Passengers

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.

Cultural infamy: Virtually none. The 2008 movie Passengers wasn’t screened for critics, and barely made it to theaters—it blew through Chicago in a week. It was such a hit-and-run release that The A.V. Club didn’t even have a chance to do a review. Apparently other media outlets had the same problem: Metacritic logs only a sad eight reviews by major publications; by comparison, the site logged 36 for Up In The Air. Rotten Tomatoes, which is far less picky about which review sources it considers noteworthy, logged 232 reviews for Up In The Air, and a mere 28 for Passengers. And according to Box Office Mojo, it made a whopping $292,437 in theatres. In other words, just about no one saw this film, even though it stars oh-so-bankable actor Anne Hathaway, and came out the same year as her hugely critically lauded film Rachel Getting Married, which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Worse yet, among the few critics who saw it, almost none of them liked it; Metacritic has it at a 40 rating, with quotes like this one from The New York Times’ Stephen Holden: “A supernatural thriller so mechanically inept and lacking in suspense that it doesn't even pass muster as lowbrow Halloween-ready entertainment.” Rotten Tomatoes has it at a mere 21 percent “fresh” rating. Given that it was barely advertised and barely released, and it recently slipped out on DVD without fanfare, it’s safe to say it pretty much lacks fame, infamy, or notice of any kind. 

Curiosity factor: I confess I hadn’t even heard of Passengers before my sister asked me to send her a copy via my Netflix account. My sister is like some sort of dowsing rod of crap cinema. She has the magical power to detect hilariously dubious movies that no one else has heard of, she loves terrible films, and I love watching them with her, because she’s so very vocal in her lack of appreciation for them. So when she asked for this one, and I realized it was a recent Anne Hathaway/Patrick Wilson supernatural twist-ending thriller that had somehow all but evaded the viewing public, I told her she’d have to wait until so we could watch it together. I wasn’t going to miss out on anything that promised to be so awful that the studio tried to hide it from the world. Besides, who doesn’t love a good twist ending?

The viewing experience: Back in 2007, a terrible Halle Berry film called Perfect Stranger taught me something about twist-ending films that I’d never fully absorbed before: It doesn’t matter how shocking, colorful, or even clever the last act is if the viewers have already given up on the film—or become completely enraged with it—by the time they get there. A good twist-ending film like The Sixth Sense, say, distracts viewers with a story that’s intriguing in its own right. The twist should be a cherry on top of a sundae, not a truffle hidden at the bottom of a dung heap. It helps if the story has some sort of internal coherence and a purpose for existing, and isn’t just a life-support system for a sudden surprise. Like Perfect Stranger, Passengers fails this simple guideline in every way. 

Passengers starts like Fearless ends, with the depiction of an airline crash from which passenger Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl from Watchmen and the co-lead in Little Children) emerges, dirty but miraculously unhurt. Therapist Anne Hathaway is quickly summoned to debrief and work with the paltry few survivors of the crash, and to be given some exposition by Andre Braugher, whose job and relationship to her go unexplained. Nonetheless, he informs her that she needs to be jarred out of her comfort zone. She protests that she isn’t in a zone, and he reminds her that she has “two masters degrees already [and] a Ph.D. that never ends.” Apparently this is what it takes to make someone comfortable?

At any rate, she doesn’t argue, and she heads to the hospital to meet the survivors, including Wilson, who greets her naked and entirely unselfconscious about it. He refuses therapy and promptly starts hitting on her, setting up the pattern for his behavior throughout the film: a mixture of left-field compliments, inappropriate intimacies, offhanded dismissal of everything she says, and discomfiting non sequiturs. From the start, he’s emotionally inaccessible, yet proprietary and controlling, which any decent therapist should regard as an immense, significant red flag. But Hathaway just seems vaguely flattered. Tee-hee, the cute guy who treats her like a dumb but pretty child might like her!

Eventually, Hathaway sits down for a group-therapy session with plane-crash survivors Clea DuVall, Ryan Robbins, Don Thompson, and Chelah Horsdal, who don’t entirely agree on what happened—Robbins remembers maybe seeing fire before the plane went down, but the others don’t. DuVall’s memories don’t entirely make internal sense either. Also, when Hathaway brings up Robbins’ memories with airline employee David Morse—whose job, like Braugher’s, is vague and unexplained—he insists that the plane crash was caused by pilot miscalculation. But… why does he have a folder in his briefcase labeled “maintenance”? And why is there a guy standing around outside Hathaway’s group-therapy sessions? Also, if Hathaway only has masters’ degrees, why does everyone keep calling her “doctor”?

