Thursday, June 29, 2017

Passengers

     By now anyone who's read a few of my posts knows I like sci-fi. Back in the day I was a real Trekkie for The Next Generation. I guess I still am in my heart. That being the case, it should come as little surprise that I would be interested in Passengers, not only because of the setting, but also because I'm attracted to stories that deal with the psychological effects of prolonged isolation (The Martian, Castaway, even Interstellar visited this theme).

     Passengers was marketed to look high-adrenaline with the added twist of there being only two people awake on a ship that won't complete its course for another ninety years. In reality, Passengers is slow and reflective, showing how one or two people might live if they were trapped on a luxury spacecraft with no other company and no means of escape, seemingly to live out their days in isolation. While there are a few moments of action and suspense, these are not at all defining features of the movie.

     It would pretty much be impossible to delve into this sufficiently without treading on a mild spoiler. That being said, this particular plot point is revealed early in the movie, it's just something they didn't want to ruin in the trailer. So here's your official spoiler warning for this review. The question that Passengers seeks to explore is, when a man is drowning and he pulls someone down with him, although not right, does it make it forgivable because he's drowning? This question is posed early in Passengers, and then spends the remaining 75% playing out the consequences of an individual's choice to pull someone down; namely Jim's decision to wake up Aurora.

     Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakes from cryosleep on a luxury space-liner 90 years early, and he's the only one awake among hundreds of other passengers and crew members. He attempts to send a message to earth, but his message won't be answered until long after he's died of old age. He can't break into the room where the crew members are sleeping, and all his hopes of reversing this glitch gradually die away. Days pass, months pass, and despite his efforts to fix his problem, he is alone and will live out his days in this manner long before anyone will ever know what happened to him. Over a year in complete solitude passes, and Jim is still facing living out his life in total isolation, with only the android bartender for human-like company. It's a dismal prospect, and Jim even contemplates suicide after the months he's spent alone. He's truly drowning in an endless, silent depression for which there is no comfort or escape, only the vastness of the universe for him to be lost in for the rest of his days.

     In this crushing desolation, he starts to ask himself if he could be forgiven for waking someone up; someone in particular. In the year of loneliness, Jim falls in love with one of the passengers, Aurora, destined to wake up on a new planet in 90+ years. He reads her writings, watches her interviews, and laments that the perfect woman is within his reach, but he'll never meet her unless he does the unthinkable, which he eventually does.

     Hollywood is no stranger to taking unsavory but physically attractive characters and romanticizing their heinous depravity, whether that's eroticized abuse, stalker-like behaviors disguised as protective and dedicated, unhealthy obsession, or any number of other deviant vices. However, Passengers doesn't condone or romanticize Jim's decision, and he does face consequences (though perhaps not in the way that critics would have hoped). The gravity of Jim's actions are by no means skirted over simply because he's good-looking. Passengers labors to clearly demonstrate Jim's compromised mental state from his prolonged isolation. He agonizes for weeks before the crushing darkness of space finally wears him down and he tampers with Aurora's cryosleep pod, causing her to wake up. Jim comprehends the implications of what his choice would mean for this woman, understands the life he would be condemning her to without her consent, but he's also grasping for his own reason to live. Later in the movie a character observes of Jim's actions, "the drowning man will always try to drag somebody down with him. It ain't right, but the man is drowning."

     The setting of space is a tricky one, being both beautiful and mysterious, but also dangerous and ominous. In one particularly emotional scene while Jim is still alone, he dons a spacesuit and goes outside the spacecraft to float, tethered to the ship by a long leash. Surrounded by the majestic beauty of space, its infiniteness, vastness, and splendor, he can't celebrate it, can't share it, and can't escape it. He just drifts, encompassed by the dark and silent universe, literally tied to a place where he will live and die alone in a seemingly endless nothing where no one is even awake to care. His eyes fill with wonder, and then with tears as he takes in the great emptiness around him and inside him. It's a beautiful, stirring moment woven with melancholy music and executed with pristine attention to the complexity and despondency of Jim's emotional state.

     Any time a movie takes the bold choice of being carried by a skeleton crew of actors, it offers a rare but risky opportunity for the actors to show what they can do on their own. In the case of Cast Away, The Martian, or Gravity, the actors captured copious amounts of critical praise, and even the attention of the Academy. Passengers doesn't quite reach that level, but it would be unfair to imply that Passengers was made up of mediocre acting. For Jennifer Lawrence, she is at that peak of popularity wherein she can hardly do anything wrong, and she's already proven herself to be capable of demonstrating a broad spectrum of emotions. For Chris Pratt however, I've wondered if he's truly versatile, or if he's another Tom Cruise who will play the same type of action hero again and again and remain absurdly likable, but not have a particularly diverse body of work. Well, while his true element is still in humor and lightheartedness, he actually does a more than decent job with the drama. Ultimately I think that audiences will prefer Pratt as Star Lord (Guardians of the Galaxy) and in similarly cocky roles (like Magnificent Seven), but he is at least capable of going deeper. 

     All that being said, to imply that Passengers is an especially deep movie might be overdoing it, but it's a more thoughtful piece than the promos would have you believe. While there are certainly moral and ethical questions raised by the uniquely designed circumstances, the story is more dedicated to the relationship than the heavier themes. Just as well, too, because spending too much screen time exploring such ponderings would make for an exceptionally dull bit of entertainment. The inevitable romantic relationship that develops between Jim and Aurora is fun to watch unfold, even if entirely predictable, as is the devastating fallout when Aurora learns the truth of why she is awake. Side note, at one point, Aurora's rage brings her to almost killing Jim in his sleep, but she refrains. I'm tempted to think that had she followed through with this act, an interesting and horrible cycle would have been born wherein eventually the loneliness would overwhelm her, and she would wake up someone else, causing the pattern to repeat. Thankfully this isn't what happens, and Jim is not bludgeoned to death in his bed. 

     Passengers hits an odd mark as entertainment goes, and my enjoyment in the movie may have been greatly due to having such low expectations based on the poor audience reception. Yet the theater audience was no doubt expecting a much higher level of action rather than drama. With that kind of expectation, Passengers is painfully slow and plodding. But as a drama, it works well. A masterpiece it is not, but it isn't trying to be. In some strange way, Passengers has a self-awareness about its ambitions and stays within them. It doesn't try too hard by pushing heavy-handed dialogue, overdoing the special effects, or trying to hide the convenient steps taken here and there. I don't know how much rewatch value Passengers would offer, but it is definitely interesting, enjoyable, and offered some interesting discussion afterwards about situational ethics.



Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hidden Figures

     In 1961, it wasn't just a man's world, but a white man's world according to Hidden Figures. In this world of inequality, three talented African-American women Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are the unsung heroes at NASA during the space race against the Russians. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are all in positions well below their skill levels, but "that's just the way it is." Even other black men make somewhat disparaging remarks about women doing the kinds of things these women do. Racism and sexism alike keep Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary minding their p's and q's. But as the space race intensifies, NASA's best minds will have to step forward, and some of those best minds may just be African American women.

      In the 1960’s, segregation is still very much a part of everyday life, with restrooms, libraries, and water fountains enforcing continued inequality and separation by Virginia state law. Back-handed comments here and there reveal barely-restrained prejudices still simmering beneath the surface, even if outright racism is restrained. Hidden Figures shows NASA as a place where there is an even mix of deliberate discrimination and indifferent obliviousness. While some employees are visibly annoyed by Katherine's presence in the Flight Research Division, others are simply oblivious to the challenges that social conventions have imposed -- such as her needing to use a restroom in another building because the restrooms are segregated.

      The cast of Hidden Figures earned a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. This award was well-earned by every actor in Hidden Figures, especially from the leading ladies. The always delightful Octavia Spencer (Oscar winner of Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Help) continues to shine, perfectly depicting subdued workplace professionalism one moment, and sterling strength the next. Newcomer Janelle Monae's electric charisma and shameless sass constantly lighten the moment while crafting a well-rounded character with conviction and purpose. Taraji P. Henson's Katherine initially seems relegated to frumpy working widow or dull genius, but Henson's portrayal of quiet determination, sweet romance, and tender motherhood make Katherine feel real and connectable, even if she is a genius.




     Of the supporting characters, one of the stand-outs is astronaut John Glenn, whose recent death makes the characterization here a timely homage. Glenn is shown as a fun and friendly gentleman with no illusions of self-importance, going out of his way to meet everyone, and kindly highlighting their importance to his mission. He almost seems too good to be true. But according to Bill Barry, NASA's chief historian, "Everybody thinks of John Glenn as this iconic war hero... and astronaut, but what's missed a lot is his humanity. Glenn was in a classic sense, a gentleman. He was always concerned about the people around him and it didn't matter what package they were in. He was a real people person" (Popular Mechanics, 2017).

      Amidst the excellent acting and inspiring story, Hidden Figures does have a few flaws. At times it seems that the writers were trying too hard to write quotable inspirational lines, but by doing so, it cheapens otherwise strong moments with forced or heavy-handed dialogue. For example, when Al Harrison hacks down the colored restroom sign, following it up with the line "Here at NASA, we all pee the same color" is hardly inspiring, and seems to be an exceptionally weak attempt at summarizing a message of equality. Beyond that, it undermines Al's intelligence as a character. Elsewhere, Mary Jackson walks into her engineering class where the instructor argues that the curriculum is not designed for teaching a woman, to which Mary earnestly replies "Well I imagine it's the same as teaching a man."

      In fairness, it is Hollywood's prerogative to embellish and dramatize, sometimes unrealistically, sometimes necessarily in order to make the story accessible to the broader audience. Bill Barry rightly remarked, "To be able to tell a story in a way that the audience can understand and make it entertaining enough for them to be able to watch, I think the scriptwriters have to be creative and find a balance between telling the exact historic details and delivering a story that is both interesting and gets the message across" (Space.com, 2016).

      One of the ways that Hidden Figures finds the balance between historical accuracy and telling an interesting story, is by using composite characters like Paul Stafford or Vivian Mitchell (played by Jim Parson and Kirsten Dunst, respectively) to represent attitudes of the world outside NASA. Vivian represents the unconscious prejudice of the time, while Paul personifies lingering racist and sexist attitudes. Interestingly, the real Katherine Johnson has said "I didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job. I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it" (History vs Hollywood, 2017). Yet somehow it would feel strange to show African American women in a 1961 Virginia not facing some form of thinly veiled prejudice, so it's understandable why the filmmakers made that choice.

      Hidden Figures is an inspiring story, made more so by the historical inspiration behind it. As a historical representation, it has a few missteps, but not so many that it becomes counter-historical. As entertainment, Hidden Figures absolutely soars, telling a moving story through its strong performances, and drawing attention to truly unsung heroes of space pioneering. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary were all real women with remarkable talents, each one contributing to the country's space efforts in their own ways. As an audience member, you feel the triumphs both great and small, from Katherine's sweet romance with Colonel Johnson, to Dorothy marching her group of "West Computers" down the hall to take over the running of the IBM. Ultimately, this classic story of overcoming adversity and being part of something greater than oneself is well worth watching.