Film Review: Passengers

July 27, 2017

My new exercise bike has been getting a workout, and it has given me a good excuse to spend more time in front of the TV in a healthy way … and I have started catching up on some films on the “to-do” list.  Among them is the 2016 film Passengers … so if you haven’t seen it, and might be interested, stop reading, I will spoil this.

We are introduced, via on-screen text to the luxurious starship Avalon, ship of the Homestead line, owned by the Homestead company which is en-route to the colony world of Homestead II (this makes sense … you know if Walmart was running things, the ship and planet would be “Walmart”).  The crew of 200 and change is in hibernation in the ship’s ever rotating command ring, and the 5,000 future colonists are similarly in a different rotating ring fast asleep.  The ship encounters some asteroids, which their shields easily burn up … but one pesky big rock requires the computer to divert more energy to the shields, and during the encounter, there is some damage.  The computer repairs most of this damage, but one of the hibernation pods malfunctions, and revives Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), formerly of Denver, Colorado.  At first, Preston is merely confused as he is greeted by holograms who inform him he is now awake after 120 years in suspended animation.  After a long nap in his small cabin, he reports for training with the other engineers and technicians, and is surprised that he is the only one there.  He tries asking the corporate computers, but gets no useful information, and only in the observatory does he learn the horrific truth:  it has only been 30 years since he left Earth … he has 90 years to go.  He fires off a message to Earth, but is told that a reply will not be expected for over 55 years.

Preston eventually finds that he is not entirely alone, as the grand concourse has a bar with an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen at his Michael Sheeniest!)  Unable to get anything more than cereal and a regular coffee in the cafeteria (the lattes and other pricier food is for “Gold class” passengers), at least he can get a drink.  As an engineer, Preston attempts to fix the hibernation pod to no avail, and tries to break into the bridge and the crew hibernation area with no luck.  Horribly depressed, Arthur convinces him to accept his situation, and live it up as best he can, with small malfunctions being minor annoyances.

Preston takes the advice, and breaks into one of the best cabins on the ship, takes advantage of the many restaurants, games and recreation, and even goes for a space walk.  After about a year, he has grown despondent and bored, and even contemplates walking out the airlock without a spacesuit.

One day, while walking through the hibernation chamber, he spies one of the passengers …a beautiful woman named Aurora Lane of New York, New York (Jennifer Lawrence).  He looks her up on the passenger manifest, watches a recording she made, and finds she is a writer who has decided to create her own adventure to inspire her writing.  He falls in love with her recording and her voice, and dines next to her hibernation pod.  Finally after more than a year has passed, and trying to fight off temptation, he succumbs to his loneliness, and triggers a malfunction which brings her out of hibernation.  Aurora meets Jim on the grand concourse, and is none the wiser, especially with the other small malfunctions cropping up.  At first, she doesn’t accept the situation, and tries to fix her pod and get at the crew, but, like Jim, eventually accepts the situation, and falls in love with Jim.

One day at the bar, Jim is getting ready to propose to Aurora, when Aurora learns, by accident from Arthur, that Jim had been obsessing over her for a few months before he woke her up.  She is crushed to learn that the life she had planned is over, and that she is condemned to die before reaching the planet.  She attacks Jim, and demands that he keep his distance.  The pair settle into a routine that keeps them apart, with them splitting days with Arthur.

As time goes on, Jim harnesses his guilt, and manages to use supplies and samples from the ship’s garden to build a tree in the middle of the concourse for Aurora, which she ignores.  The malfunctions on the ship are getting more numerous and worse, and Aurora is nearly killed when a loss of the simulated gravity nearly drowns her in the pool.

Jim and Aurora are then shocked when a human voice comes over the intercom, demanding to know who put the tree on the concourse.  There, they meet Gus, the crew chief, who has woken up prematurely because of a malfunction in his pod.  He investigates, and determines that there was some damage to the ship during the asteroid encounter some two years earlier, and that the ship’s computer has been trying to fix it, but has been allowing other systems to fail in the process … the ship’s engine core is now in danger.  Unfortunately, Gus dies from complications of his early waking, but not before handing over a key that grants access to all parts of the ship.  Jim and Aurora work together to fix the problem and save the ship.

Some 90 years later, the Avalon is nearing its destination, and as programmed the crew awakens first.  They walk onto the concourse and find an incredible park with grass and trees and even a home that Jim and Aurora had created for themselves.  A final recording of Aurora’s writings to her fellow passengers notes that Jim and Aurora got lost on the way, but found each other and chose to make a beautiful life for themselves while on the journey, even if neither lived to reach the end …

Roll credits!

Passengers has so much going for it:  It is a phenomenal concept, it has wonderful performances, Oscar nominated artistic design and musical score, and great effects (it is, at times, visually striking).  With all of that going for it, there was a key breakdown in the writing of the script, and to me it was obvious:

A man has been stalking a sleeping woman for months, then takes an action that will prematurely kill her just so that he can have a relationship, but only after forging a physical romantic relationship based on a huge lie, but in the end, she falls in love and they live happily less than 90 years.  Perhaps if the film were titled “Stockholm Syndrome”, this would make sense, but otherwise, it takes Jennifer Lawrence’s well acted character of Aurora, and turns her into some psychological victim of a very nice guy who killed her (the film is from an omniscient POV … but if they had written this film from Aurora’s POV, this film would be a horror-thriller … something I’m not wholly convinced they weren’t going for, given the carpet in the bar and Arthur’s dress mimics The Shining).  I give the writers some credit in that they try and soften Jim a bit … when Aurora explains to Gus what has happened, Gus actually takes Jim’s side by analogizing that a drowning man will cling to and take the person next to them down with them … which to me is not an apt analogy at all, and borders on saying “you can’t blame a lonely guy for stalking you and forging a relationship on false pretense”.  Its not victim blaming … but it comes close to “eh, boys will be boys”.  This might have been a bit easier to swallow if Gus had been a female character, or maybe (MAYBE) if they had established Jim as some kind of a gregarious fellow who desperately needed human companionship instead of showing him to be a bit of a loaner in the first place … but I had a hard time accepting this attempt to put Jim’s blame aside.

Passengers, I think, would have worked great as a much shorter work of drama, and without its ending..  In fact, I think this would have been a dynamite episode of The Twilight Zone, if it had ended right at the point where Aurora learned to truth – (I can even picture Rod Serling doing the final voice over:  Portrait of a man who was dying of loneliness only to have to live with the guilt of a killer, and something that no killer has ever had to live with:  the constant visceral hatred of the person you are killing, slowly, every day for the rest of your lives”).

I think also lost along the way is if this film was trying to communicate something other than a story.  There is a smidge of “corporations are, worse than evil, they are fucking annoying douches of life!” … but that gets forgotten about after maybe 25 minutes in the film … once the film settles into the Jim-Aurora relationship.  I was wondering if it was commenting on loneliness or that true love needing to be based on honesty.  Clearly if it was, the film’s message is a bad one, because it seems to say that loneliness is an acceptable reason for being a criminal, and no matter how much of a lying weasel you have been, up to and including putting someone you love into a life-threatening situation … it is no problem because they will come back to you.

Since I am going off on the writing component, I will continue on with some issues related to direction and technical production:

  • The film opens with some text reading, which I don’t have a major problem with, except that virtually all of it then gets explained within the first 10 minutes of the film anyway, which renders the need for the text moot.  That’s sloppy film-making!
  • Jim is an engineer, and, as we learned, got a discount on his flight since his training was necessary for the running of the colony.  Aurora is a writer.  Jim is traveling on the discount travel plan (cereal and coffee only), while Aurora is a gold class passenger who gets access to all of the good food and drink.  If the future portrayed in this film means that engineers have been relegated to the same level as beach bums despite retaining their importance in an advanced technological society, and English majors go on 120 year first class cruises, then I say something seriously wrong happened between our seriously fucked up 2017 and their future, and this film is really dystopian.  Engineers should get the elite cabins.  English majors lacking any notable publications should be riding steerage.  Sorry.  There, I’ve written it.
  • For all of the grandeur, it annoyed me that most of the actions occurred in large rotating rings (to avoid the need for zero gravity effects), but looking out the windows, the stars don’t move in some scenes.  Again, that is sloppy film-making!
  • The design of the Avalon is really beautiful, and they were careful to put the action in the rotating rings to produce a simulated gravity effect.  The shame of this beautiful planning is – when the ship begins its massive shutdown near the film’s climax, the rings stop rotating … but they remain firmly planted on the floor.  Sloppy!
  • When Jim and Aurora need to fix the ship, Jim notes that the ship’s stores have spare parts for everything … but apparently no one thought it was a good idea to put a … I don’t know … spare hibernation pod on the ship!
  • The ship is shown to be a model of advanced artificial intelligence … yet it somehow refuses to ever detect that one and then two, and later three people are up and about when absolutely no one should be up and around.  This follows with the crew hibernation chamber being locked off … why lock it off?  The crew wakes up a month before anyone else, and no one should ever be awake during the journey … so why lock the sleeping crew away?
  • Before waking Aurora, Jim is shown to be frustrated with the cafeteria where he is limited in what he can order.  However, there is a great restaurant on the ship which serves lots of great food that he is seen ordering.  Why does Jim even bother getting frustrated with the limited menu in the cafeteria??
  • It is clear the technical designers understood gravity and science.  What kills me is that I suspect the director was kind of lost.  There is a beautiful spacewalk scene where Jim beholds the wonders of the universe before him in his loneliness … and a single tear runs down his cheek I guess because the someone remembered the water trickling scene/chaos theory exposition by Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park, and figured there was some random chance the tear might roll down his cheek in the absence of gravity.

Maybe any one technical issue can be overlooked for the sake of drama, together, they really steal from the film and its great performances. What is perhaps the most maddening issue is that the director decides to dangle a ray of hope before snatching it away.  After Jim and Aurora save the ship,  they discover that the one automated medical pod has a setting that allows for one individual to enter stasis.  Jim, I suspect, could have found a tranquilizer, knocked Aurora out, slipped her into the unit, and saved her life as a way of redeeming himself.  Of course, Aurora and Jim decide that they won’t leave the other, because … Jim has forgotten his guilt and Aurora no longer hates the man who is slowly killing her (I’m guessing this is the only logical reason)?  This seems to indicate to me that the production staff knew that they were creating a dramatic situation with a lot of internal fallacies … and then let them continue despite an option to clean them up with one swoop.

Passengers is a film where so much went right … but a critical error in writing and production created a situation that falls flat.  This script could have definitely used a script doctor to find ways out of the internal inconsistency.


Why “scientific data” is hurting and helping

July 18, 2017

A few weeks ago, I got done reading the landmark baseball book Moneyball.  It is an outstanding book that overlaps a bit with the Brad Pitt film, but goes into far more historic perspective on the birth of sabremetrics.

Trying my best to briefly recap:  sabremetrics (or advanced metrics) grew out of a major series of papers written by Bill James back in the early 1980s.  He started with some of the basic “unanswerable” questions of baseball (Is it pitching or hitting that wins games?  What role does defense really play?), and he tried to answer them much like a scientist might.  He gathered as much raw data (player and team statistics) as he could, and then looked for correlations between those numbers and team success.  His findings were revolutionary:  the currency of baseball is the out, and therefore, you want players that make the fewest possible outs … this means that you want players with high on-base percentages (OBP), and ignore the big stats like batting average and RBIs.  He also found a strong correlation for success with players who had high slugging percentages (SLG — the measure of a player’s “power” … home tuns, and triples increase your SLG more than doubles and singles).

