Late in The Player, Robert Altman's acidic 1992 Hollywood satire, a scene plays out in which smarmy studio executives watch the latest cut of a glitzy new thriller starring Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis. In this movie-within-a-movie, Roberts's perfectly manicured and blow-dried death-row inmate is about to succumb to a lethal dose of poisonous gas, until Willis dashes in at the last minute, blowing the gas chamber open with a shotgun and hoisting Roberts into his arms, all while the score swells and the camera tightens in on the lovebirds. "What took you so long?" Roberts asks, dazed but still beautiful.
"Traffic," Willis replies with a smirk, "was a bitch."
I thought a lot about that scene while watching Passengers, easily the worst non-sequel movie to come out of the studio system all year – and a master class in peak Hollywood stupidity. Here is a movie where no line is too cheesy, no plot twist too undeserved, and no character too forehead-slappingly ill-conceived. It all adds up to what, on the surface, appears to be a straight-up parody of a big-budget spectacle. But no, this is meant to be taken dead-seriously, with no wink or nod or even acknowledgment that the joke is in fact on us, the audience.
But it's not just that Passengers is terrible in a can-you-believe-they-made-this kind of way, its narrative also pivots on a remarkably ugly incident that turns the film into less of a bad joke and more a diseased act of malice. To discuss this fully, though, I must detail what might be considered a spoiler, if revealing what happens in a film's first 30 minutes can truly be considered "spoiling" it. And even so, to hell with those conventional niceties. Passengers deserves every punch sent its way.
So, "spoiler alert": While the film's inescapable marketing has teased a huge mystery at its centre — namely, why are two passengers (played by Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence) who were hibernating aboard a spaceship woken up 90 years before reaching their destination? — it's all one giant, ugly misdirection. "There is a reason we woke up early," Pratt's character insists in Passengers' trailers and TV spots (a line never uttered in the actual film).
Well, yeah, there is indeed a reason; it's because he deliberately woke up Lawrence's character after his own pod malfunctioned. The guy was lonely. And sad. And, I guess, horny. Rather than spend 90 years solo aboard what amounts to a floating coffin, he decides to ruin a fellow passenger's life, too, because her hair is pretty, and he's spent his spare time reading up on her life pre-spaceship, and maybe these two crazy kids could make it work out in the confines of deep space.
And, again, it's only because he's lonely. And sad. And pathetic. And yet we're still supposed to root for him.
While Lawrence's character does eventually figure out what her new life partner did and reacts accordingly – calling him, correctly, a murderer – the movie insists on positioning them as star-crossed lovers, pushing them closer and closer through adversity. (I'd apologize for the "star" pun there, but it's no better than the countless groaners the screenplay delivers, including Lawrence uttering, "Ah, space! The one thing I don't need more of!") It's all spectacularly wrong-headed and smacks of the grossest kind of sexual politics. Our ostensible hero commits a monstrous act of selfishness, and we're expected to shrug it off as the side-effects of puppy love and root for their romance? It's Stockholm Syndrome masked as true love, and it is sickening.
What's worse than the actual movie itself, though, is how indicative it is of modern group-think studio production. Jon Spaihts's script has been in development for years, yet it and its beyond-problematic conceit somehow made it far enough through the industry's various checks and balances to land a credible director (The Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum), a huge budget ($120-million U.S.) and two of the biggest stars working today.
If Spaihts once upon a time intended his script as a serious, layered reflection on isolation and the moral choices we make to avoid the inevitable, then, yes, there could be value in that. But what Passengers delivers instead is a dummy's guide to manipulation and exploitation.
It is exactly the kind of film Player-esque studio suits think audiences are stupid enough to deserve, albeit it with Lawrence and Pratt instead of the self-parodying Roberts and Willis. Do not prove them right.
Passengers opens Dec. 21. You were warned.