I recently caught up with a bunch of movies from 2016, and two films stood out — largely because of the great disparity between my opinion of them, and the prevailing opinions of moviegoers and critics. Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner (as linguist Louise Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly, respectively) won awards, landed on a bunch of annual top ten lists, and was widely hailed as a thinking person’s science fiction film. Passengers, starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, was widely panned, with a 31% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, vs. 93% for Arrival; the latter made $193 million on a budget of $47 million, while Passengers cost $110 million and made $303 million (both movies made about $100 million domestically, the rest overseas).
Maybe my feeling about these films was impacted by watching them within a few days of each other (Arrival first, since I was looking forward to it more). Maybe high expectations had something to do with my eventual disappointment with Arrival, and the pleasant surprise of Passengers. Or maybe there are other reasons.
Arrival intrigued me, with its premise of aliens coming to Earth and the human attempts to successfully communicate with them. Having an interest in words, their origins, and the logic of made-up languages, from Volapuk to Esperanto to Klingon, I thought watching a fictional linguist decipher an alien language would be fascinating, especially given the serious (not to say grim), “realistic” tone of the movie from the get-go.
Visually, Arrival is dark and bleak, cast in similar tones to Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and just about any other recent film that uses lots of CGI. I don’t know if that particular color filter hides CGI flaws better than others, or if the owners of the color blue just paid off the studios at some point, but Passengers is a refreshing exception—the starship Avalon , the transport vessel on which Pratt and Lawrence (as Jim Preston and Aurora Lane, colonists on their way to a distant planet) are traveling, actually looks something like a cruise ship in space, at least on the inside—something you could inhabit without going insane, and lacking the tight, creepy, dimly lit passageways that all but invite an alien to take up residence in your gut. With several moments featuring an almost entirely black screen, Arrival had me adjusting the settings on my television, searching for a hint of what was going on. I have no doubt this was intended to convey a sense of reality to the film, but if I want that kind of reality, I can just lock myself in a closet.
Arrival works too hard, takes itself too seriously, and demands too much of its audience. There’s a segment of the moviegoing population that, in its justifiable outrage against stupidity like Independence Day: Resurgence, seems to feel that the solution is a movie that confuses you. Christopher Nolan walks that line, sometimes successfully, other times less so. In Arrival, the twist is that the aliens don’t experience linear time as we do; everything for them is sort of simultaneous. Louise gains insight from her close link with the aliens; what seem like flashbacks are actually glimpses into Louise’s future, showing her as-yet-unborn daughter growing up happy but dying young in a hospital bed. It’s revealed that Ian is the girl’s father.
This leads to many questions. Does Louise Banks really decide to have a child with Ian Donnelly that she knows will die, and not tell him about it? That’s certainly the implication. Some people will see Louise as heroic because she decides to have the child anyway — a decision whose ethics are debatable in itself — but to not reveal what she knows to her husband seems like a major flaw in someone we’re supposed to see as a hero. “Wait,” you’re saying, “she’s not presented as a hero. That term is too one-dimensional.” Protagonist, then — but in an age of anti-heroes, it needs to be said: you can be as complex and complicated as you like, but if you act like a dick, then you’re a dick.
Jim Preston’s situation is, for me, much more complicated, not less, when compared with that of Louise Banks. In the film, Jim Preston is accidentally awakened ninety years before he’s supposed to be; once awake, he can’t go back into hibernation. He spends a year completely alone except for a few robots, notably a bartender with a British accent. But despite the bartender’s impressive conversational programming, the illusion of “personhood” isn’t enough for Jim. Before harshly judging his seemingly irrevocable decision to wake up Aurora, a few things need to be considered: 1) everyone needs some “alone time,” but Preston’s solitude is profound. The bartender is basically there to serve drinks, and Jim can’t communicate with anyone back on Earth because he’s so far away. He’s a regular guy looking for a fresh start, not someone who’s chosen to sail around the world by himself, or a prisoner sentenced to solitary confinement. Incidentally, either of those situations would enable him some communication via e-mail, or phone, or letters. He’s got nothing.
