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Wheels tend to come off of movies all the time. It's very rare when a spectacular film is able to stick it's landing and pull off a satisfying conclusion -- especially in this day and age of movies that have to tease possible sequels and continuations because they are part of a larger, existing franchise. This is why we have praised the likes of La La Land and Arrival, two films with spectacular endings that placed specific buttons on their tightly-designed packages. And it's why, days after having seen it, I'm still dumbfounded by the drastic left turn that Passengers made in its finale, to switch it from a masterpiece to a hot mess.
This entire column will be loaded with spoilers for Passengers, so stop reading now and go see the film (despite its flawed ending). Then, come back and read this over.
For 85% of Passengers, I honestly believed that the movie would make my year-end Top 10 list. That's how critics think. Well, it's how I think, anyway. As I watch a movie unfold, I take note of all of the things that a movie is doing right (and wrong). And when something holds together like Passengers, you begin to hope that it will stick its landing, and remain something special.
The crux of Passengers involves a difficult moral decision being weighed by Jim (Chris Pratt), a passenger aboard a spaceship who's on a 125-year journey, but who wakes up too soon thanks to a malfunction. Faced with possibly spending the next 90 years by himself, Jim decides to wake up Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a sleeping passenger he has grown fond of... primarily because she looks like Jennifer Lawrence, but also because he took the time to get to know her.
Passengers takes all the time in the world to explore the implications of Jim's decision. It's not made in haste. Jim is alone on the ship (aside from the companionship of a cold and clinical bartender, played by Michael Sheen) for more than a year. He exhausts almost every effort to fix his personal problem, including figuring out a way to re-enter his hibernation chamber, or to access the captain's deck. All to no avail. Even when Jim wakes Aurora up, she is given the time to repeat the steps of this cycle. Confusion. Denial. Suggestions for corrections. Acceptance of their scenario. Passengers lets these emotions hit the audience each time Jim and Aurora reach a new obstacle, and the movie really lets its intelligent premise run the natural course.
So far, so great. Passengers director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) has constructed a complicated moral puzzle -- because you KNOW that Aurora has to eventually discover the truth about Jim -- and he built it in a gorgeous, sleek and futuristic sci-fi package that is fun to watch and sufficiently tense. Again, I really thought this movie had a chance to make my Top 10.
Unfortunately, Passengers eventually reaches a point where a logical ending becomes nearly impossible. Perhaps that's why the screenplay sat on the Black List, and then in Development Hell, for as long as it did. You've seen the movie now (if you have read this far). How is Passengers supposed to end? Aurora discovers that Jim woke her up, when Arthur the Bartender reveals the truth. She LOATHES Jim, and he can do nothing but apologize. She doesn't want to hear it... and at that point in the movie, we understand both of their opinions. Jim WAS lonely, and was crippled by his scenario. Aurora SHOULD be furious with him, and the most honest scene in the movie is when she attacks Jim in his sleep, punching and pounding on him as the frustration of their horrifying reality sets in.
But then what? I don't know, and neither does Passengers. Unwilling to follow the moral conundrum any further, Passengers wakes up a third passenger, a co-pilot played by Laurence Fishburne, so the trio can address a physical issue with the ship, and the brainy sci-fi drama becomes a brainless action thriller. At the same time, a movie that prided itself on being very smart all of a sudden is perfectly fine with being dumb. And that's a huge disappointment.
The reason I don't deduct as many points on Passengers for its horrible ending is because, days later, I'm still not sure how the movie could have ended after Jim and Aurora had been torn apart. The movie paints itself into a difficult corner, and finding the right ending would have been a real challenge. I don't know what the best ending for Passengers would have been. But I do know it's not the one that we were given.