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.

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