FlixChatter Review: Passengers (2016)

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Directed By: Morten Tyldum
Written By: Jon Spaihts
Runtime: 116 minutes

I heard about the premise of this one a few years ago when the project was still stuck in development hell and for some time it was meant to be a vehicle for Keanu Reeves. Well, now we’ve got two of the biggest young A-listers as leads, but what attracted me was still the premise of what could’ve been an intriguing psychological sci-fi thriller.

Well, if you have seen the trailer or tv spots, the studios pretty much marketed this as two passengers who’re stuck in a spacecraft traveling to a distant planet when they’re awakened 90 years early. Within 10 minutes of watching it, you’ll realize that isn’t quite the case. A giant asteroid hits a part of the spaceship, causing a malfunction that triggers Jim’s sleeping pod to open 90 years early. Apparently in the future we still age as we do today, so of course Jim is going to die of old age before he reaches his destination. The first 15 minutes or so are pretty entertaining when it was just Chris Pratt‘s Jim Preston all alone on the ship wondering why he’s the only one awaken on board. There are some funny moments, i.e. how it takes 50+ years for his SOS message to reach earth and the machine says ‘we apologize for the delay.’ Ha! It helps that Pratt has that aw-shucks likable charm that the film puts to good use, but he could only sustain it for so long before he’s starting to get on my nerves.

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When does Jennifer Lawrence enter the picture, you ask? Well, to talk about it would spoil the premise, so I’ll discuss that later in the spoiler section. I could tell you that her character’s name is Aurora Lane. Heh, the Sleeping Beauty reference is just way on the nose it’s lazy. And is ‘Lane’ meant to be an homage to Lois Lane as Aurora is a writer? [shrug] Speaking of Lois, there is a space *walk* halfway through that evokes the flying sequence in the first Superman movie… and of course Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. In fact, Passengers made me recall so many other [read: better] sci-fi movies: 2001 Space Odyssey, Sunshine, Ex Machina, etc. but in a bad way because it could barely hold a candle to those films. Oscar-winner Lawrence herself doesn’t really get much to do in this movie. She’s pretty much reduced to a damsel in distress, one with questionable principles no less, by the end of the movie.

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I have to admit the visuals of the movie, which is basically just the set design of the spacecraft Avalon, is stunning and sleek. It’s like a pristine, futuristic mega mall, complete with state-of-the-art rooms and all kinds of amenities such as bar, dance studio, swimming pools, etc. The special effects of the pool losing its artificial gravity whilst Aurora’s swimming in it is pretty cool to watch. But it’s to be expected from a movie with a $100+ mil budget, and this movie is pretty much all style no substance. Director Morten Tyldum (whose gone Hollywood since making the Danish indie film Headhunters) seems more concerned with the actors’ physicality/physiognomy than their psychology. In a dramatic moment where Aurora’s supposed to be feeling emotionally distressed, the director shows off her svelte physique in a snazzy bathing suit that tells you nothing of what she’s feeling. Apparently Jon Spaihts‘ script was from the coveted Black List, though you wouldn’t know it from the final result.


For a movie built on the romance of the characters, there’s zero emotional resonance here. Mostly it’s because most people wouldn’t be able to easily reconcile the fact that a bored, lonely man basically does something so selfless. Obsession is NOT true love, no matter how slick Hollywood tries to package the story nor how attractive the actors they hired to sell it. SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read): At one point Aurora calls Jim a murderer for waking her up to keep him company, and that description is absolutely justified. There’s no denying that Jim basically stalks Aurora in her pod, then proceeds to robs her out of her future and deceives her into falling for him. No matter how you look at it, he’s a creepy dude who doesn’t deserve our sympathies, yet the filmmakers want us to root for him.

Aside from the unethical decision of the protagonist, it’s hard to root for either of them as we just barely knew them. No character development than mere superficial hints of their professions prior to their space journey. There’s also no real threat for any of the characters, even at the most dire scenario when all hell broke lose in the spaceship. Don’t even get me started with the bombastic finale. The mechanical failures in the ship feels like a cop out plot to avoid facing the morality of the story, while also conveniently give the protagonist a ‘get out of jail’ free pass. As for the rapport between the two leads, well they may seem like buddies in interviews, but there’s no chemistry between them as a couple. The hyped-up sex scene is pretty lame and I never believed them for a second as two people falling in love.

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Well, I’ve described this movie in the worst possible way and I actually like it less the more I think about it. The only bright spot here is Michael Sheen as the android bartender, but he’s barely around often enough and his talents is wasted on this role. It’s also nice to see Laurence Fishburne popped up briefly, though his appearance can be considered a cameo. He did have one memorable line in the film delivered the only way he could, which only vexed me that he’s not around longer.

