity. This android/robot, named Arthur and played by Michael Sheen, is Jim’s only company, when he is woken from his 120-year hibernation by a freak asteroid strike. Jim was supposed to have emerged from his cryo-stasis, along with the other colonists, 4 months before landing on the far away colony of Homestead II. Instead, he finds himself awake 90 years ahead of schedule, with no means of getting himself back into cryo-stasis. The rapid deterioration of Jim’s mental wellbeing brings out a monstrous id, that should have formed the central component of a perversely disturbing psychological thriller in space, but Spaihts script chooses to evaporate this sense of dread and obsessive threat, by instead focusing on Preston’s recovery once he has woken/murdered Aurora’s potential Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As Aurora discovers that tagline to Alien is all too true.

Frustratingly, the script puts enough meat on Lawrence’s role as Aurora to further emphasise just what could have been achieved if the writer, and most likely the studio behind this film, had opted to focus on the horror and thriller elements of the plot, rather than the romance and action elements. There is a revenge film in there somewhere, with Lawrence’s Aurora as the central protagonist and heroine. Aurora may start out like a MPDG, helping Jim rediscover his mojo and get rid of his Robinson Crusoe beard, but Lawrence is too smart an actress to be hemmed in by a reductive modern female archetype. Long before Arthur has spilled the beans about the precise reasons as to why Aurora finds herself stranded in space and time with Jim, we can see that the character is self-possessed in a way that never occurs in the purely reactive natures of MPDGs. It is a further failure of Spaihts’ script that once Aurora is fully apprised of what Jim has done to her and reacted with the kind of vengeful rage that is always interesting in film, it simply lets this wrathful fury dissipate into forgiveness, just in time for the plot to intervene and force the couple to co-operate with one another. It is all shockingly wasteful, as the queasy nature of their relationship, and the perversity of Jim’s initial fixation are buried under a welter of chauvinistic alpha male action posturing and cod Christian symbolism.

 

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After the revelation of why Aurora is actually with Jim, Lawrence really comes into her own, whilst Pratt is left floundering in a role that would have been better suited to someone like Michael Shannon.

 

A quick test of just how conservative and patriarchal the gender politics and ‘romantic’ notions of the film are can be carried out by examining more closely the two male relationships in the film. Firstly, you have Jim’s relationship with Arthur the android/robot (this confusion of identity augurs in other vagaries). Jim never goes beyond the formal with Arthur, refusing to enter in to a strong sense of camaraderie, or its modern equivalent ‘bro-ness’, partly because Arthur is unabashedly British and ‘proper’ in his speech, but also, perhaps, because Arthur isn’t in fact a man and his eunuch physicality underscores this emasculation. By comparison, when Laurence Fishburne’s Gus Mancuso (one of the managerial elite of the Avalon) is woken up from his cryo-stasis, we see Jim immediately enter in to an easy manly bond with him. Unlike Arthur, Gus also has eyes for Aurora, and Jim can relate to this. Gus’ companionship acts as a restorative of Jim’s machismo by enabling Jim to re-enter the casual chauvinisms of normalised masculinity. Mancuso also serves as just another means by which the script frustratingly converts the intensely voyeuristic and obsessive fixation that Jim has with Aurora into behaviour that is inherently masculine, rather than disturbing and ‘weird’. Even in normalising Jim’s behaviour as something central to a sense of male ego, there could have still been potential to demonstrate how this is perniciously predicated upon ideas of dominance, invasiveness and objectification. However, the little inserts of Aurora’s home video footage from a leaving party prior to her boarding the Avalon, show her female friends affirming a central romantic tenet of the film, that true happiness can only be found in a heterosexual relationship with a good, strong man. Does a man who holds you captive until you submit to his idea of romance count as a good, strong man I wonder? Once again, the echoes of Rachel and the Stranger sound out through galactic wagon train of the Avalon.       

