Movie lovers tend to rejoice around the holidays, when the annual surplus of so-called prestige films floods theaters ahead of January’s Oscar nominations. Of course, not everything can twinkle. Each winter produces a few misfires, but they’re usually not as strange as “Collateral Beauty” and “Passengers,” two of 2016’s final major-studio releases.
It’s hard to discuss “Collateral Beauty” and “Passengers” without mentioning spoilers. But nothing I’m going to talk about should constitute spoilers. Both trailers obscured their movies’ inciting events because they are weird and problematic. What some might call “twists” are actually the crux of these plots. (But if you’re still concerned about “spoilers,” you might want to stop reading this.)
“Passengers,” which opens Dec. 21, has kept a fairly high profile all year, largely because it’s headlined by charisma machines Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. In 2007, Jon Spaihts’ script became a hot item on the Black List, an annual roster of promising unproduced screenplays. Sony has since made erratic marketing choices with director Morten Tyldum’s $120 million pageant, clearly unsure whether to package it as a love story, an epic about interstellar colonization or a life-or-death sci-fi adventure. A laughable teaser released a few weeks ago made the blockbuster seem like a sappy romantic comedy. The final cut of “Passengers” fits all of those labels, to its detriment.
Like “Collateral Beauty,” “Passengers” is built on an interesting premise that goes awry. Pratt plays Jim Preston, a mechanical engineer whose sleep chamber awakens him with 90 years left before the spacecraft arrives at its destination. Jim’s 5,000-plus travel companions will remain asleep, their metabolism halted until the journey is complete. That means they’ll also presumably wake up to Jim’s corpse, considering he’ll be roughly 130 years old. After a year alone ― conversing with only an android bartender (Michael Sheen) and growing a “Cast Away”-style depression beard ― Jim can’t take it anymore. But wait! Maybe he could wake someone up for companionship.
That’s where things get interesting. “Passengers” presents a fascinating ethical dilemma. The person Jim awakens would also die before reaching the colony planet. Does he co-opt that person’s future in order to preserve his sanity?
And then, just as quickly as the movie poses that profound deliberation, it reduces itself to a straight-male wet dream. Jim picks a blond Sleeping Beauty named ― what else? ― Aurora (Lawrence). We might as well see Jim’s boner right then and there. He lusts after Aurora, and we know instantly where the narrative is headed. What starts as a fascinating internal conflict about one man’s future becomes an icky tale about consent told exclusively from a male gaze.
To the movie’s credit, Pratt grounds Jim enough to make him seem like a good guy. (The actor’s offscreen charm helps to further that persona.) Still, the cartoonish visuals and pat one-liners do nothing to distract from the central romance’s murky decency and inevitable predictability. Not to mention all the alluring camera angles that showcase Lawrence dressed in space swimsuits and tight-fitting threads appropriate for a luxe nightclub. When we see Pratt’s butt in one scene, it plays for laughs instead of tantalization. The fact that Lawrence and Pratt have little chemistry is an added insult. By the time a ship malfunction threatens the pair’s lives, “Passengers” has traded moral nuance for phony heroism.
“Collateral Beauty,” on the other hand, could stand to be more predictable. Honestly, the movie ― opening this weekend ― is so damn bonkers that I can hardly explain it. The trailers present a story about Howard Inlet (Will Smith), a successful Manhattan advertising executive who has gone emotionally AWOL following his 6-year-old daughter’s death. When Howard’s co-workers hire a private investigator (Ann Dowd) who discovers he’s been writing bitter letters addressed to “Time,” “Love” and “Death,” a personification of each greets him in the flesh. Jacob Latimore plays Time, Keira Knightley plays Love and Helen Mirren plays Death.
What the trailers don’t show you is that Time, Love and Death are actors hired by Howard’s co-workers (Kate Winslet, Edward Norton and Michael Peña). Fearful of Howard’s near-catatonic state, his colleagues hope to save the company from sinking by convincing Howard he is crazy enough to need to step down. (Life is so precious!) From there, the movie only grows more ludicrous. Allan Loeb’s script expects us to find Howard’s co-workers sympathetic, because of course they are all facing their own personal dilemmas too. This “Christmas Carol” wannabe just becomes dumber and more manipulative as it progresses.
“Collateral Beauty” has plot holes and twists ― real twists, not just the one the trailer obscured ― that are so preposterous, so unfathomable, so cynical and so cloying that it is a shock to the system to consider Warner Bros. devoted a reported $36 million to the movie’s budget. Characters advise one another to seek “collateral beauty” ― whatever the hell that means ― so many times that even if you are tempted to cry, your laughter will stave off the tears. And boy oh boy, does this movie want you to cry. David Frankel’s film is enmeshed in layers of misguided, scrubby sentimentality, barely recognizing the story is actually a vicious fable about gaslighting, 2016’s favorite theme. One day we will laugh and ask, “Remember that silly thing where Will Smith loses his kid and his co-workers scheme to convince him he’s nuts? No?”
The fact that “Passengers” and “Collateral Beauty” open within a week of each other is coincidental, but imagine aliens touching down and seeing these trite dramas’ titles emblazoned across theater marquees. There’s some sort of disappointing irony nestled in the fact that Hollywood is ending a year of under-performing franchise obsessions with two terrible original movies. We needn’t make 2016 any worse! There were so many wonderful films this year. Go find collateral beauty in them instead.