Movie Postmortem #8: PASSENGERS

by John S.

Movie Postmortem is a series that reviews films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

THE CASUALTY: Passengers

THE CASE HISTORY: Los Angeles 2007. Passengers, a screenplay about a man who is awakened prematurely during a deep interstellar journey, and who subsequently awakens a female traveler out of loneliness, lands on that year’s “Black List.” An annual listing of the Best Unproduced Scipts in Hollywood, the “Black List” is kind of a badge of honor for screenwriters. Many scripts that land on this list are subsequently greenlighted into production.

The same will eventually be true for Passengers. However, it first goes through years of false starts. Initially intended as a vehicle for Keanu Reeves, the production is delayed by lack of a female lead. Emily Blunt, Rachel McAdams, and Reese Witherspoon are each attached at various points before moving on. Eventually, Reeves himself leaves the project. Now lacking both a leading man and a leading lady, Passengers looks like it may stay even longer on the Black List, a quality script that remains unproduced.

Meanwhile, Jon Spaihts, Passengers’ writer, keeps busy on other high-profile projects: one of his other scripts, Alien: Engineers, eventually gets the greenlight as Prometheus, which is released in 2012 to worldwide success, leading to renewed interest in Passengers. The production is eventually revived by the entrance of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, two of the most popular stars today. With them onboard, Passengers finally goes into production.

December 2016. Passengers is released in North America to many negative critical notices and lukewarm opening weekend box office: just under $15 million. For stars of Lawrence and Pratt’s stature, this is an underwhelming start. Eventually, though, Passengers grows legs and reaches the $100 million mark, domestically. Globally, it takes in over $300 million. Financially, it’s a nice save after a precarious launch. Critically, however, the film is thrashed.

So what the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS: Passengers is an intriguing film: a space saga that has no Xenomorphs or intergalactic warfare or Death Stars or body counts. Just two people and an unusual love story. I can see why the original script by Jon Spaihts wound up on the Black List. While it’s certainly not the best screenplay ever written, it is a compelling, atypical read that blends genres and, in doing so, defies genre conventions.

Therein may lie the problem. Mainstream audiences these days want more of the same even though they pretend to want something new. They also want to know what exactly they’re getting – even if they if they pretend to want to be surprised. It’s possible the marketing for the movie may have made it hard to pin down exactly what the story is about. Is it a thriller? An action film?  A romance? A dark comedy? Actually, it is all of that – but mostly a romance. Change the setting to a cruise ship or an island on Earth and the story beats would essentially remain the same. It’s the space angle that may have thrown audiences for a loop. This confusion may have led to that “weak” $15 million opening. Also, let’s not forget how difficult it is now for films that are not part of a known brand or franchise to even get made, let alone get a foothold at the box office.

Happily, that soft start led to long legs that saw the film eventually top $100 million in North America, and even more overseas, acquiting itself and suggesting people may have belatedly discovered what they were missing. Imagine if that opening weekend take had been higher: Passengers would have certainly grossed even more, given that strong 6.5  multiplier. Mainstream audiences may have slowly flocked to the movie, ignoring the numerous negative reviews citing the “creepiness” of the central concept of a man awakening a woman out of hypersleep because of loneliness.

These critical complaints are a bit short-sighted and fail to credit the innovation of the premise or take into account the complexity of human nature. True, Chris Pratt may not quite have the emotional intensity and dramatic depth to make his character’s decision 100% forgivable (I would have cast Andrew Garfield for that) but Pratt is so naturally likable that he makes it at least fathomable. Ditto Lawrence, who is less fiery here than she’s been elsewhere but is no less appealing for it. She and Pratt have just enough chemistry to sell their connection and make it a satisfying journey.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: The largely negative reviews for Passengers, coupled with the unusual premise, may have initially turned audiences away on opening weekend. However, the “star power” of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, as well as word-of-mouth indicating the flick isn’t really bad at all, may have lured people back to the theaters – eventually vindicating the film (at least financially).

NEXT CASUALTY: Alien: Covenant – “Run. Hide. Scream.”

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

A Special FREE Multimedia Presentation at Scarecrow

Movies can provide insight into the world and others’ points of view. They can also be a playground for the imagination and a means of visualizing the impossible. But how do movies actually engage the mind? How do we “think” through a film? Join us and film scholar Lance Rhoades for a multimedia presentation and conversation about movies, intelligence, and creativity. Along the way, we’ll enjoy examples of cinema that celebrates the great minds of the ages.

FEAR RENTAL: A Video Store Comic

by Ben Horak

An absolutely true tale of a video rental haunting! Witness a young boy’s absolute terror turn to understanding over the critically despised film Nothing But Trouble!

Read More

DEEP RED: Chills & Thrills, Italian-Style

by John S. 

Even the most casual film fan knows exactly who Alfred Hitchcock is. However, drop the name “Dario Argento” on the same unsuspecting person and you’ll probably get a blank stare. In fact, there are probably even some fervent cinephiles out there who have no idea who Argento is. Which is a shame because, just like Alfred Hitchcock,  in his own way Dario Argento has shaped the Thriller and Horror genres and made them what they are today. So much so that a common nickname for Argento is… The Italian Hitchcock.