Director Morten Tyldum (Headunters, The Imitation Game) was very clearly a hack for hire, going through the motions of Spaihts’ torturous script. That said there are elements of the film that are well handled. The production design on the film is immaculate, with the Avalon being a supra-plastic consumerist space patterned on shopping mall complexes like Westfield’s in Stratford, London. It is telling that the operations quarters of the Avalon are out-of-bounds to our passengers, with only the consumer-driven sections of the ship at their disposal. Like good modern citizens Jim and Aurora should simply occupy themselves with consumerist activity, and not waste time thinking about who, or what, is in charge of providing this life they lead. Columbia, the studio behind the film, are owned by Sony, which might explain a blatant bit of product placement in situ, when Jim has a little PlayStation inspired dance-off. One moment of brilliantly original effects work occurs when Aurora takes a swim in the starlit swimming pool, just as the gravity drive kicks out. This unique action sequence proves so effective because it again incorporates the dread aspects of those smoothly consumerist spacecraft veneers. Life is very much under the regulation of computer operating systems, squirreled away behind the panelling. By far the weakest element of the entire film is Thomas Newman’s ponderous and plodding soundtrack that could be Muzak, if it weren’t so tiresomely omnipresent. In a film built of fleeting moments of intrigue salvaged from a morass of poorly executed ideas, I still think that the one point where another, better film becomes visible is that moment when Aurora bursts into Jim’s bedroom and beats him senseless, before threatening to bludgeon him. The fact that this happens exactly halfway through the film, and serves as the last point at which the film shows any interest in the darker aspects of its central relationship, should give you a sense of just how far Tyldum and Spaihts let the whole thing drift.

 

Rating: 3.5/10

La La Land (2016)

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Dir: Damien Chazelle

Starr: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend

Viewed: Cameo, Edinburgh (Screen 1)

La La Land (2016) is a suitably self-absorbed love-letter to the grand artifice of the Hollywood ‘dream factory’ and the sprawling cityscape that houses it. That city, Los Angeles, has become so intertwined with one of its most successful industries that for the dreamers and fantasists seeking fame and fortune in film, its projections of Hollywood ‘unreality’ can make an experience of its urban ‘reality’ dispiriting at best. For a geographic location that has produced so much filmed entertainment, it has only a very slender film presence of its own. We know an L.A. beyond the film sets and studio backlots exists, but how little interest that L.A. seems to hold for Hollywood. In Damien Chazelle’s first directorial feature since his breakthrough movie Whiplash (2014) the dream of Hollywood glitz and glamour, and the undimmed belief in its artifice, is allowed to dance lightly across the city’s cinematic landmarks, never once taking the trouble to look behind the scenery and set decoration. It is purest fantasy, exuberant escapism and pleasant romance, all rolled up into one neatly formal musical package. Yet how much of the impact of Chazelle’s film is to do with the choice of detailing on its wrapping paper?

Essentially La La Land is a boy meets girl story. The boy in question is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a struggling jazz pianist, who dreams of owning his own jazz club, but has to make do with playing Christmas fare to the grazing hoards at a ridiculous tapas bar, managed by Bill (a brief cameo from J.K. Simmons, who was taken to an Oscar win by Chazelle in Whiplash). The girl is the budding starlet Mia (Emma Stone), who routinely suffers the tortures and indignities of the Hollywood auditioning and casting processes, but imagines herself one day in the august company of Hepburn or Bergman. Dreams of creativity are what unite these two characters, who have come to the city to try and realise those dreams, but are beginning to believe they will have to settle and compromise. Chazelle’s film is another entry in Hollywood’s long line of features that extol the virtue of never giving up on your dream. But what if your dreams of creativity stand opposed to your happiness as a couple?

 

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Among the various subtly encoded moments of nostalgia, both for film and music, within La La Land the use of the famous Rialto Theatre as a site for Mia and Sebastian to go see Rebel Without a Cause, works as a particularly elegiac take on cinemagoing in the 21st century, as this venerable L.A. institution closed its doors for good in 2007.

