Friday, March 24, 2017
Important note to architects of the future: the space ark or "sleeper ark" is a very problematic vehicle. At least, that is, if we are to believe the examples of science fiction novels, TV series, and films focusing on the topic.
I’ve been thinking about this matter recently, after watching 2016’s Passengers, which concerns a crisis on just such a sleeper ship, the Avalon.
But way back in 1941, author Robert Heinlein first demonstrated some of the pitfalls of the colossal, space ark in two stories that would eventually form the novel Orphans of the Sky (1963). In that tale, the vast vessel Vanguard, bound for Proxima Centauri became pilot-less en route; and the passengers and flight crew aboard her separated over time into distinct classes or sects (like the mutants or "muties.") They even forgot they were aboard a ship.
After Heinlein, sci-fi television soon took the lead in terms of huge space ark dramas. Cordwainer Bird (a.k.a. Harlan Ellison) created the Canadian program The Starlost (1973), which concerned three Quakers learning that they were living not on a planet surface, but rather in a dome that was part of a much larger vessel, an ark.
Led by a man named Devon (Keir Dullea), these unlikely explorers discovered that the ark was actually on a collision course with a star, and that it -- like the Vanguard -- was essentially pilot-less. They spent the series visiting different domes (and different cultures) and trying to control their ark.
In Johnny Byrne's "Mission of the Darians," an episode of Space: 1999 from 1975, the errant Alphans came across the space ark of an alien race called the Darians. There had been a nuclear disaster aboard the vast ark, transforming some crew into mutants while leaving the remainder of the crew physically intact. Across the centuries, the "pure" Darians resorted to cannibalism and transplant surgery from the ranks of the mutants to stay alive; so they could reach a "new Daria." The Darians rationalized this exploitation of the lower caste for one reason. Carried about the ark was the DNA gene bank of the entire Darian race. Theoretically, this gene bank would ensure that, by landfall, the Darian race could re-constitute itself.
In Doctor Who's "The Ark in Space" (also in 1975), another twist on the space ark format was developed. Man's future generations -- the crew of a space station in this case -- was being devoured while asleep in their cryo-tubes by a predatory race of alien insectoids called The Wirrn.
There are other examples of this narrative, both literary and video, including David Gerrold's Star Trek novel The Galactic Whirlpool (1980). And there’s also an example I like very much, director Christian Alvart's harrowing horror film, Pandorum (2009), a recent permutation of the formula.
In Pandorum, the generational space ark Elysium departs from Earth in 2174, bound for the only habitable planet ever discovered: distant Tanis. Early on the Space Ark's journey, however, the crew receives a frightening message from Mission Control on Earth. "You're all that's left. Good luck and god speed."
And then, mysteriously, Earth blinks out of existence. Perhaps -- as one crew member suggests -- the planetary disaster was "nuclear" in origin. Or perhaps the demise of our world was caused by an asteroid collision. Regardless, the 60,000 human colonists on Elysium are all that remains of the human race...the seeds of our future. The seeds of our hope.
The film then jumps to an undisclosed time in the future. A likable technician, Bower (Ben Foster) awakens from extended hyper-sleep in a state of disorientation, and suffering from temporary amnesia. The ship itself is a wreck: no one is at the helm, and the bridge is locked and sealed.
Bower awakens another crew member on the flight team, Lt. Payton (Dennis Quaid), and together these two men learn that the ship's reactor is going critical in a matter of hours. The ark -- and the human passengers -- will be destroyed if the reactor can't be fixed. (And yes, this is also the problem in Passengers!) While Payton attempts to gain access to the bridge, Bower heads down into the ship's bowels, bound for the reactor core. So, metaphorically speaking, his is an Orphean journey into the Underworld.
And what Bower encounters throughout the gigantic ship is terrifying indeed. A species of sub-human monsters has turned the passenger section -- the cryo-chamber rooms -- into their hunting and feeding grounds (like the Wirrn on Doctor Who.) These beasts were once "sleepers" and colonists themselves, but the synthetic accelerator that was pumped into their cryo-chambers (to help them adapt to life on Tanis) has instead adapted them to life aboard the ruined, out-of-control. Elysium.
These monsters -- who physically resemble John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars and Joss Whedon's Reavers -- have set nasty booby-traps for flight crew members throughout the ark, often using live human beings as bait.
There are some normal human survivors left too, but they seem to possess no knowledge that they are even on board a ship (The Starlost!). Eventually, Bower encounters a woman -- a scientist -- named Nadia who takes him to a laboratory where all of Earth's biological heritage and legacy is stored; Pandorum's equivalent of "Mission of the Darians'" gene bank.
