Hokey thrillers seem to be a rite of passage for the modern-day movie star; even the most popular and/or acclaimed actors seem to wind up hustling through glorified B-movies, and do so even after said popularity and/or acclaim has been firmly established. Tom Hanks (The Da Vinci Code), Halle Berry (Perfect Stranger), Ryan Gosling (Fracture), Nicole Kidman (The Invasion), Johnny Depp (The Ninth Gate), Jennifer Lopez (Enough), Hilary Swank (The Reaping), and Bruce Willis (take your pick), among others, have all been there, chasing, not catching, the kind of Hitchcockian timelessness that worked so well for Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant.
So maybe it’s to Anne Hathaway’s credit that she gets Passengers out of the way now, and maybe it’s to the film’s credit that it’s not quite as craven or cheap as the worst of its brethren. Hathaway plays Claire Summers, a young therapist trying to help a handful of plane crash survivors with differing accounts of their experience. Standing even further outside the pack is Eric (Patrick Wilson), a survivor with a peculiar sense of calm as well as an uncanny understanding of (and attraction to) Claire.
Claire’s investigation of the crash proceeds without any boos or gotchas; the director, Rodrigo Garcia, usually specializes in quiet, thoughtful, ensemble dramas like Nine Lives and Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, and it shows. His experience directing ensembles of believable female characters should be a breath of fresh air in a genre that often targets women by the most cynical means possible: sex crimes, imperiled children, and the occasional quasi-empowering escape-from-abuse scenario. Garcia has patience, to be sure, but his sense of suspense is off-key; Hathaway and Wilson look ill at ease with their investigative obligations, and the movie moves tentatively, with an over-sensitive score humming under too many scenes.
Rather than taking full advantage of his eye for characters, the screenplay lets Garcia’s other job, as a director-for-hire of respectable television episodes, take control. Passengers simply doesn’t have enough material to sustain itself as a feature; at one point, former cigarette-smoking man William B. Davis pops up for a wordless cameo, as if to emphasize how much better this would play as an X-File episode. Stretched to 90-minutes, the film is more bittersweet than spooky, and, come to think of it, more maudlin than bittersweet.
The DVD release, following a limited and unpromoted theatrical release in fall 2008, includes a variety of extras which fail to make the case for the viability of Passengers as a feature. There’s a set of wisely cut deleted scenes; they would’ve only drawn the film out further. There’s a mini-documentary on the special effects used in the plane crash sequences with emphasis on how they served the story, unintentionally underlining how thin that story actually is. And there’s a pleasant, polite commentary with Garcia and Wilson, where the actor and director, talented fellows both, sound unduly engaged by this wisp of a mystery without properly exposing any hidden depths.
Hitchcock gets name-checked, naturally, but not in terms of directorial technique but in reference to Hathaway’s “tight wrapped” quality as Claire. It’s meant as a compliment, but describes her all too well: shot after her box-office breakthrough The Devil Wears Prada but before the revelation Rachel Getting Married, her performance here has the studied, perfunctory quality of her pre-Demme work. It’s movie-star work from someone who may be a better actress than a star. As much effort as apparently went into it, Passengers nonetheless feels like a pit stop for everyone involved.