 

Much has been made of Chazelle’s wide-ranging cine-literacy, as well as his own background as a jazz drummer. Mark Cousins, particularly, waxed lyrical in his February 2017 Sight and Sound column, entitled ’17 for ‘17’, about Chazelle’s acknowledgement of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki (1973) and Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999) as among the filmmaker’s favourite musicals (“I could have kissed his feet. If people making big films are watching movies like those, and thinking about cinema like that, then the cinephile religion is safe.”). La La Land is undoubtedly the work of a student of film, a cinephile with meticulously maintained crib sheets and lists: a little Casablanca (1942) here, some Hair (1979) there, a dash of the panache of An American in Paris (1951) wed to the dilution of relationship dissolution in New York, New York (1977) – more of which later. Chazelle even explicitly foregrounds this defining magpie trope by making the Griffiths Observatory, as seen in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a key returning location within his own film.

In its studied awareness of genre the film also justifies a self-reflexive approach to the musical, whilst simultaneously attempting to unsuccessfully head off accusations of a nostalgic harking back to a ‘golden age’. The film makes ideas of creative traditions vs creative innovations a bone of contention between Sebastian and his more successful musician friend Keith (played by actual musician John Legend, whose executive producer credit may explain the rather cynical placement of his musical output as a key element of the narrative). Sebastian’s embrace of ‘pure’ jazz is primarily a result of that musical form’s prizing of variation and improvisation. Thus, the jazz traditionalist is contradictorily a rebel, aware of their musical lineage, but never looking to play a song the same way twice. This could, and does, serve as an extended metaphor for what Chazelle is doing with the musical.

 

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Chazelle’s major set-pieces are more concerned with the careful choreography of camera movement, than interestingly choreographed dance routines, which leaves many shots in the film looking more than a little flat.

 

Visually the film is playing an extended riff on the title’s ideas of fantasy, delusion and self-absorption. This leads Chazelle and his DOP, Linus Sandgren, to pursue an approach to shot design that utterly privileges the lead performances of Gosling and Stone. Opening the film with a freeway-situated show-stopper seems like a bold formal innovation, but it is most noteworthy for the flatness with which it deploys Sandgren’s free-roaming camerawork. The dynamism of this sequence is more to do with the choreography of the camera’s movements, snapping on to action as it cuts into and across its visual field, rather than the choreography of the dance routines. Despite a mass array of performers, the equal of a Busby Berkley film, Chazelle doesn’t really locate any narratorial points of interest within the routines, until introducing his leads at the very end of the opening sequence. In this regard the opening routine has more in common with a music video or advert than it does with other musicals, it is unintegrated spectacle. That said it does manage to efficiently evoke the transition from film dramatic space to film fantastical space, the frustrating mundanity of a grid-locked freeway suddenly gives way to the joyous zeal of song and dance. Throughout the rest of the film this undefined fantastical space of the opening routine becomes the very tightly defined dream space of Mia and Sebastian, and their blossoming relationship.

When it comes to the central couple there is undoubtedly some chemistry between Stone and Gosling, which plays out particularly effectively in moments of visual comedy, such as the Chaplinesque intro to their first dance, or the way in which the couple initially, quite literally, bump into one another. Chazelle has taken the unusual approach of showcasing the dance steps and songbird skills of two actors whose range is fairly limited in both regards. I felt it actually gave the film a slightly endearing quality to see the two central performers work their way, very consciously, through a limited repertoire and range. Each star has their spotlight moment where they alone sing their hearts out, and as long as things remain at a surface level, in keeping with the Hollywood fantasia that Chazelle has crafted for them, then this love affair is quite adorable. However, deficiencies emerge when Chazelle’s ‘Fall’ section rolls upon us – the film is structured around the four seasons. There is a very deliberate swerve into heavier dramatic terrain within this section. The relationship is on the ropes, as both characters begin to pursue their creative dreams and ambitions with that little bit more vigour.