Nothing, that is, except the additional temptation of people, right there in hibernation pods—people he can wake up anytime. I’ve read criticisms of his character that write him off a self-centered, unethical person, in the same tones (or worse) that I used to criticize the decisions of Louise Banks above, because, in waking up Aurora Lane early, he steals her intended life from her. But it’s not that simple. He knows the permanence of the decision to wake up Aurora, and does it anyway. It’s as much, if not more, of a compelling, clearly stated conflict than anything in Arrival, but more importantly, Passengers shows Jim grappling with his decision and its effects more desperately than Arrival does with Louise, who, by way of a few idyllic flash-forward views of her daughter playing, is apparently convinced that it’s not just worth her and her daughter’s pain and suffering, but Ian’s too. She could have left Ian and never seen him again, or just never had children, but she decides to create the future she’s seen. I suppose the idea is a “better to have loved and lost” sort of thing, but it doesn’t make sense, and I don’t think it’s realistic—although in terms of creating a talking point, Arrival succeeds here, with a question that would be great on one of those “start a conversation” cards.
But I’d say that Passengers, again, comes out on top in this department. I asked my wife if she would wake someone up if she were Jim Preston’s situation, and her response was “I’m such a people person, I think I’d have to wake up more than one person,” an interesting think-out-of-the-box, perhaps more feminine way of looking at the problem than Preston’s “I’ll pick a beautiful girl and get her to love me” strategy. He may not be a scientist (Pratt’s character is an engineer type) but this is realism — that’s how men tend to think.
There’s plenty of fun in Passengers when it’s just Pratt — he does what anyone would do, living it up with food, drink, and activities, and once he awakens Aurora, things progress as one might expect. The only man and woman on a spacefaring deserted island are both attractive; quite naturally, they fall in love. Arrival, by contrast, is sober, somber, and Louise and Ian’s relationship seems almost an afterthought. Arrival tries hard to be a “deep” film, and there’s much in its characters that is internalized — not a simple demand for an actor. But Pratt’s character, as simply as he’s drawn, shows remorse, while Adams seems to show little or none.
Changes were made to the original story concepts of both movies, and here, too, the alterations favor Passengers. An early script for Passengers, which had floated around Hollywood for years, contained a scene in which a malfunction shot all of the other passengers, still asleep in their hibernation pods, into space. This would certainly bring Aurora and Jim together, if a bit morbidly, as now they’d be the only two people alive on the ship. As filmed, however, this storyline was excised, in favor of one that gives Aurora a chance to go back into hibernation with the rest of the colonists, until their arrival at Homestead II. Passengers isn’t perfect, and as proof one needs look no further than the presence of only one “auto-doc” machine (a device that would permit a person to go back into hibernation) for 5,000 people, but in the moment, it feels like Aurora’s decision has already been made. She forgives Jim for waking her, and decides she wants to be with him.
Arrival, on the other hand, made changes to Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life,” but not for the better. Granted, it’s a very different task to tweak a screenplay versus adapting prose, and some elements of Chiang’s story never had a chance — the technical explanations of how the aliens’ language and perception of time worked had to be simplified, for one, and that’s probably a good thing. But also sacrificed were Ian Donnelly’s involvement, now mostly a stone-faced onlooker, and the addition of a Chinese general who becomes central to the plot, which my cynical side can’t help but see as an attempt to cash in at the foreign box office. U.S. military involvement is also emphasized in the film, but because this is a serious movie, none of them act much like soldiers, preferring to work in dimly-lit spaces and communicating in cryptic, clipped, and hushed verbalizations that make it seem like the actors are being paid by the word, while production is off-camera, editing down the dialogue to contain costs.
Passengers confronts some tricky questions about the nature of love, and the morals of pursuing it. One could say the same of Arrival, but that film is so busy putting its jigsaw pieces together that it loses the pulse of the emotion in what becomes a mostly intellectual exercise. Passengers took me on a wild and thought-provoking journey, while Arrival never quite arrived.