Some might say that the era of the big budget romance died when Pearl Harbor took a critical drubbing in 2001. And yet James Cameron’s Avatar proved beyond doubt seven years ago that audiences will still sign up for a good old-fashioned love story, provided there’s plenty of spectacle among the lingering glances. By somehow managing to bring together the kind of filmgoer who will pay to see an alien movie with those who would rather spend their last dollar on a late-night screening of The Notebook (as well as looping in some brilliantly synapse-boggling 3D), Cameron briefly appeared to have single-handedly rescued Hollywood from certain doom.
But while Pearl Harbor would never have existed without the success of Cameron’s Titanic four years previously, Avatar’s imitators have largely chosen to focus on the movie’s groundbreaking stereoscopic effects rather than copy its preposterous blend of sci-fi and romance. And who can blame them, given that Hollywood and space have a troubled history stretching all the way back to studios’ clunky attempts to mimic the extraordinary success of Star Wars in 1977? The fact that Disney came a cropper far more recently with the similarly pitched John Carter will not have inspired confidence.
This is exactly why Passengers, the $120m (some estimates suggest $150m) mega-budget Sony space romance that has just released its debut trailer, is such a surprising arrival on the 2016 scene. It could well be another Avatar waiting to happen. But given Hollywood’s history with outlandishly expensive sci-fi, it could just as easily find itself languishing in DVD store bargain bins in a few years along with faded copies of Mars Needs Moms and The Adventures of Pluto Nash. The fact is, nobody knows how this one will pan out.
The initial signs, however, are promising. Passengers, from the excellent Norwegian director of The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum, has the look of a glossy 21st-century update of classic 70s space movies such as Dark Star, Silent Running and Solaris, all from that era in which sci-fi film-makers loved to riff on the endless boredom of travel between the stars and imagine madness taking root in the cosmos like cholera in dirty water.
Hollywood hot properties Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are the two star travellers who have woken early from hibernation to discover their ship and the lives of all 5,259 on board are in deep doo-doo. Will they find love in the cosmos, or will they end up tearing each other apart? And is there more to their once-in-a-lifetime coming together than we might initially have been led to believe?
The major difference between Passengers and its 70s forebears is that the Starship Avalon appears to boast all the mod cons of 22nd-century living, including a robot barman (an ingeniously cast Michael Sheen) to serve our hero and heroine on their first space date. But will all that luxury help keep the happy couple sane when they are the only two conscious souls for millions of light years? And has Sheen been reading from the Cameron-Scott guide to evil robots?
Space romance it may be, but Tyldum’s movie is also ploughing a rather different furrow to Avatar. Cameron’s film succeeded despite the absence of any major A-list names – it was all about the film-maker’s back catalogue and those spine-tingling visuals – while Passengers appears to be the very definition of a star-driven blockbuster, almost a throwback to an era where studios would line up their romantic two-hander – Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in the 1940s, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the 90s – and worry about what movie they were making later.
Sony is reportedly paying Lawrence a barely-heard-of $20m fee, famously $8m more than Pratt will receive as the male lead. Yet none of Tyldum’s previous films have exactly driven all before them at the box office, and Passengers cannot even count on a pre-existing fanbase to help it on opening weekend – as it’s based on an entirely original script that made the 2007 blacklist of the best unfilmed screenplays in Hollywood. The studio really is banking on the Norwegian mining gold from Pratt and Lawrence’s star power and abundant chemistry, a brave move when its rivals are all obsessed with cinematic universes and endless remakes, adaptations and sequels.
One major roadblock for the movie may be that early industry reports appeared to give away its central twist – heavily hinted at in the new trailer – though it’s possible Tyldum has since rejigged Jon Spaihts’ screenplay. Another is that Passengers is due to debut in cinemas just a couple of weeks after Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Will audiences turn up for two giant space movies in a matter of weeks?
Jennifer Lawrence to be paid $8m more than Chris Pratt for PassengersRead more
If Sony does pull off a surprise smash, it could be a game-changer. Tyldum’s film appears to offer a tentative pathway for the industry to shift back towards original big-budget film-making and away from the incessant hum of superhero movies that have overtaken the slates of at least half the major studios – and to begin trusting to the talent of its finest actors, screenwriters and directors once again, rather than being forced to rely so heavily on pre-existing fanbases.
Much has been made of Hollywood’s creative redundancy at a time when TV is experiencing a golden age, but studios cannot just steal all the small screen’s best ideas and put them in the multiplexes, for the two mediums work on vastly different dynamics. As Cameron so smartly spotted in the 1980s, blockbuster cinema requires genuine spectacle to make its mark in the modern era, for no other reason than that audiences might as well stay at home if they are only paying their hard-earned bucks to see the same content on a larger screen. But that does not mean that extravagant tentpole film-making, with the kind of synapse-searing effects that only cinemas are capable of showing off in their full glory, cannot be delivered with verve and originality.
Just as Starship Avalon is not the only damaged vessel floundering in increasingly uncertain territory, Sony bigwigs will not be the only studio executives hoping that Passengers proves to be a major hit. One imagines the whole of Hollywood would very much like to ride the success of Tyldum’s film all the way to its own new golden age.