 

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The film shrinks out of the  bright sunlit L.A. days and moonlit L.A. nights in its ‘Fall’ section, where dimly lit interiors and moody colours predominate. Emma Stone carries this section, as Gosling fails to dig beneath the surface charm. 

 

An impromptu romantic dinner reveals the first cracks in the relationship, and also demonstrates Chazelle’s heavy debt to Scorsese’s high-intensity musical New York, New York. Although never anywhere near the seething, hateful, horrendously aggrieved mess of that film’s deteriorating central relationship, the emergence of a dramatic underscore in this film’s hitherto light and frothy confections, feels awkwardly conceived of, at best. A substantial part of the blame must be shouldered by Gosling in this regard. Despite having learned jazz piano to lend authenticity to his music renditions – thus freeing up Chazelle to pursue much longer takes – Gosling’s performance is too monotone. Whereas Stone is an able comic performer who really brings aching depths to her dawning realisation that the couple can only really have their relationship or creative fulfilment, Gosling is all surface charm and pained superficiality, not a lot else. The disparity between performances is most pronounced in those rare domestic drama scenes in the Fall section. Stone gives a nuanced rendering of hurt, betrayal and disappointment, as ‘reality’ puts a pin prick in La La Land, but Gosling cannot or will not match her, looking somewhere between bored and constipated, with occasional voluble outbursts of frantic activity. Gosling’s character is never really seen to elude the fantastical delusions of La La Land, which may well be Chazelle’s point, but all that this does is make the film seem queasily unbalanced at its weightiest moments. A part of me sees this as a directorial decision, particularly as the sudden flip into more affected handheld camerawork occurs at precisely this point. But if this is the case, I also find myself asking why?

The instantly forgettable nature of the song lyrics is another harder cross to bear for a musical. With perhaps the sole exception of ‘City Stars’, sung by Gosling during the couple’s first dance dalliance, so many of the songs in La La Land have highly hummable tunes, but little memorable in the words department. When thinking about some of the most entertaining musicals from years gone by, the frantic wordplay of ‘Moses Supposes’ and the title song from ‘Guys and Dolls’ would be examples of just how rich and inventive the lyric sheet was in films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Guys and Dolls (1955). La La Land does not fare well by comparison, robbing the film of a crucial component of storytelling within the genre. It attempts to make up for this through a fond sense of familiarity with such films. But how to pay homage to classic Hollywood musicals when your choreography is a little pedestrian and your songs predominately unaffecting?

 

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The review cannot end without some mention of the always fantastic Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Sebastian’s older sister Laura. Much like Laura Linney in Nocturnal Animals (2016), DeWitt’s brief five minute cameo is close to a film stealer.

 

The climax to La La Land is one way, perhaps. A fantastic narrative loop is pursued in the final scene which works up, rather expertly, an emotional crescendo to a film that otherwise didn’t seem to have such a high point in it. Reprising the opening number of the film as a means of taking the narrative all the way back to Mia and Sebastian’s first brief encounter upon the freeway, Chazelle accelerates through a ‘what might have been’ dream within a dream, that is not only the most arresting piece of extended mobile camerawork in the entire film, but also manages to draw attention to an innovative aspect of the film itself. The scenes that have comprised the bulk of the film’s running time are shown to chronicle the overwhelming absences within the relationship. In the five minute reworking those absences are reversed and thus become staging posts on the way to Mia and Sebastian realising both their creative aspirations and the dream of a perfect future together. The fantastical film we have thus far sat through, is thus revised as a dream laid upon a fantasy, which manages to make the latter seem somehow less escapist and inconsequential. It is a bravura sleight of hand from Chazelle, and one that will undoubtedly tick all the preferred boxes on those Oscar ballot sheets, even if it left these musical-loving eyes and ears somewhat underwhelmed.

 

Rating: 7/10