'Passengers' is a pay-off picture, a flick specifically designed to provoke a single revelatory "wow" moment, and its success hinges on how well it leads up to and hangs together after the big reveal. Do all the puzzle pieces fit snugly? Are contrivances kept to a minimum? Can the intrigue both sustain interest and deepen as the plot progresses? Unfortunately, Rodrigo Garcia's stylish film doesn't pass muster on any of those counts. Lumbering along for most of its sluggish 93 minutes, 'Passengers' clumsily combines mystery, romance, supernatural incidents, and a host of creepy caricatures. The climactic twist, though hardly a shocker and not at all unique, still packs a punch, and the elegant denouement puts a fresh spin on a tired theme, but it's all too little too late, and can't compensate for the dreary doings that comprise the bulk of this run-of-the-mill psychological thriller.
Anne Hathaway stars as Claire Summers, a young grief counselor tasked with helping a handful of plane crash survivors cope with the myriad emotions consuming them. Most of the passengers are withdrawn, angry, or confused, but one, a handsome yuppie named Eric (Patrick Wilson), is strangely euphoric. Somehow the crash has freed him to take his life in a new direction – "it's like being born again," he says – and Claire, who's intrigued by his attitude and attracted by his magnetic charm, betrays her professional principles and enters into a rollercoaster relationship with him. Concurrently, in a series of group therapy sessions, Claire prods the other survivors to recall the accident, and when different stories of the circumstances emerge, she begins to question the airline's official account of the disaster. Her suspicions are heightened when one-by-one the passengers start to disappear, and sinister strangers stalk those who remain. To protect her patients, she seeks answers, but as her quest progresses and the cloudy waters thicken, Claire begins to come unhinged, making it apparent the therapist could use some therapy herself.
'Passengers' could never be called original, but it puts its own spin on its borrowed elements. While it surprised me at times (in a good way), the film still leaves a stale aftertaste that's tough to shake. Writer Ronnie Christensen most likely structured his screenplay around the final revelation, but such a creative strategy handcuffs his characters, and they often move robotically about like pawns in a carefully plotted chess game. Stilted dialogue only exacerbates the problem, infusing most scenes with an artificial air that keeps us detached from the drama, and Garcia's stiff direction doesn't repair the fractured ties. He strives to lend the movie a brooding, introspective tone, but instead courts tedium. A film of this sort should be tight and tense, but the leisurely pacing dulls the narrative edge, and often makes us wonder where 'Passengers' is headed. I shouldn't have to check my watch during a 93-minute film, but found myself doing just that a couple of times.
The excellent cast gives it their all, but can't overcome the script's limitations. Hathaway has all but obliterated her princess past, and aside from one shrill moment, files an understated, credible portrayal – no small task, considering the mediocre material. The hunky Wilson also does what he can with a sketchy role, and such reliable supporting players as David Morse, Andre Braugher, and Clea DuVall add class to the muddled proceedings. The wonderful Dianne Wiest, however, is wasted as Claire's saccharine landlady, who seems like she wandered in from a campy, low-budget horror film.
I wanted to like 'Passengers.' The fine actors and intriguing premise piqued my interest, but the execution – up until the final act – falls flat. An ending can only prop up a movie so high, and without any underlying message or relatable theme, 'Passengers' must rely on its shaky story, and it's just not substantive enough to make an impression. Gimmick films are tough to pull off, and require meticulous craftsmanship to seduce and shock the audience. Sadly, 'Passengers' flaunts an assembly line feel, and never comes close to living up to its far better predecessors.
Visually, 'Passengers' is an intentionally dreary film. Overcast skies, rain, dingy interiors, and night scenes predominate, and the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer from Sony accurately duplicates the bleak atmosphere. Fine grain complements the image, evoking the feel of celluloid, but I expected more dimensionality from such a recent release. Clarity is solid, but not stunning. A faint softness often clouds the picture, which suits the eerie goings-on, but keeps details a bit obscured. Colors are understandably muted, although Hathaway's lips often stand out, lending the picture welcome vibrancy. Fleshtones are stable and true, from Hathaway's alabaster skin to Wilson's more rugged complexion.
Black levels possess lovely depth, while contrast ranges from excellent to so-so, depending on the shot. No marks or scratches dot the source material, and Sony technicians have wisely steered clear of any digital enhancements. This is a very serviceable transfer that offers a pleasant viewing experience, but won't provoke any ooohs or ahhhs.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track won't blow you away either – except during the final minutes – but supplies well-defined, nicely modulated audio throughout. Brief flashbacks to the plane crash offer up impressive sonic jolts that brim with hefty bass, and when we finally experience the disaster in full, the track fires on all cylinders, pumping out an array of crisp effects from all speakers that thrust us into the careening vessel. More delicate accents also come through clearly, and the ambience of wind and rain faintly dances across the rear channels.
Despite the actors' quiet line deliveries, dialogue is always easy to understand, and the music score, though a bit drab, is well integrated into the mix. Front channel separation is noticeable enough to expand the soundscape and enhance the unsettling atmosphere that pervades the film, and highs and lows sit well within comfortable parameters. Overall, a well-done presentation.
A decent array of extras round out the disc, taking us behind the scenes and providing plenty of perspective from cast and crew.
Endings can make or break films, and though the best moments of 'Passengers' come during its final 10 minutes, they're not potent enough to lift this twisty psychological thriller out of the average realm. Slow pacing, a weak script, and too much borrowing from other material make this promising production a rough ride. Technically, the transfer, sound, and supplements are all good enough, but they can't rescue 'Passengers' from the rental bin.
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