There’s really not much to recommend this movie. But the biggest disappointment of Passengers for me is that there’s an intriguing story here buried under studios’ meddling. It has the potential to be a haunting sci-fi that makes us ponder on our humanity, but all the thought-provoking bits gets swept under the rug [or more appropriately here, thrown out to space] in lieu of a generic space action adventure. No amount of star power can save a flawed script, pair that with studio meddling and you’ve got yourself a real cinematic misfire.


Have you seen Passengers? Well, what did you think?

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Weekend Roundup & Europa Report review

It’s a pretty uneventful weekend after a busy one of last. Hubby and I opted for home cinema as I’ve already seen two of this weekend’s new releases: The Monuments Men and The LEGO movie. Click on the title to read my review of it, I actually agree with the critics on both films. It’s no wonder the latter is a big hit at the box office with nearly $70 mil, there’s really no competition for  a family movie and it’s an awesome one for all ages!

I did see two very good older films I’ve missed out on: Europa Report and Pirate Radio [review coming next week]. I saw the latter partly as my attempt to see as many films of Philip Seymour Hoffman that I’ve missed out on. It can’t be more different in terms of tone and subject matter but I quite like both in varying degrees. Here’s my review of …

EUROPA REPORT

An international crew of astronauts undertakes a privately funded mission to search for life on Jupiter’s fourth largest moon called Europa.

EuropaReportPosterThis is not an action-packed kind of sci-fi movie like Elysium, so if you’re expecting that you’re probably not going to like this movie. It does start pretty slow but I quite like the realism style of filmmaking here, making it look more like a documentary that makes it look as if we’re watching real NASA footage. CEO of Europa Ventures Dr. Unger (Embeth Davitz) serves as a *talking head* of sort, explaining what happened with what’s happened in the Europa mission. The narrative switches back and forth between current time and flashback of the team of six astronauts who’re privately funded to explore one of Jupiter’s moons to see if there’s any potential sources of life.

The date on the screen shows that the crew has been on that ship for a long time, as weeks turns to months and even year. It’s fascinating to see the mood shift from the earlier time of the mission to the increasingly-dire time of their last days. There are barely any movie stars on this film, in fact there’s practically no leading role here as the ensemble cast seem to get equal screen time. I’ve loved Sharlto Copley from District-9, and there’s also Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist from the original Dragon Tattoo trilogy, plus Davitz who impressed me in Junebug and Mansfield Park. Those three are the only names I recognized in the film, but they as well as the entire International cast (Daniel Wu, Anamaria Marinca, Christian Camargo, and Karolina Wydra), did a nice job here.

There’s genuine tension throughout, which continues building as the ship lands somewhere and the crew start collecting Europa samples. One by one, each crew member is dealt a nasty blow, and the whole sequence felt all too real. In fact, one of the scenario of two space engineers Copley and Nyqvist, doing repair to the ship look so similar to an early scene in Gravity. This is definitely one of the most suspenseful and heart-wrenching scenes to watch, beautifully-acted by both actors. Props to director Sebastián Cordero for his effort considering this is only his fifth feature film.

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Now, I’d have given this film a higher score if it weren’t for the rather clichéd ending that kind of make me roll my eyes. I was expecting something a bit more um, intelligent and realistic as that’s what the build-up seems to suggest. [SPOILER ALERT – highlight text if you want to read] I think if they’d go with some kind of natural gas/chemical substance that’s native to Europa but toxic to mankind and would also disrupt the ship’s electrical system, it’d have given the story a bit more weight. The whole ALIEN killing machine has been done to death and it makes the finale less impactful somehow.

My hubby said that as if the filmmakers were running out of ideas to end the film and just threw something together at the last minute. It’s a bummer as I think a bit more originality would’ve made this an excellent slow-burn sci-fi thriller. Still, it’s got enough going for it for me to recommend it if you’re a fan of the genre. I appreciate the performances and that it’s made in the true spirit of the sci-fi genre (see Conor’s article on this topic). The production values and effects are pretty good as well for its low budget of $10 mil.

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3 out of 5 reels


What did YOU see this weekend? Any thoughts on Europa Report?

FlixChatter Review: Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY

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One of the power of great movies is that it gives us ‘escapism,’ a relief from whatever problems we have in our daily life for an hour or two. But a truly great film gives us something more… more to take in, to marvel at, and to reflect on. Gravity, to me, is one of those films.

When the film starts, we’re introduced to the two main characters of the film, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer in her first space mission, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney being his gregarious self), a veteran astronaut who’s much more comfortable being in space. They’re working on repairing a space shuttle and things seem to be working just fine. The mood’s playful as Kowalski’s talking to the folks down in Houston (voiced by Ed Harris) and joking around. It’s an effective exposition that help the audience get acquainted with these two characters before their real journey begin.

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Suddenly Houston warns them to abort their mission as an exploded Russian satellite comes speeding through their orbit. There’s barely any time for the crew to move to safety when flying debris rips their shuttle to shreds and Stone ends up drifting into space, spinning uncontrollably. When I first saw the trailer, I have to admit I wasn’t immediately intrigued by it. It looks like just another space thriller, I thought, but when I saw it in context, I had a totally different reaction. The suspense felt all too real that I remember feeling panic-stricken like Bullock’s character in the film as things go haywire on screen, made even more tense by the haunting score.

Gravity is one of the most immersive cinematic experience I’ve had in a long time. I feel like I was being transported to another realm as I was watching the film. There are some humorous moments to help ease tension, but the action sequences were quite relentless and kept me at the edge of my seat. In fact, there are a few genuinely terrifying scenes that made me gasp for breath a few times. Yet there is a deep spiritual quality about it in its quieter moments as we’re alone with the character. As I learn more about Dr. Stone and being with her in her desperate hour, the humanity of the story becomes even more palpable. This isn’t a film about space as it’s about people, reminding us once again what truly makes us human. The ‘detachment’ and ‘letting go’ themes are metaphors for what we too encounter in our journeys on earth. We take so much for granted the simpler things in life, but after seeing this, even just inhaling air into our lungs feels like an amazing privilege.

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Cuarón may not be the most prolific filmmakers out there, as his last feature film was Children of Men in 2006. It’s one of my favorite science fiction films and is already a sci-fi classic. You’d think would be hard to top but somehow the Mexican director managed to do just that with this one. I can’t put into words just how striking this film is, the long takes throughout the films are stupendous to behold. We might’ve seen images of earth from above from various space documentaries, but somehow cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki makes the view look even more dazzling. I can’t speak about the technical aspects of the special effects but Cuarón has a way of making us feel as if we’re actually there, in space, with the astronauts. The degree of the visual realism is so incredible that it looked as if the film were actually shot in space. It’s hard to explain but during the detachment scene, there’s a subtle technique that enables us to “sense” the surroundings from Dr. Stone’s point of view.

On top of the visual artistry, the use of sound is unlike any other. I feel like the whole theater rattles a bit as the music roars but then the silence feels just as deafening. Kudos to Steven Price for his magnificent score, as it adds so much to the film. It starts off with a clasic orchestral style but then it switches to a heart-pounding, nerve-rattling tone as the terror unfolds on screen. I don’t describe hardly any film as being hypnotic, but I think it’s an apt sentiment to use here as I was absolutely transfixed.

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Despite its striking beauty and spectacular special effects, Gravity doesn’t fall into the trap of ‘style over substance.’ In fact, it’s one of those films that give you as much food for thought as feast for the senses, allowing us to marvel at the beauty of our universe but also the power of the human spirit. As a person of faith, I really appreciate the theme of rebirth and letting go of the past that serves as our own personal ‘chain’ if you will.  There’s a message of hope that resonates deeply with me, that in my darkest hour, I’m not really alone.

Another outstanding aspect of the film is the performances. Though Clooney’s name is on the marquee too, it’s ultimately Sandra Bullock‘s film and she owns the role of the brilliant but vulnerable Dr. Stone. Apparently she’s the third choice after Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman both passed on the film, but now I can’t picture anyone else in that role. I have always liked her as an actress and certainly has the talent and versatility to do well in both comedy and drama. Under certain guidance though, a director could take an actor’s performance to another level and that’s the case here. Suffice to say, her performance here easily surpasses everything else she’s done to date. I don’t think people would be crying foul when once again we’d see her name amongst 2014 Oscar’s Best Actress nominees.

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Speaking of Oscar, this will be the film I’d be rooting for. It’s a family project of sort as as Alfonso collaborated with his son Jonás Cuarón on the script. It’s definitely a career-best for pretty much for the Alfonso Cuarón, and this would easily be one of those films people would be studying in the future.

Final Thoughts: I’m running out of adjectives already to describe this film. One final observation – for a film set entirely in space with its harsh, dangerous environment, this is not a cold film. It’s perhaps one of the most emotionally-gratifying film I’ve seen this year, and it also boasts a finale that makes you want to get up and cheer. A triumphant film through and through. See it and experience it for yourself, on the biggest screen you can possibly find. For once I actually recommend seeing it in IMAX 3D, trust me, it’s worth it.

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5 out of 5 reels

Anybody else’s seen this yet? I’m very interested to hear what you think.