This biological legacy must be protected or Earth is really and truly lost.
An unexpected twist in the familiar space ark format arises from the film's unusual title: "Pandorum."
Pandorum is a feared disease of the mind that sometimes afflicts astronauts in deep space. The illness begins with quivering, shaking hands and then culminates with hysteria, paranoia and violence. For a comparison, recall Michael Biehn suffering from the High Pressure Nervous Syndreom in Cameron's The Abyss (1989). Pandorum is the space-borne equivalent.
There's an oddly beautiful -- if utterly horrifying sequence -- regarding Pandorum early in the film's first act. Payton recounts the tale -- and we see it unfold in flashback -- as a crew member on another space mission goes irrevocably mad, and ejects all his crew into space, in their separate sleep chambers (which, let's face it, are the equivalent of space-bound coffins).
The film cuts to a spectacular long shot from deep space as the troubled ship literally ejects hundreds of these tiny flowering, technological spores. Then, at closer range, we detect a screaming human inside one of these tubes and quickly realize he is headed into oblivion...alive and conscious of his fate.
Simply stated, Pandorum is pandemonium.
And that quality is both the film's greatest strength and the film's most troubling weakness.
The movie opens with total chaos and we -- like Bower himself -- have no idea what the hell is happening aboard Elysium. We experience the horrors of the ark alongside Bower, and it's a scarifying descent into a man-made, technological Hell. Then there's some wild action and jolts that really get the blood rolling. But before long, alas, the story starts to feel repetitive, and there are some plot points that I would have preferred to see explored with deeper insight. I don't exaggerate when I say that this movie is madness, violence, madness, more violence, and more madness, until you feel whiplash. It's all a bit exhausting.
Pandorum is also, perhaps, stuffed with one narrative u-turn too many (particularly the schizoid psyche of one character), though I understand why he's present. This schizoid crew man reflects the schizoid personality of the ship, as well as the new cultures that have sprung up aboard her. I only wish this character's back story felt more organic and less like a de rigueur third act "twist." By film's end, Pandorum is already ramped-up to insanity; it doesn't need more of it.
However, I have always enjoyed stories like the one dramatized here: stories of lost and imperiled space arks bound for disaster. I love the intriguing concept of cultural identity, heritage and history forgotten; and the accidental birth of a new social order, one based on the environment at hand. Pandorum encompasses all that (and indeed, will seem very familiar to fans of Space: 1999, The Starlost and Dr. Who).
Outside the space ark template, Pandorum also borrows from The Abyss, as I mentioned above, and even, to some extent, The Poseidon Adventure, since much of the film involves traveling from one end of a damaged, dangerous vessel to the other, facing all kinds of hazards on the trip.
An authentic horror film, Pandorum also lingers on some extreme violence and gore. In particular, there's one scene here that will definitely cause nightmares: an innocent crew member awakes from cryo-sleep only to be viciously set upon and devoured by the cannibals. Grotesque stuff, but vivid and memorable.
Pandorum may not be a great movie, but it is a good one; a hectic one that captures the essential elements of the space ark tale. The lead character, Bower, is drawn well enough that he anchors most of the crazy action...at least until the over-the-top climax, which relies on a surprise you'll probably see coming a mile away.
Pandorum ends with the legend "Tanis, Year One." And instead of seeing Elysium's journey end right there, I wanted more...which probably indicates the movie is better than I'm giving it credit for in this review. But Pandorum made no money at the box office and critics hated it, so we'll probably never see "Tanis, Year Two."
To tell you the truth, that makes me sad. This largely-effective, technologically updated re-telling of the classic space ark adventure would make the perfect prologue to an updated "colonizing a new planet at the edge of the galaxy" story. (I may just have to wait for Alien: Covenant  for that tale).
Besides, there are lots of episodes of Dr. Who, Space: 1999 and The Starlost left to mine for inspiration. Pandorum may ultimately be a derivative riff on a familiar, oft-told science-fiction tale, but at least it isn't a remake, a re-boot or a re-imagination. And in my book, that's what passes as "original" in Hollywood these days.
It’s sort of intriguing to put Pandorum and Passengers side-by-side, and assess similarities, and differences.
Thursday, March 23, 2017
“Carousel” is another better-than-average episode of Logan’s Run (1977). I suspect this is so because the writers/producers must have realized that viewers who like the 1976 film are especially intrigued by the City of Domes, and its hedonistic lifestyle. The world of the Sandmen, Runners, and Carousel itself is re-visited here, taking audiences in effect, right back to the beginning of the whole franchise.
