Declan Burke gives his thoughts on this week’s films.
Set in the far future, on a spaceship bound for the colony planet of Homestead II, Passengers (12A) opens with a computer systems malfunction that wakes Jim (Chris Pratt) from deep hibernation.
Horrified to discover he has been woken 90 years early, and that he will die long before the spaceship reaches its destination, Jim plunges into despair — until he encounters the sleeping beauty Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence).
Written by Jon Spaihts and directed by Morten Tyldum, Passengers opens as an intriguing variation on the kind of philosophical conundrum sci-fi has long thrived on, with Jim agonising over the moral issues of waking Aurora and, in effect, ending her life.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Jim overcomes his reservations, which is when the story morphs into a conventional romantic drama, in which one of the partners hides a secret that will destroy the relationship if it ever comes to light.
Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are likeably charming in the lead roles, particularly when the movie is in romance mode, but neither has the heft and depth required to shoulder the existential horror of finding themselves adrift in space and ‘doomed to travel forever and never arrive’.
Michael Sheen earns his keep in an understated turn as an android barman (working in a bar eerily reminiscent of its equivalent in The Shining), and the film — shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto — looks fabulous, especially in those scenes when Jim and Aurora go space-walking with the entire universe for a backdrop.
Overall, though, Passengers takes us on a journey that’s a little too familiar to deliver on the story’s initial promise.
Will Smith stars in Collateral Beauty (12A), playing Howard, a formerly high-flying advertising guru who is plunged into deep despair when his daughter dies.
When Howard begins writing letters to Time, Love and Death, his friends Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña) commission actors Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley) and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) to appear to Howard as Time, Love and Death, in order to persuade him that life is worth living.
Written by Allen Loeb and directed by David Frankel, Collateral Beauty offers an ambitious conceit modelled on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but the story, as Howard is confronted by life’s great abstract concepts, never fully escapes its contrived structure.
Will Smith is fully committed and movingly persuasive as a grieving father, but the action cuts away from his plight far too often to allow him fully develop his character’s depth and breadth, offering instead the comic potential of amateur actors (Helen Mirren in particular has great fun hamming up her role as a third-rate thespian desperate for validation) taking on the challenge of humanising the ineffable.
The result is an excessively complicated story that rarely rings true, with too many characters forced to deliver preposterous dialogue as they hold forth on life’s great mysteries.
The film’s heart is in the right place, certainly, as it offers solace to those in mourning, but the tone of trite sentimentality ultimately degenerates into misguided mawkishness.
Donnie Darko (15A), which gets a limited re-release this Christmas, is a deliciously dark and subversive take on the High School teen movie.
A sleepwalker, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is called from his bed one night by a giant rabbit, who tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days.
When Donnie returns home the following morning, he discovers that an aircraft’s jet engine has crashed through his bedroom ceiling to destroy his home.
Is Donnie still dreaming? Has he somehow slipped into a parallel dimension? Or is he, as his psychiatrist believes, a self-deluding paranoid schizophrenic?
Written and directed by Richard Kelly, and set against a backdrop of the Bush-Dukakis presidential election of 1988 (the film was released in 2001), the story follows Donnie as he drifts through a paranoid dystopia, fulfilling the conventional destiny of the genre’s hero (the disaffected High School kid who somehow manages to woo the quirky girl) while engaging in wanton acts of destruction and violence.
The repeated motif of time travel suggests that Donnie is the malign alter ego of the loveable Marty McFly in Back to the Future (1985), whose humorous shenanigans were intended to restore the status quo; Donnie’s adventures in messing with the space-time continuum, by contrast, appear designed to fundamentally alter a future no one wants to go back to.
Gyllenhaal is a magnetic, brooding presence in his breakthrough role, with strong support coming from Mary McDonnell, playing Donnie’s mom, and Patrick Swayze, playing a flawed born-again evangelist. All told, it’s a minor masterpiece.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved