Passengers (2008) is yet another concept film that relies on an erroneous surprise ending to shore up support for transparent characters who fail at nearly every level to be interesting or relatable. The plot is straight forward enough; an inexperienced grief counselor fumbles for the right words to help a group of lackadaisical plane-crash survivors as they struggle to return to normal lives. The problem here is a pervasive sense that neither the ordinary world nor the circumstances of the crash itself is all that interesting, let alone sustainable. We’ve seen this story before and whereas a sharp script with decisive direction might have elevated the movie beyond the sum of its parts, neither element is in abundance here. Many of the supporting roles are filled by notable character actors from film and television but they spend weighty scenes locked in emotional limbo and plot point servitude. David Morse (The Slaughter Rule, The Hurt Locker) and Andre Braugher (Homicide: “Life on the Street”, Hack) have small, nearly indistinguishable bit roles, along with Dianne West (Lost Boys, In Treatment). Everyone seems to be concealing a secret that isn’t fully appreciated until the ‘ah-ha’ moment reveals in no uncertain terms that what you’ve been watching was a sham and the characters you’ve been reluctant to connect with were never really there in the first place. Are you kidding? Sadly, no.
Other films that have more successfully tackled the subject of post traumatic plane-crash scenarios are Peter Weir’s Fearless (1995) with Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez and Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000) with Tom Hanks; though the latter deals more with survival ala Frank Marshall’s Alive (1993) James Wong’s Final Destination (2000) and even Lee Tamahori’s The Edge (1997).
Occasionally interesting moments are fruitless and exploitative. Anne Hathaway as the eager grief counselor and Patrick Wilson as the plane crash survivor turned love interest, are thrown together haphazardly for the purpose of plot with scant attention rightfully placed on the one element that could have kept the film from coming undone – namely living characters. We can no more feel for them than we do the mysterious people in the story who are always just off frame, gazing blankly like zombies without all the makeup, telling us something we have to painfully wait for until the end. As the story unravels in a sleepy, movie of the week sort of plodding we begin to lose interest and realize the lack luster script and mediocrity isn’t going to improve. This film accomplishes the awful task of showing us in effect how not to tell a story that requires emotional evidence as to the existence of fully realized, three-dimensional characters who actually survive after the credits roll.
Where Passengers fully comes apart is with director Rodrigo Garcia who seems as inexperienced and lost as the characters of the story, half-stepping through a haze of doubt and indefinable woe much the way crash survivor Eric (Patrick Wilson) slides from one text-book stage of grief to another. Whereas other films are subtle and present, Passengers is painfully absent and ultimately unsatisfying. Perhaps the most troubling of all is the realization that the actors put their trust in Garcia and the production only to realize too little too late, that no one was flying the plane and slamming into a craggy beach is not only inevitable but in some way a welcome end to an otherwise unrequited existence.