The Good: Good acting, Decent plot development, Good pacing
The Bad: Very mundane DVD bonus features, A little light on character development.
The Basics: An engaging film, Passengers is clever enough to start as a character-centered drama before turning into a conspiracy story.
Perhaps the best movies these days are the ones that manage to surprise me in one form or another. Too often, I watch a movie and it is limited to being exactly what I expect it to be and I am left disappointed. So, when I sat down and watched Passengers and I did not call the end rather early in the film, I found myself smiling as it concluded. It has been a long time since a movie began as one type of film and then transformed into another so effectively for me. Indeed, Passengers is not terribly original once one reaches the end, but to reveal what film it is ultimately derivative of would be to ruin it for those who have not yet seen it.
And, despite being a very fresh feeling twist on a somewhat older concept, Passengers is still cinematically worthwhile and wonderful. I picked up the movie because of the presence of Anne Hathaway and when I saw the movie included Patrick Wilson, Andre Braugher, Clea DuVall and David Morse, I began to wonder how such a good ensemble cast made a movie I had heard nothing about! I was eager to get Passengers moved into my new blog because - as an Anne Hathaway fan - it insulted me that the only review which included her in it would be the one for Valentine's Day (click here for that review!). In some ways, Passengers failed because it was mis-billed. Even the DVD cover tries to make it out to be a supernatural movie and the tagline that appears on it is ridiculous for the film inside. Ideally, one ought to ignore the packaging and just immerse themselves into this particular film.
Eric is on a plane that crashes and after the crash landing of the plane, he finds himself wandering about in the fiery debris. Eric is not the only one who survived the crash and a trauma specialist, Claire, is brought in to counsel the four survivors. As the investigation into what caused the crash becomes more intense, Claire finds herself beset by two problems. The first is that the survivors begin to disappear, making her group sessions more and more bleak and cause her to suspect the airline is covering something up. This is reinforced by Arkin's, a spokesman from the airline involved in the investigation, creepy presence around survivors.
Claire's life is also complicated by Eric, who refuses to join the group session and seems to treat Claire like her job is a joke. Euphoric following the crash, Eric starts living his life and his sense of adventure and freedom become intoxicating to Claire. As Claire tries to protect the remaining survivors from Arkin, she finds herself more and more involved in Eric's life and his passions.
Passengers begins as one type of movie, a drama about grief counseling and professional ethics and transforms into another type of film. That it makes the transition as successfully as it does makes it easy to argue that it is a good movie. As Claire's life begins to unravel through her contact with Eric and the other survivors, Passengers becomes a smart conspiracy-themed drama and because it makes the transition as well as it does, it is very easy for viewers to follow and not feel lost.
But more than that, it is easy to empathize with Claire and enjoy her journey. It is easy to get upset watching Claire overstep her professional bounds with Eric, which seems almost like an inevitability the moment the two meet with Eric naked and uninterested in counseling. But for those patient enough to trust that the movie might be going somewhere, Passengers does make a journey and Claire's character becomes more and more understandable. Ultimately, even as she wrestles with professional boundaries, Claire is empathetic.
Part of the easy empathy I had with Claire came from how unsettling her situation is in Passengers. Claire is professional, detached and skilled when she is given the assignment and when Eric mentions things about her life that he ought not to know - like her conflict with her sister - Claire is visibly shaken. But as the movie makes the transition into more the conspiracy thriller, it is easy to empathize with Claire because she does seem to be the one who is smart and putting the pieces of the puzzle together correctly.
It might be no surprise that Anne Hathaway is wonderful as Claire. Hathaway has an intelligence she brings to the role that makes it plausible that she might be a young trauma counselor. She carries herself with a strength and alert quality that make one believe instantly in her character and that is the essence of great acting. Hathaway leads a strong cast which includes William B. Davis (doing his usual minimalist performance, he is a staple in all things conspiratorial), Andre Braugher (as Perry, Claire's professional mentor, who is predictably great as well), Diane Wiest (Claire's neighbor who plays a very minor supporting role), Clea DuVall (who plays shock masterfully as Shannon) and David Morse (who makes Arkin scary).
The one who ultimately surprised me most was Patrick Wilson. Wilson, I am discovering, is a vastly underrated actor. I loved his work in Watchmen where his performance of Dan Dreiberg was so convincing I had no idea that I had actually seen Wilson in a few other movies before! Passengers adds to his credibility as an actor of real range doing what he did not do in Watchmen, namely portraying true joy and a convincing sense of liberation. Eric surviving the plane crash makes him feel entirely free and with that sense of freedom he changes his life around. Wilson sells that dramatic life turnaround without ever making it seem cliche or forced. I might have sat down to Passengers because of Anne Hathaway, but it soon became Wilson whose talents were drawing my eye. He's got range and in Passengers he is fearless and alive, which is a very different turn for the characters I've seen him play!
On DVD, Passengers is surprisingly stark in the bonus features. There is a decent commentary track and there are a few deleted scenes. But for a movie that is arguably more of a psychological drama, the featurettes on the plane crash seems oddly out of place. There are other featurettes on the characters and the overall story, but most of the information in them is presented in the commentary track.
For those looking for a wonderful drama, Passengers delivers. Ignore the packaging; it's not what the movie actually is. And for those who aren't sure a conspiracy story is truly for them, Passengers is the right introduction into the genre: it starts off as a different type of movie, so by the time it becomes the conspiracy drama, one is already invested in it completely!
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© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.