Certainly, I speak for myself in this regard. The most intriguing aspect, of Logan’s Run, I find, is city life of the 23rd century. It is decadent, strictly policed, highly-sexualized, “futuristic,” and nicely dystopian. People live in bliss, but it is an unknowing bliss. They are lambs led to the slaughter. But before the slaughter, they live out their dreams.
Those the qualities that draw me repeatedly, to the ’76 film, and are less frequently seen in the series, which mostly occurs outside the domes. When I think of the film, I think of Last Day, Carousel, Nursery, New You, the Love Shop, and the mall-like environs. When I think of the series, by contrast, I usually think of a solar craft buzzing about dusty, natural locations.
So it is a relief to see an episode that takes Logan (Gregory Harrison) and Jessica (Heather Menzies) back to the place that they ran away from in the first place. The use of another mall location is actually quite smart, and it blends in seamlessly with the oft-seen stock footage from the movie.
The set-up for the episode is a bit weird, to be certain, but it is just the trick to get our characters back to the domain of Francis, Carousel, and the Council of Elders.
In a freak mishap, Logan gets shot with "memory warp" dart and forgets the entire last year of his life. This is a weapon used by an advanced race of human beings, who seek to prevent contact with outsiders. Victims forget they ever encountered this civilization, or individuals from it.
Realizing that his old buddy is now an amnesiac and doesn't recall his act of treason back at the Domed City, Sandman Francis (Randy Powell) brings Logan back to the City to renounce runners and Sanctuary. Meanwhile, Jessica and REM (Donald Moffat) must negotiate their freedom from the weird locals who shot Logan with the memory warp dart in the first place, return to the City of Domes, and rescue their confused ally before he dies in an attempt to “renew.”
In the City of Domes, our amnesiac Logan undergoes a "truth" scan and immediately picks up his old life as a swinging single. In particular, there's a young denizen named "Sheila" (played by Melody Anderson, Flash Gordon's Dale Arden) who would like to pick up precisely where they left off a year ago.
Realizing (with REM's help) that the way to get to Logan -- and spur his memory -- is to seduce him, Jessica slicks back her hair, dresses up as a temptress, "Jerri 4" and pays a slinky visit to Logan's bachelor pad. But before anything too much fun can happen, Jessica wimps out and reveals to Logan who she really is.
Logan, who was already figuring out, has his memory restored. He and his friends escape the city, and continue their search for Sanctuary…
The mechanism by which Logan loses his memory in “Carousel,” is really awkward. We are asked to believe that survivors of the holocaust have mastered the equivalent of matter transporters, able to move people back and forth through different dimensions, apparently. Again, this idea fits in a Trek-like universe, where the technology is widespread (think: The Alpha Quadrant).
But matter/energy conversion/transportation does not seem at all like a logical or realistic development in a world recovering from a nuclear holocaust. Once more, the careful viewer must wonder how and where the technology for this -- or memory warp darts, for that matter -- came about. What powers the transporters?
And, examining the memory warp darts even more closely, wouldn't affected enemies find it strange when they can’t remember the last year of their lives, especially since the effect is temporary (as we see with Logan)? Eventually, he recalls everything of his previous year’s adventures with Jessica and REM.
So wouldn’t an enemy get over the effect of the drug (even after a year), and get angry…seeking out those who robbed him or her of his memory?
Watching this episode, I also felt sorry once more for Francis (actor Randy Powell), our hapless pursuer. He could have killed Logan in this episode and been done with the whole mission, but he doesn't do that. You get the sense that he just wants Logan to come back to the City and be his best friend again. And that's really sort of sad/pathetic. Francis can't seem to get over the past, and joining up with Logan isn't, apparently, an option he considers. Still, Francis's "humanity" if you can call that, makes him an interesting character, if not a strong villain.
I remember I interviewed Dorothy Fontana once, and she said that had Logan Run continued as a TV series, Logan and Jessica would have converted Francis to their side, and all three of them would have returned to the City of Domes to wage a war of insurrection against the Council of Elders.
Too bad that never happened.
A plot like that would have better served Francis, a character who is constantly made to look either foolish or just plain incompetent. It also sounds like a cool way to continue the show, especially since the "civilization of the week" thing wasn't exactly going so well.
Going back to my original thesis in this review, I believe Logan’s Run was popular initially, in particular, because of the City of Domes, and the exploration of life there. I don’t believe that a quest to find “Sanctuary” was ever quite as compelling as City of Domes technology (like the flame guns), rituals (such as Carousel) or social developments (constant casual sex as a pastime.)