The point driven home in Moneyball is that when baseball teams were presented with this wealth of tremendous data showing them how to win, they all largely ignored it until Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta needed a way to build a winning team in Oakland without a New York Yankees gangster wad in their back pockets.  They realized that the qualities that won games (getting walks to improve your OBP and hitting doubles to raise your SLG) were often under-priced in the vast marketplace of players, and that Oakland could build a winning team by going after these players.  You didn’t care so much about defense, which was difficult to quantify, and you definitely didn’t want your players trying to steal bases, unless their chance of success was extremely high.  You wanted guys who could draw walks and not hit the ball into the air to make a lot of outs.

The A’s have built teams that on a performance-to-dollar basis outperform nearly every team in Major League Baseball, but have failed to get a team to the World Series in the almost 2 decades they have been trying.  From a front office standpoint, the team has prospered.  From a fan’s standpoint, the A’s have largely failed to make a run at the World Series, and play in a (sometimes literally) cesspool of a stadium.  Sure, you were lucky in the men’s room at Wrigley Field if the only things you had to deal with was a pantsless mascot rubbing against you while the odor of urine wafted above the single trough running through the middle of the room … but at least you usually never had to actually walk through human waste.  The good news is that the A’s are finally getting a new stadium (bad news Cub fans … you still have Clark the pantsless bear as your spokesperson).

Moneyball, the book, was published in 2003, and over the past almost 15 years, baseball front office people have digested it, and have adjusted to it.  This summer, watching baseball, I have come to the conclusion that this philosophy has reached saturation in baseball (looking for proof?  Check out the most recent World Series winning team … a team of very interchangeable players, not really any stars or Hall of Fame caliber players, but which did come together to score runs and win games). However, I’m not sure this is overall a great thing.  Out are things like base running, great defense, and with players trained to take more and more pitches to get that walk … is it any wonder that the average time of Major League games has become a problem?

This new approach to building teams has added a degree of parity to baseball which, with the absence of a salary cap, isn’t at all a bad thing (when the Yankees haven’t won a World Series in 8 years, and the Royals have … that is a GOOD thing).  However, in so carefully building a data-driven baseball team, I think there is a certain fun factor that is sucked out of the game.  This may not on the surface seem like a big deal (after all … if you are winning, aren’t you having fun?), but there is something underlying the patterns of data … since ultimately, only a handful of teams make the playoffs, for the teams that are trying to do this, and are not winning, what you are left with comes across as boring … and my guess is that this does not sell seats or merchandise … and that should concern the ownership and management of teams to some extent.

 

I am sensitive to this not because I am a fan of a team that is rebuilding and currently occupying the American League cellar for the first time in decades, but because I am a teacher.  About 15 years ago, data-driven instruction became the way every school was going to be run.  What have been the results?  I would argue that it has raised some test scores (whatever that means), and has largely turned kids off from learning, especially more challenging material.  In February 2016, there were over 5 million job openings in the United States, and roughly 8 million or so unemployed.  There are lots of reasons for this, and I will not oversimplify this … but when jobs in the technology sector, engineering, legal, education, and medicine are not being filled, one has to wonder why there aren’t enough qualified people to do those jobs while we still have so many people unemployed? Again, I won’t pretend that I have a magic bullet here, but I think part of this problem lies in the fact that we have turned off a generation of kids to learning because it has become so dry and uninteresting thanks to data driven instruction sucking the creativity and life out of a very human enterprise like education.  I’m not saying “get rid of all data”.  That would be as bad an overreaction as what got us here in the first place … but I have felt the pain of teachers and students being pushed by wannabe systems’ analysts with DEds who think they actually know good data and know how to analyze it.

I think baseball needs to remember that above all sports, it is a sport haunted by numbers.  Numbers like 755 and 262 aren’t mere numbers … they are descriptors and milestones of greatness.  Baseball has always been a numbers game, and advanced metrics add some really cool and significant points of analysis to what is going on.  However, like so many human endeavors, there are often non-measurable factors that are part of what happens, and failure to acknowledge them comes with a great cost.

To be clear … it is not the scientific approach to things that is bad … it is not understanding the limits of the data and analysis that are bad.  This is true for people applying statistical analsysis to baseball and education just as it was bad for people applying the misshapen and not well-understood ideas of Darwinian evolution to societies and individual people.