Why Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence Are On a Mission With Serious Consequences.
As someone who frequently, and with baroque profanity, decries the practice of writing about trailers, writing about a trailer is an invitation to accusations of hypocrisy. Passengers is a special case, because there’s an actual story to tell here, and (relatively) important things at stake with its release. (Mild plot spoilers may follow, please proceed with caution.)
Passengers may, whether fairly or not, turn into a referendum on both of the viability of original, non-franchise, non-sequel big-budget mainstreams movies, and the value of movie stars. First coming to public attention with its inclusion on 2007’s Black List – the industry’s annual ranked list of as-yet unproduced screenplays – Passengers secured writer Jon Spaihts a number of jobs writing or rewriting thrillers set in space, with 2012’s Prometheus being the most prominent. Development on Passengers itself proceeded slowly, due to the central paradox of commercial art: everyone claims to want something new, but show them something too new and they have no idea how to make it.
This is the thing about Passengers, as hinted by the trailer: Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are (pretty much) the only people in it. The reason why no one else is around is initially mysterious, but the story is: in the future, an ocean-liner-like spaceship carries vast numbers of passengers, in suspended animation, to settle a brand-new planet with all kinds of opportunities that (it’s more implied than actually stated) are in short supply on an overcrowded, overpopulated Earth. No one is supposed to wake up from suspended animation until they arrive at the new planet after a journey of over a hundred years; first the crew will be awakened, and ready everything for the passengers, who will then themselves wake up, have a proverbial cup of coffee, and prepare to resume their lives on their new world. Only, decades ahead of schedule, Chris Pratt is woken up to discover he’s all alone.
Leaving off the summary there, for reasons of both courtesy and the possibility that (implied by a couple quick shots in the trailer) some things may have been changed from the version I read, in terms of story Passengers employs the template of a shipwreck story, recontextualizing it for the era of interstellar travel, which setting makes the romance with Jennifer Lawrence possible. There will be, assuredly, a slew of thinkpieces about Why Passengers’ Romantic Plot Is Fucked Up from the usual suspects upon the film’s release, for reasons that require spoiling one of two total plot points in the entire movie, and if that particular point stays in the movie said thinkpieces will kind of have a point. But that can wait until December.
The reason I’m keeping an eye on Passengers is that, however pure one’s cinephilia, the economic realities of the industry that makes movies determine what movies get made, and so caring about movies often involves paying at least a degree of attention to the business. And so, the questions remain: what does Passengers’ success or failure portend for original material (in the sense of it originating from that particular film, not in the sense of that particular film being a triumph of experimental form), and how much clout do movie stars still have? Almost two full decades of prioritizing the “event” over the actors or filmmakers behind an individual film has led to a Hollywood that no longer grows stars at the same rate as it used to. Where there were once John Wayne Westerns or Arnold Schwarzenegger action bonanzas or Joan Crawford melodramas or Meg Ryan romantic comedies, there are now Pixar animated films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the fourth different dude since the 90s playing Batman. Now, if you’ll kindly put the pitchforks down, this is not being presented as an ipso facto devolution; while, for example, Chris Evans might be a perfectly lovely Captain America, a new Captain America movie is precisely that as opposed to a new Chris Evans picture.
Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are two of the exceedingly rare stars to have apparently achieved escape velocity from this dynamic. The reason the qualifier “apparently” is needed is that Passengers, in possessing very little whatsoever other than its two main characters, is going to require a rather solar degree of star power to transcend the stature of slight character piece and become movie magic, box office gold, et cetera. And the reason why I’m writing about Passengers today despite loathing the practice of writing about trailers is that I hope they can pull it off. The thought of movies without stars is, well, as bleak as the prospect of being trapped on a spaceship by oneself.