One of the three major problems with Passengers is that director Rodrigo García downplays the issues that might actually point to a mystery, while turning up the drama knob on mundane details. It actually isn’t surprising that an airline guy would have a “maintenance” folder, so why do we get ominous music and a forced-perspective shot as Hathaway notices it? Why is there similarly worrisome music when Wilson wakes up from a nightmare, and looks out his window to see a barking dog? (Hint: because there’s a big twist ending coming.)

In addition, the film wanders abominably as each of these new mundane details flares up and peters out. For instance, Hathaway is deeply disturbed by the fact that Wilson somehow magically knows how she takes her coffee. She goes to the library and reads up on ESP, and tells Braugher she’s researching it because the crash somehow might have made Wilson psychic. Then it’s never mentioned again. So why does this come up at all? (Hint again: because there’s a big twist ending coming!)

The movie’s second major problem is that none of its mysteries are particularly mysterious, since the entire cast is working overtime to explain them away. Some evidence suggests that the airline is trying to whitewash the crash—but as crash survivor Don Thompson points out, that makes perfect sense, since they have a lot to lose if the crash was provably caused by an ongoing faulty standard of maintenance. Thompson himself fears that he’s being followed, but Hathaway reasonably explains that trauma survivors tend to feel paranoid, that it’s a natural reaction, but not worth concerning himself over. For her part, Hathaway is worried because her therapy patients keep “disappearing”—which is to say, they stop showing up for therapy one by one. But as Braugher reminds her, it’s not that surprising for people to miss therapy sessions. (What he doesn’t say is that it’s especially unsurprising in this case, since Hathaway is a timid, hesitant, unhelpful therapist with no particular focus, except her annoyingly intrusive attempts to get details out of her patients that might prove the airline’s culpability in the crash.)

So with all those potential mysteries patched over with entirely sensible explanations, the only problems left in the movie are tiny ridiculous ones: Hathaway’s neighbor Dianne Wiest is mysteriously pushy and nice! The mysterious guy who was mysteriously standing around Hathaway’s therapy session is still standing around! Hathaway’s sister, whom she hasn’t spoken to in a long time, mysteriously doesn’t call her back after Hathaway leaves an unpleasant passive-aggressive message! Dun dun DUNNNN!

But above all, the most mysterious element of the film—and the film’s third major problem—is Hathaway’s relationship with Wilson. He’s unsettlingly contemptuous of her—when she deflects his flat flirtations and persists in trying to talk to him as a therapist, he snaps “You’re like a dog with a bone!” He repeatedly compliments her appearance, though usually while shaking his head disapprovingly, as though it annoys him that she’s pretty. And even though he’s an unlikeable control freak—either shutting down any attempts to talk about himself, or repeatedly battering her with random demands like “Help me randomly slather paint on my wall, ’cause I’ve decided to be an artist”—she starts to fall for him. And presumably he’s falling for her, even though she’s a freak herself. Check out her wildly overreacting to a wind-blown newspaper at the beginning of this clip. And then check out his abusive-boyfriend behavior throughout the rest of it, as he orders her around, makes excuses to put his hands on her, alternately compliments and belittles her, then totally loses his temper over that barking dog outside:

Most of the rest of the film, in fact, isn’t about the airplane non-mystery, it’s about the supposedly deepening relationship between the two of them, which is largely characterized by his alternating bossiness and petulance—when she asks if they can meet again, he hands her his apartment key, then gets impatient and snotty when she refuses it—and her profound lack of professionalism. Her entire character is bound up in what a friend of mine calls “I don’t want to. Okay!” syndrome, where a supposedly capable female character makes a token protest against something she really should refuse, but then immediately and unconditionally gives in, because, y’know, a man wants her to. Everything about Wilson is a giant warning siren—“Dangerous! Broken! In denial! Stay away!”—and every time Hathaway tries to re-establish her therapist role, he ignores her and crosses the boundaries of their relationship. In one case, she delivers a lengthy talk about how they aren’t dating and are going to maintain a proper emotional distance, and he nods and smiles and pretends to listen, then leans over to brush a stray strand of hair out of her mouth. Creepy!

