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Dustin Putman

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Passengers  (2008)
3 Stars
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia.
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Patrick Wilson, Andre Braugher, David Morse, Dianne Wiest, Clea DuVall, William B. Davis, Ryan Robbins, Don Thompson, Chelah Horsdal, Stacy Grant.
2008 – 94 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements and sensuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 24, 2008.
"Passengers" is being released without press screenings, without any advertising of note, and on only 100 random screens across the country. What does TriStar Pictures hope to accomplish by tossing away a film headlined by popular talents Anne Hathaway and Patrick Wilson? Hathaway is coming off of consecutive box-office hits and currently has Oscar contender "Rachel Getting Married" in theaters, while Wilson (2008's "Lakeview Terrace") has also been rising to the A-list over the last several years. It would be one thing if the finished product were a fiasco of some sort and the studio was cutting their losses by burying it, but it's not. With the proper promotion and wider push, "Passengers" could have earned a tidy little profit.

First of all, it should be noted that the film is not very surprising from a storytelling perspective. An existential mystery-cum-romance, director Rodrigo Garcia (2005's "Nine Lives") and screenwriter Ronnie Christensen construct the plot in such a way that all the threads come together at the end for a revelation that resets its entire trajectory. The problem is that they are not very sneaky in doing this, and the audience is aware from the beginning that a big climactic twist is ultimately in the cards. For me, I was able to pretty much guess what was going on ten minutes into it. If the script were just a flimsy clothesline of deceptive turns with no substance, this might have spelled disaster. Fortunately, there is more—much more—to take away from one's viewing than just the last-act reveal.

When a plane crashes on a Vancouver beach and only nine passengers survive out of over one hundred, grief counselor Claire Summers (Anne Hathaway) is called in by her trusted mentor, Perry (Andre Braugher), to help work them through their trauma. As she sees the population of her group therapy sessions dwindle, the survivors seemingly vanishing, Claire suspects that there must be some kind of airline cover-up going on. After all, while investigators are blaming the crash on a maintenance problem, those that were onboard largely seem to recall a burst of light and an explosion before they hit the ground. One of Claire's patients, Eric (Patrick Wilson), is hesitant to speak about the event at all, his life rejuvenated as he believes he was miraculously given a second chance. The more time Claire spends privately with him, the more she begins to open up. There's a bond between them, but paranoia eventually takes over after a series of ominous occurrences start taking place.

It is difficult to discuss "Passengers" without giving key things away, but suffice it to say the film is a ruminative examination of coming to terms with things that cannot be changed and learning to value the human connections that satisfy and fulfill our lives. Through her relationships with Eric and a kind neighbor in her apartment building, Toni (Dianne Wiest), Claire comes to recognize that her troubled relationship with sister Emma (Stacy Grant) is one that she'd like to fix rather than see fall apart for good. She also cannot help but be drawn to Eric, who makes his intimate feelings clear to her. There is a gorgeously lit and performed scene between them where they take a dip in the chilly waters off of Vancouver, the city glowing in the distance behind them. A later love scene is tastefully composed and edited without falling into the choppy trap that most PG-13-rated movies do.

If "Passengers" is being billed as a supernatural thriller—the poster certainly suggests this—it really isn't. Director Rodrigo Garcia cleanly and proficiently tells his story without throwing in cheap jump scares or wavery apparitions. Instead, Garcia concentrates on make the film a character piece above all else, as well as a romantic drama set against a subtly eerie backdrop. The British Columbia locations, looking palpably cold and overcast, are sumptuously shot by cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo (2005's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"), and also turn out to serve a bigger purpose. Thinking back on the settings of certain scenes, they initially feel a bit superfluous, only to take on greater meaning as the story's smaller secrets are discerned. The music score by Edward Shearmur (2008's "Righteous Kill") is additionally simple and elegant, making an impact without going for thundering orchestrations.

Anne Hathaway is having a sterling year as an actress, and her turn as therapist Claire Summers is not a disappointment. Always searching for logic and truth, Claire butts heads with airline pilot Arkin (David Morse) when she has reason to believe that what really happened to cause the plane to crash is something he's trying to hide. Hathaway essays the role with a pent-up vulnerability to befit a young woman not yet completely comfortable within the profession she has chosen and hesitant to take chances or get too close to anyone. Her chemistry with Patrick Wilson, an enduring presence himself as Eric, is low-key and soulful, growing to mean more than the viewer anticipates. Dianne Wiest (2008's "Synecdoche, New York"), as the wise Toni, Clea DuVall (2007's "Zodiac"), as crash survivor Shannon, and David Morse (2007's "Disturbia"), as Arkin, also receive effective character arcs and commit to their parts with classy panache.

"Passengers" grabs one's attention even when the plot details feel familiar, and does a nice job of closing off all the possible loose ends. Despite already predicting what was to occur, the last fifteen minutes blindsided me with their resonant emotional power. It is not what happens, per se, but how it happens. Fighting back tears and being manipulated in a way that refreshingly didn't feel condescending was something that could never have been guessed in advance, and the final shots of a beautiful world in its natural flow strike a lingering chord. With a storytelling sensibility more common in foreign films than mainstream ones, "Passengers" is a compact, thought-provoking tale that challenges the viewer while shedding light on one's own life, and how he or she has chosen to lead it.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman