The Imitation Game director goes to infinity and beyond in this holiday season’s sci-fi extravaganza. Or is it a love story that just happens to take place in space?
In Passengers, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated biopic The Imitation Game, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are two strangers on board a spacecraft destined for a new planet. Since the trip will take 120 years, all 5,000 travelers aboard must spend the journey in deep sleep. But an unexpected malfunction wakes the two of them up way too early. Are they doomed? Can they return to hibernation? And most important: is the bar run by Arthur, an android/bartender delightfully performed by Michael Sheen, going to run out of alcohol?
We talked with Tyldum about creating new worlds (Alcatraz inspired the spaceship’s design!), how he dealt with two of the biggest movie stars in the universe… and that infinity pool.
Fandango: This movie has the most amazing infinity pool ever in the history of humankind.
Morten Tyldum: Yeah, it’s cool, isn’t it?
Fandango: John Spaihts’s screenplay gave you an opportunity to create a new world. Where do you go from that blank canvas to the final design of the movie?
Tyldum: That’s the fun challenge: how to create this world. First of all, there’s a lot of science to this, how we wanted to build the spaceship. It rotates 41 meters a second [167 feet], which is 1G; different sections of the ship do different things; and also I [was] inspired by the huge cruise liners that took immigrants through the Atlantic, Titanic being the most famous. They had different kind of class passengers, from the luxurious to the poor.
I wanted to make something unique, and to make it unique I didn’t want to make it only futuristic. I wanted also to be nostalgic. So I used a lot of art deco, I was inspired by period design, then some part of it is very futuristic, and by doing all that it becomes its own thing. Part of this ship is very functional, green and gray colors: that’s the most technical side of it. And part of it is like Vegas: they want you to spend money there…
The actual design of the ship came from a visit to Alcatraz, where we went to check what meant being in confined places. There’s a boat that goes from [San Francisco] to Alcatraz. My production designer took a picture of its antenna. And we said: “That’s a pretty cool design. Could that be a spaceship?” It has these rotating blades, there’s a segment that goes around; that’s how we started the design of the spaceship.
Fandango: Plenty of great filmmakers have gone to space before you. How do you make sure your vision is unique?
Tyldum: This is a unique story because it’s both very intimate and very epic at the same time. So I really had to trust on my ideas, not trying to make it look like anything else. That’s the only thing you can do. But at the same time, I paid tribute to two filmmakers, which I really admire. So on purpose I put set elements and details from other films into my film as a tribute to those filmmakers that mean a lot to me…
Fandango: You won’t say which filmmakers they are…
Tyldum: No! I want them to be Easter eggs for people to find! But there’s everything from a pattern on the carpet to other stuff that I put into the film as sort of little signature, tribute, to honor those filmmakers… You are part of a tradition. But at the same time you have to find what’s unique. And I find the only way to stay unique is to listen to the story, and be inspired by the story and the characters.
Fandango: Without revealing any plot twists — one of them is quite disturbing. How do you manage to create a comfortable place for everybody, audience and characters, after that big moment is revealed?
Tyldum: I never wanted to shy away from that moment, because I think that’s one of the interesting parts of making a movie: you have characters that have to make big and troubling decisions. That’s why Chris is so perfect for the part, because you really feel for Chris. He’s extraordinarily good at making the audience to sympathize and empathize with him, and also put themselves in his place.
[Light spoiler ahead] I don’t think there are a lot of people that would say: “I would never do what Chris’s character does.” I dare people to say it, because I think they would be lying. I would have done it myself. It’s disturbing because we would have done the same thing. And that’s why it’s both uncomfortable and very human. There’s a line in the movie: “A drowning man will always drag somebody down with him.” That’s what he does, and that’s very understandable. It’s about redemption, and he does redeem himself once he’s given a choice, and that’s when the movie becomes a true love story.
Fandango: Is there anything specific about Chris and Jennifer’s performances that surprised you?
Tyldum: As a director, one of my biggest jobs is trying to see what actually works for the actor. Chris uses music a lot. He has a small earpiece and he plays music for himself while he performs. Jen needs to joke around and be funny, and then she needs five seconds, and she can have a big mental breakdown in front of the camera, by switching moods, in a way.
Fandango: Gravity and The Martian were two big successes. Arrival is getting Oscar buzz. Now, Passengers. Next year we have Blade Runner 2049. What do you think the science-fiction genre has that makes every movie a special event?
Tyldum: Thank god sci-fi has moved away from spaceships fighting aliens! Now it’s a place where you can explore contemporary issues or emotional feelings. You can put it all in a different setting. Sci-fi is about “what if this happened,” and “what would you do.” You can play around with social dilemmas, or look at society or, in my case, relationships, in a very different way.
This is a movie about marriage, falling in love, and infidelity. And then is about redeeming, and forgiveness. All these things can happen in a relationship, but we take them to the extreme. And we can do that because we can create a very specific world. That’s the beauty of sci-fi.
Passengers opens nationwide December 21.