I like most of the movies I see.
This is not because most movies are good but I just know how to pick ‘em. Having spent most of my adulthood going to the theater at least once a week I have developed a pretty keen sense of what I will like and what I will not like. Because I do not participate in the narcissistic practice of “hate watching”, I can honestly say that most of the movies I have seen I have basically enjoyed on their merits.
Yet, on occasion, a few clunkers still slip through, clunkers like Passengers. Passengers is not a good movie and in fact may be a downright evil movie. On several occasions during my viewing I literally clutched my head and in baffled astonishment said “What?!” out loud at the screen in the, thankfully empty, theater. The movie is just one baffling choice after another leaving the audience vacillating between confusion, disgust and boredom.
However, simply because a movie is poorly made, which Passengers is, or a moral and ethical abomination, which Passengers is, does not mean we, as an audience, cannot still learn from it.
The premise, as told by the trailer, is straight-forward. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) are on a decades long trip through intergalactic space when their hibernation pods wake them some 90 years ahead of schedule and then they fall in love.
But, be warned! That trailer is full of lies and deceit. What actually happens is Jim alone wakes up early and spends a year on the ship by himself. Over the course of that year he notices Aurora asleep in a hibernation pod. Using the ship’s computers, he digs up every bit of her personal information he can, and then – having decided he loves her despite having never met her – intentionally wakes her up 90 years before she planned to wake, dooming her to a lifetime aboard a cruise spaceship with no company except creepy stalker/kidnapper Jim and comedy relief bartender robot Arthur (Michael Sheen).
I am confident that any reasonable person – which I am equally confident all my readers are – would correctly identify Jim’s choice as morally abhorrent and, yes, evil.
That alone, of course, does not make the movie evil. The first lesson in Media Literacy 101 is that depiction does not equal endorsement. Merely because a film shows a thing happening does not mean the movie supports that thing (otherwise films like, say, American Psycho or Shame would be a much more troubling). And filmmakers have a bevy of tools at their disposal to explicate the distinction between what they are showing us and what they are endorsing.
One of the most powerful of these tools is tone. In broad terms, when we talk about a film’s tone we are referencing the way the film feels. Is it light, dark, ethereal, literal, fast, languid, exact, ambiguous? Tone prepares and guides the audience, establishing our expectations. It indicates to us how the film feels about the events and characters being depict and in turn indicates to the audience how we are meant to feel.
And talented filmmakers can use all the tools and modes of cinema to craft their desired tone – through music, framing, mise-en-scène, editing, acting, lighting etc. Each choice is going to impact the tone which will in turn impact the audience.
When a filmmaker controls tone well their message is communicated with grace and precision by modifying the tone as we move with the character or undercutting our tonal expectations to a functional meaningful purpose. Tone is a powerful and subtle tool and most of us, even if we cannot articulate it, will notice immediately inept tone management.
And no movie that I’ve seen this year manages tone more ineptly than Passengers.
Director Morten Tylden treats Passengers as though it were a sci-fi action/romantic-comedy and he sets the tone as such despite so much about the narrative and characters clashing with that decision. For instance, when our two leads go on their first “date” it is treated by the film itself as any other falling-in-love dating sequence in a conventional rom-com even though the audience knows exactly what kind of monster Jim is.
They have dinner in intimate soft lighting; the music swells when the romance peaks; Pratt and Lawrence trade the kind of cutesy quips they’ve each built careers on. At no point does the film acknowledge that Aurora is only there through sheer intentional deception. So the audience is left in a position where our expectations have been jarringly subverted toward no clear purpose other than, evidently, Tylden’s actual approval of Jim’s actions.
With nothing tonally, thematically or narratively present to separate the character from the filmmaker, when every choice the director makes attempts to excuse Jim’s bad behavior, the only reasonable conclusion is that the film itself is telling us that the bad behavior is excusable, that it is acceptable for men to trap and deceive women into sex if he is lonely enough.
This bizarre sensation comes to a head at the film’s conclusion when our “heroes” discover a single operational hibernation pod and Aurora, fully aware that Jim woke and stranded her on purpose, chooses to not use that pod and instead spend her entire life with her captor. This is presented as a sweet heartwarming triumph of love over adversity. The effect on the audience is, at best, confusion and, in my case, nausea.
Importantly, this is not necessarily a problem with the script. Tylden had the option to present these sequences in an entirely different light, to direct Pratt in an entirely different fashion and he chose not to. A more skillful and ethical director would have known the power tone has over the audience and that director would have understood that as audience allegiances shift tone should have shifted with them.
Passengers could have been, if not fixed, at least made substantially more coherent with a simple but fundamental change – make Jim Preston the villain. If, rather than pitching him as Nice Guy ™ audience surrogate, Jim had instead been portrayed as some combination of the Xenomorph, Howard from 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Annie Wilkes (Aurora is even a writer), we would now have a film that is troubling and weird with purpose. We would be able to separate the depiction and the endorsement.
Passengers could have been the chilling allegory about the dangerous impact of toxic masculinity and how it warps and destroys otherwise normal reasonable men and can even disintegrate a strong woman’s self-respect and autonomy.
Making this version of the movie would have required only minor script changes. In my view, the film looks and feels the way it does almost entirely because Tylden picked a single tone that was appropriate only at the beginning of the film – before Jim wakes Aurora – and stuck with it for the entire run time, completely oblivious to or, even worse, in support of how that tone impacts the film’s messaging.
Like a good umpire, tone, used well, is nearly invisible. A talented director uses tone to orient us toward what makes sense for their movie or what we subconsciously expect to happen – a thematic emotive guidepost. Because proficient use of tone is so hard to spot, we need a train wreck of a movie like Passengers to clearly understand how tone functions and malfunctions. We need to see it go wrong in order to understand why it needs to go right.
In this light, a bad movie isn’t just a waste of time. We can, and should, learn – about our viewing habits, about how cinema operates, about what affects us – from the “bad” movies. There is nothing so dumb, so worthless, so harmful that we cannot think about it in a serious way and in so doing gain.
The lesson here, for me, goes beyond the nuts and bolts of tonal control and functionality. More than that, the lesson is that perhaps we should not be only seeking movies that we are confident we’ll like. When we do that not only are we closing ourselves off from films we may sincerely enjoy that fall outside of our self-constructed tastes but also we can learn so much from movies that do not work. We can see more clearly the brilliance of the greats when set against the failures of lesser filmmakers.
Because even the bad movies, even the movies that make us angry or offend our core values, represent an artist or group of artists giving something of themselves to us – in whatever thin or perhaps inadequate way – and we owe this act of generosity and vulnerability some level of seriousness and thought, even if that is only the seriousness and thought necessary to explain why what they did didn’t work.
As always, watch more movies. Thanks for reading.
 The most MPDG name imaginable.