Speaking of casual sex, it's a shame that this episode doesn't really allow Logan or Jessica to express their sexual sides. Jessica is just tricking Logan, all along. And Logan doesn't seem terribly interested. There should be some sparks flying here, in "Carousel," but there aren't.
Interestingly, at one point during "Carousel" Logan declares that Sanctuary (his longtime goal...) is just a place "invented by runners to encourage other runners."
After seeing this many episodes of Logan's Run and watching the characters visit dream clinics ("Futurepast"), psych wards ("Fear Factor"), alien spaceships ("The Collectors") and the private estate of a hunter ("The Capture"), you know, I think he's actually telling the truth. Sanctuary isn’t a place, it’s an idea.
Does Logan know or realize that he's telling the truth in this moment? Is Logan aware he's on a wild goose chase?
That's one of those questions that never gets answered on this series. I would love it, at some point, if Logan and Jessica could stop running, and realize, the City of Domes could be sanctuary, if only they make the change they wish to see there.
Next week, we’re into the series' final slide into incredibly weak episodes, beginning with (the dreadful) “Night Visitors.”
The TV-movies of the 1970’s were veritably obsessed with matters of the occult, and with psychic powers too. I reviewed Sweet, Sweet Rachel (1971) not long ago, and now here’s another movie with similar themes and structure: Baffled! (1973).
Like Sweet, Sweet Rachel before it, Baffled! concerns a person from our Modern Age of Reason and Technology (The 20th and 21st century) who becomes unexpectedly engulfed in a psychic “mystery” and must solve a crime related to it. These films are as much detective stories (or film noirs, I suppose you could argue) as they are horror pictures. They involve murder, robbery, and other criminal activity.
And also like that earlier film, Baffled! is a bit slow-paced and over-long. The pacing seems off at points, and some action beats don’t succeed, either because of inadequate staging (bad rear projection) or a lack of suspense.
Finally, Baffled! too was designed to be the pilot for an ongoing TV series. Sweet, Sweet Rachel went on to become The Sixth Sense (1972), a series that starred Garry Collins and lasted two seasons.
Baffled! never went on to series format, even though the movie boasts some promise
What, exactly is that promise?
It’s in the performances, specifically. Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire star as the duo investigating the unusual supernatural events, and there’s some good, interesting chemistry between the performers. For those of you who are familiar with Nimoy primarily as the unemotional Spock on Star Trek (1966-1969), Baffled! is a remarkable counterpoint. He’s charming, laidback, and quite funny in the telefilm. Susan Hampshire, playing an occult expert, is surprisingly sweet and innocent in the role, which is an interesting twist too. Where Alex Dreier and Gary Collins both performed their “psychic” support roles with utter solemnity and seriousness, Hampshire plays it all sincerely, but gently.
In all, Baffled! is intriguing, but not great.
“Evil forces do exist. Always have…”
During a competitive car race at the Pennsylvania Run, ace driver Tom Kovack (Nimoy) runs off the road when he experiences a psychic vision of a woman in trouble, in a manor house in England. An expert in psychic phenomena and student of the occult, Michelle Brent (Hampshire) meets with him later, and suggests to him that his vision was true; that he possesses a “rare and mysterious insight.”
At first, Kovack dismisses this possibility out-of-hand, but soon experiences a second and a third vision. In one such vision, he falls from the manor house -- which Michelle has identified real place, Wyndham House in Devon -- into s turbulent ocean over the cliff-side. After the startling vision, Kovack discovers that he is actually soaked.
Realizing he needs help to understand better what is happening to him, Kovack teams up with Michelle, and they had to England together, to stay at Wyndham House and investigate.
There is another guest staying there too, a famous movie star, Andrea Glenn (Vera Miles). She is waiting for her estranged husband, and has brought their twelve-year old daughter, Jennifer (Jewel Blanch) to the house as well.
After Jennifer receives a necklace with a wolf-head pendant from her mysterious, absent father, the girl seems to age dramatically in a day, acting like a fifteen-year old, surly teenager.
Mrs. Farraday (Rachel Roberts), who runs the house, however, starts to appear much younger.
Tom becomes convinced that Andrea was the woman in danger in his first vision, and that some dark force has taken control of her daughter, Jennifer, and is plotting against her.
Baffled! is one of those cases in which a movie’s set-up is more intriguing, finally, than the actual plot or resolution of the plot. After all is said and done, the psychic plot is just a gimmick and the real motive here is for someone to acquire Andrea Glenn’s fortune.