Though not as creepy as Dianne Wiest as that too-friendly neighbor. I’ve been a huge fan of Wiest’s since Parenthood, and I think she really nails the “Judi Dench in Notes On A Scandal” vibe here. She never says anything too blatantly strange or inappropriate, she’s just… disturbing. This may well be the best scene of the movie, where she’s weirder than anything else in the film, without visibly working to be:

But where her inappropriate efforts to force her way into Hathaway’s life are strange enough to be comic, Wilson’s are just unpleasant. Dig this scene, where he scares the shit out of Hathaway, again aping Jeff Bridges in Fearless with a little casual roof-walking:

Notice that whenever she’s frightened, he laughs at her. Whenever she refuses him, he mocks her or mechanically repeats himself until she gives in. This continues as he does increasingly outrageous and illegal things. And she, like any good therapist… um… lets him bully and control her. Then they have sex. Then she starts using him as a therapist, baring her tiny soul to him. Then he starts acting even more erratic, and doing even more dangerous things. And finally, something happens that isn’t easily shrugged off as coincidence, and Passengers starts to feel like it might be both supernatural and a thriller. It never really loses that sleepy, understated feeling, and Hathaway and Wilson never become easier to believe in or care about as characters, but at least something happens.

But again, it’s too little too late. After an hour of seemingly random encounters, during which crucial facts are missing and the focus is entirely on micro-investigations that go nowhere, the accrual of random details, and a horribly unhealthy relationship between an abusive bastard and his terrible weak-willed therapist, it’s really difficult to care about the next steps. Especially when the big reveal comes in the form of a massive, clumsy core-dump from a tearful Morse, followed by a series of flashbacks.

Granted, those flashbacks are assembled with more care and art than anything else in the film, and the ending of Passengers is actually touching. Director Rodrigo García (Nine Lives, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her) gives much of the film a striking look and a hypnotic flow, such that events melt musically into each other, in a way that’s again appropriate to the big twist—it just isn’t appropriate to the pretense that there’s a reasonable, concrete, worthwhile story going on before that big twist.

Want to know what the twist is? This is your spoiler alert; feel free to skip from here to the last paragraph if you don’t want to know. It’s like this: Hathaway was on the plane that crashed. She and Wilson and Morse and Braugher and Wiest and all the rest are all dead. DUN DUN DUNNNN! Morse was actually the pilot whose bad decision took the plane down, and Hathaway and Wilson were seatmates—that’s how he knows how she takes her coffee. And they’re all hanging out in a posthumous sort of limbo while Wilson, Hathaway, and the other “survivors” come to terms with their deaths. Wiest, Braugher, and others are guides and guardians, hovering solicitously but unhelpfully over the proceedings and making up the details of this fake world while waiting for Hathaway and the others to twig. That’s why Hathaway’s patients keep disappearing—once they realize they’re dead (usually by having dead relatives suddenly show up to say hi), they move on to whatever’s next. That’s why the details of Morse and Braugher’s jobs are so fuzzy—they’re made-up roles for a made-up world. That’s why Hathaway’s sister never returns her calls—the sister is still alive. That’s why the barking dog freaks Wilson out so much—it’s his dog, a dog that died a long time ago.

And so forth and so on, as all the jarring little things that seemed like bad writing or forgotten loose threads or insignificant distractions suddenly fall into place. But by that time, who cares what exactly is up with these horrible people? And even after all becomes clear, Passengers leaves behind a much larger final mystery: Why in heaven’s name (so to speak) would anyone think that this clumsy, hole-riddled mockup of a world would gently ease victims into the afterlife? Instead, it mostly seems to terrify and traumatize them, right up until they’re abruptly forced to confront reality in the form of their dead loved ones. In any other supernatural mystery, this would be hell: a faulty, frightening world where nothing makes sense, you have to turn to a terrible person for a modicum of comfort, and then corpses start turning up.

How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Strictly speaking, about three of the film’s 93 minutes weren’t confusing, irritating, dull, or all three, for a fairly appalling 3.22 percent return on investment. For what it’s worth, though, I had the pleasure of seeing this film with my sister, who was so utterly, entertainingly disgusted with it that we had a great time watching it. Lovers of bad cinema, step on up.