Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Lost in Space


Having been introduced to 2016’s sci-fi scene with Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival – a shamelessly manipulative, undistinguished rumination on how we should think beyond our paradigms, and work peacefully together towards common ends – and having seen only The Imitation Game from the same director – which I found to be both pretty dull and grossly prejudicial and narrow-minded – I dreaded Morten Tyldum’s next film, Passengers, set in space in the near future and starring Hollywood leads Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. I can now report that dread is not the appropriate or required response to the film; however, nor are relief, elation, wonder, applause, thrill, or just plain pleasure. Passengers is more interesting than Arrival: the sentimentality is hard earned, rather than cheap, and the melodrama has a solid base, rather than being base itself. But the main event of the plot – i.e., the action that sets off the questions of who did what to whom and why, of which the trailer offers no hints, and which I won’t be giving away here – and the ethics it entails are so repellent that it’s difficult to imagine any serious endorsement of the film, despite its few merits and strengths.

Tyldum shows himself here to be a master of technical film-making; every scene – every shot, in fact – works perfectly to illustrate the progression of the narrative, the frames of mind of the characters, the implications of the action, the stakes and risks of the choices at hand, and the time and place of each moment within the setting of the film. Pratt and Lawrence hit their emotional markers like bull’s-eyes, rendering the emotional state of their characters with maximum clarity, and precisely marking the characters’ turns within a scene from one emotion to the next as the plot points are reached and developed. Michael Sheen, who plays a bar-tending robot of advanced artificial intelligence, manages an uncanny blend of calculated humanistic warmth and calibrated casualness in delivering lines that were ingeniously devised by the film-makers as just what a bar-tender that runs on gears and algorithms would say to a customer. The script, by Jon Spaihts, is painstakingly designed to withhold and reveal information at just the right moments, to effectively and efficiently envelop you in the characters’ backgrounds, and to move the plot at paces alternating between coherently brisk and romantically deliberate. The angles and editing give well conceived and full views of the action in each scene: what goes where, what’s coming towards whom, what the imminent dangers are, and how everything is positioned in relation to everything else. I was reminded of 2015’s popular action film Mad Max: Fury Road, so rationally and coherently filmed that you could plot a detailed map from the consecutive shots.

But the wonders of movie performances and movie stars don’t hinge on clarity and coherence; they rely on opacity and expressiveness in mystery, or mystique. Characters are interesting not just because of everything a screenwriter can tell us about them, but also because of what has been left out of the script, the ellipses that the director may choose to fill in or allude to in the performances and the filming. Pratt and Lawrence (and Laurence Fishburne, the only other human we encounter, though for a much shorter time) don’t get to make their characters into humans so much as into figures in a perverted parable. They’re not creatures of flesh and blood, with broad worldviews and unruly emotions, but diagrams of sparse background experience, totally linear goals and objectives, and utterly predictable and contained patterns of behaviour. They’re filmed in such a way that we best understand their places in the plot, what they’re feeling, and what those feelings lead them to do; we’re not given to apprehend the vast and tragic realms of their experience outside of the plot and the frames of the script. Tyldum doesn’t imagine the depths and intimacies of human emotions anywhere nearly as well as he cleverly illustrates the particulars of life on a futuristic, and mercilessly capitalist, space craft. His scenes of life inside and outside the ship show his brilliance at rendering the drama of flailing through space after being untethered from safety or of swimming in a pool that has just been released from a gravitational hold, as well as his inadequacy at rendering the human dramas of ideas, emotions, and experience. If artificial intelligence were now as far advanced as it is among the robots in the field, and if this film were put to the test devised by the real-life hero portrayed in Tyldum’s last film, Alan Turing, I should think Passengers to be the product of a remarkably gifted machine, one that knows what frightens and what consoles human viewers, but is not enough a master of the imitation game to surprise and to enlighten them.


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