The best part of this telefilm is the first half-hour, wherein Tom Kovack experiences his first psychic visions, and encounters Michelle, who encourages him to pursue them. The writing is strong, the performances a good, and there’s even a bit of a cinematic feel to the production.
Once the film has settled down in the British manor house, by contrast, the movie loses some of its interest, and comes to a near stand-still in terms of pacing. Unlike Sweet, Sweet Rachel and its follow-up, The Sixth Sense, the visuals in Baffled! aren’t even particularly stylish. Stylish, colorful murder sequences enlivened both earlier productions, and yet are absent here.
The movie’s real virtue is, frankly, Leonard Nimoy, who is so un-Spock-like here it is astounding. Tom Kovack is a mellow seventies bachelor (and race car driver), trying to make time with the ladies and commenting ironically on everything that happens to him. I wouldn’t say that Nimoy is Shatner-esque in the film, but he seems is downright effusive compared to his buttoned down, controlled performances as the half-Vulcan.
The mystery itself is a bit odd, and uninspiring, and director Philip Leacock fails to wring substantial suspense from the action, even when Kovack and Michelle become trapped in the bottom of the elevator shaft in Wyndham House. The film’s ending -- and restoration of order -- can be seen coming a mile away, and reflects the laws of the occult established as far back as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).
Baffled! also ends with a plug for a series that would never come. After the mystery is solved at Wyndham House, Kovack and Michelle decide to go their separate ways. But then -- just as he is getting in his car – Tom conveniently experiences another vision that shows someone (strangers) in danger. He summons Michelle, she jumps into his car, and they’re off to solve another psychic case.
So, they’re a team!
There’s a part of me that is sorry that Baffled didn’t make it to series so we could see that team solve more intriguing mysteries. I would have loved to see Nimoy and Hampshire work together again, and feel that if the episodes were an hour instead of 90 minute, there would be less chance for the tediousness that impacts some moments here.
Today, Baffled! is more of a curiosity than an artistically satisfying endeavor, and I can’t help but wonder how history would have been different if the concept had become a hit, and Nimoy became well-known not just for Star Trek, but for playing a groovy, 1970s psychic investigator.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
The Enterprise has traveled back in time to the year 1968 to study, up close, Earth’s history, and a very tumultuous year in the late 20th century.
Surprisingly, the ship intercepts a transporter beam that originates from somewhere outside the solar system, and materializes on the pad Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), a human raised on another world, now working in secret as an agent to save Earth from self-destruction.
Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is reluctant to let Gary, or his companion -- a cat named Isis -- depart the ship before he learns more, but Seven escapes and begins conducting his mission, which involves the United States space program, and a missile launch.
On the ground, Gary is assisted by a flaky secretary, Roberta Lincoln (Teri Garr), and a host of incredible gadgets, but Kirk and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) pursue him to the surface, fearful he is a danger, and attempt to stop his mission.
They find, however, that he is an ally, and that they can trust him.
“Assignment: Earth” should likely be judged as a “pilot” for a new series, and not as a Star Trek (1966-1969) episode, since that is the story’s genesis. Gene Roddenberry had hoped to launch a sci-fi series about Gary Seven’s adventures on Earth in the late sixties, but nothing ever became of it. This episode is Gary Seven’s only televised adventure.
As a pilot, “Assignment: Earth” is very intriguing, in a 1960s kind of way. Gary Seven is well-played by Robert Lansing, who demonstrates the necessary gravitas to portray the role of an alien-trained agent on Earth. Delightfully, he also seems to be in “on the joke,” and does a great job as a straight man, both for Garr and the cat, who are scene stealers.
Teri Garr is our comic relief, and for me, her ditzy routine seems a little dated, today. Also, it should be noted, Garr is apparently not a Star Trek fan (which is fine, of course), but that she once compared such fans to the people you encounter at “swap meets.” I’m not exactly certain what she meant by that remark, but I’m pretty confident it’s an insult. What she’s saying, basically, is a stereotype.
The concept of “Assignment: Earth” is good too; that advanced, benevolent aliens might send trained humans back to Earth to prevent us from annihilating ourselves. They are sleeper cell agents, in essence, but with good intentions.
Beyond these touches, Seven’s advanced tech, like the vault transporter, sonic-screwdriver-type pen, and hidden computer panel, are all a lot of fun. They all hail from the colorful “super-spy” world of such programming as Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-1968) and Mission: Impossible (1966-1972), but with elements of Trek and Doctor Who (1963-1989) thrown in for good measure.
