Better now than later.
An explosion, crash, confused man, and burning plane: this is the sequence of images as Rodrigo García‘s Passengers commences. It’s a pretty straightforward visual set-up for the incident everything else will surround before his lead (Anne Hathaway‘s Dr. Claire Summers) is introduced during the next scene. She’s a trauma counselor enlisted by her boss (Andre Braugher‘s Perry) to take point on helping the small group of people who survived process the event. They’re all in differing stages of psychological distress with one remembering a fire (Ryan Robbins‘ Dean), others who don’t (Clea DuVall‘s Shannon, Don Thompson‘s Norman, and Chelah Horsdal‘s Janice), and another so overcome with adrenaline that he’s never felt better (Patrick Wilson‘s Eric). In order to provide them necessary closure, Claire must discover what happened.
The cause is deemed pilot error according to the airline (represented by David Morse‘s shadily dismissive Arkin), so talk of an explosion (that we saw) forces Claire to question what’s going on. This reality is only exacerbated by an unknown man (Andrew Wheeler) who appears to be following Norman to the point where the latter starts believing a cover-up has put all their lives at risk. Perry becomes a calming voice to keep Claire’s mind focused above conspiracy theory, but she can only ignore inconsistencies so long without diving into speculation herself. And as she moves away from her ethics to get closer to an extremely flirtatious Eric, she becomes more than just a periphery player. Soon the entities targeting these passengers must also keep tabs on her.
Why did some forget the fire? Why does Eric seem to know Claire despite them never having met? Where’s the dog that follows him around coming from and why does her neighbor (Dianne Wiest‘s Toni) start taking an unhealthy interest in her day-to-day? The whole endeavor becomes very creepy very fast—something that made me wonder what it is about the title Passengers considering the other one I know has Chris Pratt murdering Jennifer Lawrence simply because he’s lonely. Everyone is suddenly stalking Claire to claustrophobia-inducing levels of paranoia. We’re not sure she can trust anyone because every kindness begins to feel as though an ulterior motive lies in wait beneath. As a result, the central romance is never genuine enough to stop coming across as lecherous.
There’s a reason why Eric acts this way towards Claire, but it only arrives at the end for us to reappraise what occurred through hindsight. The problem with this is that hindsight isn’t able to negate the fact that neither character knows this reason either. Since they’re just as clueless to what’s happening as we are, their actions are steeped in authentic identities. He therefore is a lecherous flirt who refuses to listen to the word “No” and she’s someone who likes it. Not only that: she’s someone who fits his reductively sexist notion of her being uncomfortable with her desirability. Eric pretty much out-psychoanalyzes his shrink to get in her pants and we’re supposed to look past the moral haziness because, “Aren’t they cute together?”
It’s made more off-putting upon realizing the romance isn’t the point of the film. Them being together has no bearing on what happened and her being his therapist proves enough reason to have them see each other as often as they do. So I guess screenwriter Ronnie Christensen simply thinks the way this relationship blossoms is normal. But it’s not funny when Eric continuously pranks Claire to heighten her emotions to the point of fear. It’s not funny that he intentionally crosses the line she set to ensure they don’t become more than friends—itself far beyond mere doctor/patient. Christensen is subverting Claire’s authority at every turn when her being in the same boat as us as far as the hidden truth does the same without the immorality.
The only way to make this relevant is if his affection is false and thus leading her somewhere she can’t go otherwise. That’s not the case, though. It’s instead presented as potential love due to Eric’s inability to manipulate the plot because he’s also trying to figure out what’s going on. This latter point is where Passengers falls apart as the narrative “twist” affects more than Claire alone despite her being the sole target of it cinematically. Having everyone from the airplane but Eric gradually disappear as things progress means he’s positioned as being different. That difference isn’t real, though. It’s forced upon him because the filmmakers need more from him for Claire’s sake. They’ve sacrificed the feasibility of their concept by deciding to choose a focal point.
Spoiler alert: this is why Marc Forster‘s Stay is so great. While what’s happening in that film also affects everyone involved, Ryan Gosling‘s Henry Letham has a path unto himself. Passengers would work much better if Christensen did the same for Claire. Making her place in the story identical to that of her ensemble, however, means they all must be treated as equals. Or, at the very least, the same thing that happens to the supporting cast must also happen to Eric. The film is trying to play both sides by singling Claire out despite pretending she’s going through the same motions as the rest. They only show their strings as a result. Rather than expose their game early, their liberties wind up proving the game was fixed.
The ending becomes a cipher key. It renders what happened beforehand worthwhile when the journey should have been relevant on its own. The last ten minutes should provide another level of understanding atop what the previous seventy already delivered. Whether or not the reveal succeeds in shocking you, however, they do little more than show how everything leading there was hollow. It’s almost like Christensen thought a very specific “Lost” hypothesis was too cool to risk being wrong so he wrote a movie based upon it just in case. Where that show’s characters and Stay‘s Letham were given room to portray real pain, Claire is drawn as the single person devoid of it. Rather than let her exorcise sorrow, the film merely works towards getting her laid.
courtesy of Kimberley French