A meme did the virtual rounds a couple of months ago, called “explain a film plot badly”. It asked internet users to take a well-known and universally loved movie, and write down the plot as horrible and in the most misunderstood way possible (think Harry Potter but with Voldemort as the hero). Not to read too much into a meme, but when these pictures with new and often hilarious captions littered my Facebook timeline it got me thinking. For every movie, no matter how singular the focus of the storyline might be, there is a multitude of different readings and interpretations available besides the obvious one. Cinderella? Loving mother tries to obtain financial security for her daughters but is thwarted by social-climbing maid. Hamlet? Jealous and deranged son breaks up and kills his mother and her new husband.
One time, due to the awful train WiFi, the accompanying pictures wouldn’t load and I was therefore stuck with a blank page with just the 25-word storylines. Without the connection to the original films, those little bits of text took on a life of their own, spinning altogether new stories in my mind and making me try and guess what movies they were purposely misunderstanding. This idea of alternative plots based on actual movies made me think (without WiFi, there really isn’t much else to do on the train) about how some movies might perhaps be better off, or at the very least more interesting, if someone was asked to write the story horribly in two sentences, and that would be made into a movie instead. Given the often dull nature of cinema nowadays, where everything is either a sequel, a prequel or a remake, how much worse could it be?
Going even further, I wanted to apply this theory of mine to a movie I saw a while ago, Passengers, a movie that left me wishing for the last 120 minutes of my life back. The story basically revolves around the only two people awake on a voyage that’s supposed to take them to a new planet, stuck on a spaceship that’s slowly falling apart. Oh, and they’re in love, because there’s not much else to do on a spaceship. The kicker is, and what really confused me the first time I saw the film, that the male lead, played by Chris Pratt, consciously chooses to wake up the female lead, an excellent performance from Jennifer Lawrence in an otherwise lacklustre affair, and effectively condemns her to a lifetime on the spaceship with him, just because he feels some sort of connection. The scene where he first sees her plays out like a sort of real-life Tinder with Chris Pratt looking into all the pods with sleeping ladies and swiping right on the one he likes most.
Admittedly, the first half hour is pretty harmless, watching the male character stumble through space with all the adorable awkwardness of Chris Pratt™, now stretching his talents from the role of spacedude in Guardians of the Galaxy to spacedude in love. There’s a different film here though, a different story; if the movie hadn’t spent the first half hour making the audience fall in love with the male character, would we have forgiven him for waking up and thereby basically ending the life of the female lead? Even though she does eventually (it only takes a couple of near-death experiences plus the death of one of the ship’s technicians, who is introduced and then killed off in the next ten minutes), the fact that the film felt it needed to preemptively make the audience forgive him means that it spends little to no time actually having a proper story or sequence of events. Whereas the first half hour of the film is missable, the last half hour attempts to pack so much action and drama it makes you feel slightly nauseous.
Let’s for a minute think of what the story could have been. Say it begins with the female character waking up; the audience would be as unaware of the real reason as her. The film slowly builds up to its climax (namely, the spaceship’s unavoidable crash, because that’s what spaceships do in Hollywood), but, surprise surprise, there is no real danger. The ship is fine, everyone is fine, everything except for the person sharing your bed. Say Chris Pratt faked the imminent disaster (he is an engineer after all) in an attempt to get closer, say he really did go crazy from his year of basically being a monk (with a beard to match). The movie turns into a psychological thriller when the female lead and the audience alike slowly begin to realise the real danger lies not in the nothingness of space, but in the human element.
So perhaps Passengers, and probably many other movies like it, wouldn’t be such predictable bores if, sometime during one of the first development meetings, someone would have said: “Love story on a spaceship? How about we go for a creepy psychological thriller set in space instead!”, whereupon all the other people would of course respond with “Dude that’s awesome!” (this is how I imagine people talk during those kinds of meetings). Who knows if it would have actually made for a better movie, but at least it would have been different. Not taking risks, as seems to be the standard in the movie industry nowadays, might save movies from being absolutely horrible, but such works will never achieve the level of awe-inspiring brilliance that an original film can reach. Those are the movies we should be making, because, even if in the end it doesn’t pay off, at least it would have been something new. Instead, movies secure large bankable stars, play to their audience’s expectations and, in Passengers’ case, add an unnecessary space-element. But hey, at least Chris Pratt is shirtless.