A downside of the premise, however, is that it goes against a key pillar underpinning Star Trek. And that pillar is, simply, that the human race outgrew our infancy on our own, and, in maturity, stepped onto the galactic stage (circa the 23rd century). If aliens have been leading us by the nose all along then that accomplishment is undercut some.
As a Trek episode, alas, “Assignment: Earth” isn’t so great. In fact, the episode is weak. Kirk and Spock are relegated to supporting roles, and their involvement in the adventure begs questions. Why is Starfleet undergoing the dangerous operation of time travel just for historical research?
The Enterprise’s mission sets up the story details (the interception of Gary Seven) but doesn’t seem to track with what we know of time travel. Stories such as “The Naked Time,” “City on the Edge of Forever” and “Tomorrow is Yesterday” strongly establish that time travel is dangerous and should therefore be a restricted activity. I don’t know that “historical research” is a valid reason for such a risky operation.
I know it is impolitic to make such a remark, but I also find the climax of “Assignment: Earth” slow, and somewhat tedious. Kirk and Spock are held captive, restrained, in a control room for a while, and it seems to take forever for Seven to make the modifications on the rocket gantry. It’s slow-going, followed by additional slow going. Kirk and Spock are passive observers not only in the control room (before they do engineer their own escape) but in Seven’s office too, while he destroys the rocket in the atmosphere via his computer.
Finally, it rubs me the wrong way to have Spock inform Lincoln and Seven that they have several interesting adventures ahead of them.
First, in universe, this is flat-out wrong.
We have seen on many occasions that it is preferable not to influence people with knowledge of the future (see: Captain Christopher). Certainly, Spock -- of all the characters -- would be prudent about revealing such information.
In terms of the series’ integrity, the dialogue is also a mistake, as it seems Spock is speaking directly to the audience, endorsing the idea of a Gary Seven series. It just feels a bit, well, cheap. More like marketing than actual drama.
It is intriguing that Spock’s description of 1968 hits surprisingly close to the mark in terms of historical events (an assassination, and so forth), but I can’t state that this is a reason to recommend the episode, or judge it as a success.
Finally, “Assignment: Earth: features one interesting connection to future Trek lore worth writing about. Gary Seven “beams” across star systems at the start of the hour, and that’s transwarp beaming in a nutshell. Transwarp beaming plays a major role in the Kelvin universe, in Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013). I have read many Star Trek fans complain about this dramatic device or gimmick, but “Assignment: Earth” clearly sets up the possibility, and the possibility in the 23rd century era of Kirk and Spock.
Next week, we begin Season Three with….“Spock’s Brain.”
(Watch out for spoilers!)
It is ever so fascinating to consider how a big Hollywood film -- with just a small shift in emphasis -- can slip from one genre right into another.
With a little clever tweaking and re-thinking, the beautifully shot and well-realized Passengers (2016) might have become a cinematic science fiction classic. It features a memorable setting (a sleeper vessel in deep space), strong performances, and the kernel of a great, intellectual theme.
But in the end, it backs away from its best ideas at half-light speed.
Sans the courage to really explore its narrative’s themes, however, Passengers is ultimately just a bit more than a glorified (though enjoyable enough…) Hollywood romance.
That this expensive film from director Moten Tyldum and writer Jon Spaihts ultimately falls short of a lofty goal saddens me a bit, not because I dislike happy endings, or romantic films in general, but because Passengers, in its first hour, stakes a claim for legitimate greatness as science fiction.
The film concerns human nature, loneliness, and the way that people seek advantages in all their relationships. Passengers is a story about love, for certain, but one about how, ironically, love can be a very selfish, hurtful thing in certain circumstances.
After contending with these worthy ideas, Passengers all but abandons them in its rock’em, sock’em third act, turning to action tropes and a romantic playbook that supports the apparent necessity of a conventional ending.
It is a long-standing rule in big-budget genre pictures that a climax must end with uplift and excitement, not reality, or emotional truth.
That necessity to be “happy” harms Passengers, transforming this work of art from an amazing experience to, simply, a better-than-average one. The film is not bad, for sure, but ultimately it disappoints because it gets so close to being something more than a romantic vehicle for two attractive, currently popular stars.
“I woke up too soon.”
In the future, a giant spaceship called the Avalon carries a crew of 258 and 5,000 passengers as it treks towards “the jewel of the occupied worlds,” the natural and unspoiled Homestead Colony. All those aboard the huge vessel are asleep in individual hibernation pods, and a complex web of ship’s systems tends to their well-being.
After Avalon’s run-in with an asteroid belt, the ship begins to malfunction, and the ship’s computer seeks to restore balance to its damaged network of operations. In one hibernation bay, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, awakens suddenly. He finds that he is the only person conscious on the ship, and that the Avalon is still a full ninety years distant from Homestead II.
Thus, Jim will spend the rest of his natural life alone, on a hunk of metal, in the middle of nowhere.
At first, Preston turns all of his intelligence towards re-activating the hibernation pod. When that endeavor fails, he attempts to send a message to Earth, only to learn that he won’t receive a response for 55 years. Jim also can’t contact the sleeping crew, because the door to that section of the ship is hermetically-sealed, and impregnable to drill, hammer, and saw.
Preston attempts to keep himself occupied for a ime by watching movies, playing basketball, dancing against a holographic game, and visiting with the ship’s android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen). But after a full year, he grows despondent and contemplates suicide.
And then, Preston sees Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in cryo-sleep. He reads all about her in the ship’s files, and watches videos of her, as well. She is the daughter of a famous writer, and a writer herself. Preston reads her books and then falls in love with her.
He struggles mightily with what to do, but ultimately decides to awaken Aurora, an act which will end his loneliness but condemn her to his fate; 90 years on a hunk of metal traveling the stars.
Aurora awakens unaware of what has occurred, and Preston lies to her, telling her that her pod must have malfunctioned too. As they get to know one another, Aurora and Preston fall in love.
Then one day, Aurora finds out the truth, even as the ship’s systems continue to malfunction…
“We’re passengers. We go where life takes us.”
Before I write about why I believe Passengers ultimately misses its mark, I want to discuss how terrific the first act is.
In short order, we meet Jim -- a hollowed-out looking Chris Pratt, who has gone too far losing weight -- and come to grips with his situation. He is alone, with no way to talk to anyone, and no way to restore his hibernation pod. Jim realizes that he will die of loneliness if he doesn’t do something, and then grapples with a moral decision.
Should he condemn a woman that he has fallen in love with to his fate? Can he live with himself if does that? Can he survive without doing that?
I love that a movie as big, complex, and technologically-based as Passengers is turns all of its drama on one human decision.
I’ll also say this, I am ashamed of my fellow movie critics for their lack of empathy in reviewing this movie.
Many of these reviewers actually termed Jim a “stalker” and said that he was creepy and perverted for wanting, simply, companionship, and seeking to find that companionship with Aurora.
Let’s review the facts again: Jim is alone, looking at a lifetime of isolation, and he makes a terrible, selfish mistake. But he is not a stalker, and the movie doesn’t advocate his actions, either. Jim is a man driven to the brink of suicide, who is looking for any tether to keep him alive. That doesn’t make what he does right in any sense, but it makes him human. It makes him one of us. We are all flawed, and we all make mistakes.
Let’s cut through the I’m-taking-offense-because-he’s-a-stalker bullshit and face facts. All of us seek advantages in our relationships all the time, fair or not. It’s not like Jim is alone in making a bad choice, and then lying about that choice.
That’s human nature.
We use what we are given or what we have, to get what we desire. The heart wants what the heart wants, and it’s not always right, or ethical. People cheat, lie, color the facts, and deceive to maintain relationships that are important to them. It’s a fact of human nature, and Passengers absolutely gets it right. A good person, Jim, does something immoral and unethical, because he is, purely and simply, desperate. We can feel compassion for him, even without approving of his choices. Calling him a stalker is snarky, and wrong, and suggesting that Passengers approves of his behavior is a totally incorrect reading.
There’s a powerful scene here wherein Jim nearly attempts suicide. All he has to do is push one red button. The scene is not powerful because of his attempt, but because of what happens next. He catches himself, realizes what he is capable, and grow scared. He flees the airlock, terrified of what he is capable of. He is scared…of himself.
Again, this rings very true, and suggests, once more, that Jim is a fallible, real person not a screenwriter’s cipher.
And what about love? Jim does what he does, he says, because his in love with Aurora.
Love, we all know, is a powerful emotion. And it isn’t always hugs and puppies.
Love is selfish.
Hence crimes of passion.
Love drives people to do things that give them the advantage in a relationship, but which -- from the comfort and distance of our judgment -- we gauge as unethical. The movie makes it plain that Jim falls in love with the (improbably named) Aurora Lane not because of what she looks like; but because of her books; her personality, her spirit.
That doesn’t give him the right to ruin her life, or “steal” her life, as Aurora says, in any way, shape or form. But it’s not just like he stalks her based on her looks, or a desire for sex.