Read More

Movie Postmortem #7: EAT PRAY LOVE

by John S. 
Movie Postmortem is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

THE CASUALTY: Eat Pray Love

THE CASE HISTORY: February 2006. Successful New York travel writer Elizabeth “Liz”  Gilbert publishes a memoir about the back-to-back implosions of her marriage and a rebound romance, and her subsequent attempt to heal by spending a year traveling around the world. Titled Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search For Everything Through Italy, India, and Indonesia, the book is met with near-universal acclaim. Among its innumerable fans are two very influential ones: Oprah Winfrey and Julia Roberts.

Not everyone is wild about the book, though. Some quarters criticize it, essentially calling the book a self-involved and privileged affair, adding that not everyone has the means to heal themselves by checking out for a year and trotting the globe. Nevertheless, Winfrey’s promotion of Eat Pray Love further accelerates its popularity. Columbia Pictures eventually secures the film rights and the actress chosen to play Gilbert on the silver screen is none other than Roberts herself. Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, James Franco, and Billy Crudup join the cast in key supporting roles. Glee creator Ryan Murphy is chosen to helm the production. Given the huge success of the book and Roberts in the lead, anticipation for the film adaptation is sky-high.

August 2010. Eat Pray Love The Movie is released in North America and scores $23 million in its first three days, eventually topping domestically at $80 million. Given the book’s immense popularity and Roberts’ star power, this is viewed by many as somewhat tepid. Consider that My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, and Runaway Bride – all rom-com Roberts vehicles from the late-90’s – opened in the same range. All three eventually finished well past $100 million. Before adjusted for inflation.

The reviews aren’t exactly gushing either. While technically well-made and solidly-acted, the film is heavily faulted for the rarefied mentality that comes across much stronger than in the book. Even though the movie eventually takes in just over $200 million globally, the overall impression is hard to dispute: Eat Pray Love The Movie  does not get the same acclaim Eat Pray Love The Book did.

So what the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS: To understand why Eat Pray Love underperformed it is necessary to compare the movie with the book, because they are two distinct experiences. While they ostensibly tell the same surface story, each version’s narrator registers differently and therefore so does the story she tells. Since that “character” is our guide to the movie’s narrative landscape, how we connect (or not) with her is crucial. We will refer to them as Book Liz and Movie Liz.

In the book, Book Liz comes across as warm, funny, earthy, and relatable. I admit I was very wary about reading it but liked it a lot once I did. The “entitled” tone that some cited is a bit exaggerated by naysayers and is minimized by Book Liz’s humanity and willingness to admit her imperfections. Her frankness and self-deprecating humor wins a lot of good will and I can understand why so many people championed the book. Reading about Book Liz managing to regain and maintain perspective is what made the memoir a worthwhile read.

Some have also criticized Gilbert for essentially financing her year-long “journey of the soul” from an advance made by her publisher based on a pitch (something Book Liz frankly admits). They think this “pre-meditation” makes her experiences contrived. I don’t necessarily agree nor do I fault her for it. She had essentially lost a lot following her divorce and her decision was likely a combination of the creative and pragmatic. I doubt many people would choose differently if they were in her shoes. Furthermore, it’s hard to hold this against Book Liz because of how humble she comes across.

Movie Liz, however, is a different story. While Julia Roberts has turned in immensely likable performances in previous films (particularly Pretty Woman, which is probably the best example of a star being born right in front of your eyes), she registers a different presence here – one that is much cooler and more distantly-poised. By contrast, Book Liz comes across much more like Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman: imperfect, approachable, and disarming. Movie Liz, on the other hand, seems to be a different person – someone more self-involved and entitled.

There is a key scene in the movie’s first act that is pivotal. It’s supposed to win us over to Movie Liz’s decision to travel the world. She discusses her plan with her best friend Amanda (Viola Davis), who understandably criticizes her decision. Movie Liz’s reaction to this is shrill and petulant and doesn’t exactly make us side with her. The India section follows the same tone, with Movie Liz coming across in a whiny, unflattering light. In the book, these passages were much more low-key and less melodramatic. Keeping them the same way in the movie might have helped make Movie Liz more likable.

To be fair to Movie Liz, there are some moments – particularly in the Rome chapter – where she becomes a bit more sympathetic. A great sequence citing the abused, forgotten underground tunnels of Rome as a metaphor for the human spirit’s resilience is well-shot by Murphy and nicely acted by Roberts. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these striking passages once the narrative leaves Italy. The miscasting of Javier Bardem (who seems more annoying than alluring and doesn’t gel with Roberts) as Movie Liz’s Indonesia fling-turned-Brazilian Prince Charming ends the story on a flat note. Maybe recasting the roles with, say, Sandra Bullock and Demian Bichir would’ve helped.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: Ultimately, most of the fans of the book probably didn’t get the same experience from the movie, whether because of the difference in tones or another reason. Meanwhile, non-fans were likely not going to support the movie, anyway. Consequently, once initial interest and curiosity about the film version of Eat Pray Love was answered there likely wasn’t much repeat business to be had – leading to a relatively lukewarm reception.

NEXT CASUALTY: Passengers – “There is a reason they woke up.”

Starring two of the most popular stars of the moment and boasting an irresistible pitch (Titanic in outer space!) this flick should have knocked it out of the park. Instead it just did… okay. In honor of the release of Alien: Covenant, let’s look at another space saga (one without monsters) and find out why its rockets failed to catch fire.

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.