Franchise action flicks catch a lot of flak – rightfully – for existing as little more than an excuse for merchandising. But maybe the problem doesn’t stop there. Is it possible that our star vehicles have similarly been co-opted to serve as personal branding for actors?
There is a very plausible scenario in which a year from today, I will remember little of what happened between Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt’s characters in “Passengers.” I’ll probably never forget how angry I felt watching them play into the flaws of the script – more on that in a bit. What I am most likely to remember, however, is their late-night talk show appearances and lab-created viral video moments. The film itself feels like an afterthought amidst the millions upon millions of media impressions the duo generated on a month-long press tour.
The ancillary content for “Passengers” further cements the personas of both actors: Lawrence the raucous and relatable girl next door, Pratt the goofy but lovable working man. But the film itself cuts against the grain for each of them, making everything feel entirely disingenuous. This does not constitute much of a problem for Chris Pratt, who gets to play the tortured center of a deep space morality play. The prematurely awakened space passenger Jim Preston represents Pratt’s first chance to really display his dramatic chops, and director Morten Tyldum spotlights them by … focusing heavily on his puppy dog eyes whenever he’s grappling with a deep emotion or question. Whomp!
Lawrence, on the other hand, plays totally against type for both her on- and off-screen feminism. As Aurora Lane, the object of Jim’s gaze and manipulation, she gives herself over to being little more than a sex object ready to please on cue as well as a backstage figure to male heroism in the face of danger. This is Katniss Everdeen and Joy Mangano! This is the actress who dared to call out Hollywood’s sexist payment practices! What’s going on with this retrograde role choice?
Luckily for Lawrence and Pratt, “Passengers” strays so far from its initial premise that neither of them are likely to feel any impact from this strange title selection. The film starts off like a bad “Black Mirror” episode where ordinary citizens get screwed over by a negligent corporate overlord. In this case, it’s the fittingly named Homestead Corporation that erroneously wakes up hibernating citizens 90 years too early in their journey to resettle humanity on a distant planet. There’s a running joke throughout the film about how Homestead will reinforce class divisions in this new society, still insisting that the poor and working-class folks do not deserve the same amenities and access as the rich.
But any hopes that Homestead would assume a role similar to the Weyland Corporation from the “Alien” series were quickly dashed in the third act, which feels grafted on from a direct-to-DVD sequel to “The Martian.” Gone are any hopes of a satisfying answer to why passengers were woken up early. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts also simultaneously punts on some of the thorny ethical issues raised by the relationship power dynamic between Jim and Aurora. I kept hoping against hope for “Passengers” to improve, but all I got was a generic action setpiece climax. C /