I would argue that Passengers is quite unblinking and truthful about human emotions, and the need for companionship in its first act.
And I would simultaneously argue that it would have been a better movie had it stuck to this idea instead of veering into Hollywood conventions. There would have been a way to do it, to make a statement about human nature.
Passengers should have had the courage to let Jim die in the final act, saving the ship (instead of being rescued by Aurora).
I would have Jim die in the climax, in an act of redemption (proving that he made a terrible choice, a terrible mistake, with Aurora, but is not a bad person, overall). And then, I would have set the epilogue of the film exactly one year later.
In that coda, we would have seen a hibernation pod opening with a man inside. He would wake up, confused and scared. And then he would randomly happen across Aurora, who was already awake.
We would understand from this encounter that she awakened him, as she was awakened by Jim, because she too was impacted by the heavy gravity feelings of loneliness and despair that Jim felt.
She is human too, and -- if Jim died -- she would have had to fight the same feelings, and go through the same decision process that he did.
I doubt she would have decided differently.
Back to Human nature!
Human beings are naturally selfish, in some sense. As reported in Scientific American Mind (Matthew Robinson; 2014): “… instances of selfish behavior also abound in society. One recent study used a version of the classic Prisoner's Dilemma, which can test people's willingness to set aside selfish interests to reach a greater good. After modeling different strategies and outcomes, the researchers found that being selfish was more advantageous than cooperating. The benefit may be short-lived, however.”
If we consider Jim again, we see that he is not a stalker, but that he does make a selfish decision when he is weak.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story of the character. He is also altruistic, and thinks of the community, at times, too. He risks his life, finally, not for Aurora, necessarily, but -- specifically namechecked in the finale -- the 5,000 sleeping beauties in hibernation. Again, this is also human nature. Sometimes we think of ourselves first. But sometimes we are able to rise above that, and think of the well-being of the entire community.
It is natural (and human, too), that Aurora rejects Jim after learning that he manipulated her, and lied to her (on more than one occasion). But to pretend that Jim is just a stalker “on the make” is so untrue to his character in the film. Passengers could have made this point in a superior fashion if Aurora found herself having to make a choice about her future too
Ninety years alone? Or share the misery, and wake up another passenger?
Instead, Passengers settles, at the end, for some uplifting schmaltz about the life Jim and Aurora ultimately share, before dying in transit to Homestead II.
They live a long, fruitful, productive happy life.
I submit that this outcome is unrealistic, given the situation that Jim finds himself in (vented out a tube, blown into space, in a damaged space suit…) and untrue, even more so, to the themes of the movie.
We actually aren’t just passengers, going where life takes us. On the contrary, we are flawed people like Jim, having to make decisions on a moment-by-moment basis, and hoping for the best. The movie is about a man who considers himself and what he wants, first, and then realizes just how wrong he was…and redeems himself.
The truth of human nature would have been validated if Passengers ended with a despondent Aurora, making the very same choice that she punished Jim for.
What would she have realized?
We are social animals. We can’t live alone. And killing ourselves is against our nature too, in many situations.
Consider that, according to Pascal Vrticka at The Huffington Post: “The reasons for the evolution of the human social brain are not yet completely understood. There is, however, growing consensus that two processes likely played key roles in triggering the observed dramatic increase in brain, and particularly neocortex, size. These were the development of (i) socially monogamous pair bonds, and (ii) paternal care / the involvement of the father in rising children (see here for additional information). Both of these processes offered additional defense mechanisms against infanticide and predation on offspring. In a nutshell: if the father stuck around long enough with his partner, and vice versa, the common children had a higher chance of survival…and that is what ultimately counts in evolution: promotion of survival of the fittest.”
In other words, Jim is driven both to be selfish, and to want companionship. His (unethical) action to awaken Aurora is one that stems from both aspects of human nature.
I wager everyone reading this blog would do the same thing in Jim’s situation, and the false outrage over his actions says more about our society’s lack of empathy (and self-awareness) than it does about Jim, himself.
He made a terrible mistake, and came to regret it. Then he tried to make up for it.
I find that Passengers is actually incredibly smart, at least to start, in terms of how it addresses the reality of human nature and Jim’s big choice.
It is just too bad that the movie also makes a bad choice at the very end. Finally, it succumbs to the need to be a commercial “hit,” and becomes a happy-ending romance in which all is forgiven, and which Aurora learns nothing from Jim.
After so much careful set-up and canny insight into what makes us tick, Passengers chooses, finally, to be a stupid romance, instead of a smart science fiction picture.
I, for one, can’t go along on that particular ride.