[Spoilers follow for Collateral Beauty and Passengers]
Let’s try a little thought experiment. Would you be interested in going to see a film that could be synopsised as follows?
Three board members of a prominent advertising company conspire against another board member with a controlling share in the company. Said colleague, stricken by grief following the death of his infant daughter, refuses to consider the prospect of selling to a larger corporation, so these board members hire actors to portray the concepts of Love, Death and Time in the hopes of spurring on a mental breakdown that will allow them to declare him mentally incompetent and sell his company under him.
I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a fraught but compelling premise: dark, morally-conflicted but definitely fertile ground for storytelling. If that doesn’t take your fancy, how about this?
A glitch on an intergalactic space craft wakes up a mechanical engineer from suspended animation – 90 years too early. Faced with the prospect of spending his life – and death – alone, the engineer becomes increasingly mentally unstable and eventually resorts to sabotaging the suspension pod of a beautiful young woman, hoping to strike up a relationship but ultimately dooming her to a premature death.
Again, it’s an engaging idea, right? To begin a story with such an amoral act of betrayal, to examine a relationship founded on lies and betrayal. Audiences could surely sympathise with the engineer’s plight, but the depth of his moral turpitude – even given the circumstances – would stretch that sympathy to breaking point. And what this young woman think, when she discovers that the man she’s fallen for is, in effect, her murderer?
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m talking about the movies Collateral Beauty and Passengers respectively. But you wouldn’t know it from watching the trailers for these films, which smooth over any of the thorny complexities presented by these premises in favour of simpler conceits. Collateral Beauty elides the deception altogether, framing its story as though these actors (Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren and Jacob Latimore) are actually incarnations of these “abstractions”, as perceived by a bereaved Will Smith. Passengers, meanwhile, sells itself as light-hearted rom-com turned sci-fi action-movie in this trailer, entirely obscuring how Jennifer Lawrence’s character came to wake up alongside Chris Pratt’s engineer.
So why do these two films seem to be so deceptive in their marketing?
When it comes to Passengers, it’s reasonably easy to understand. The big draw card of the film – as you might have guessed from its posters – are its stars. Pratt and Lawrence are a big deal. So why worry the audience’s head over the ethical intricacies of the premise when you can just sell pretty people flirting and thwarting disaster? It mostly makes sense. That doesn’t really apply to Collateral Beauty, though, primarily because the trailer I linked above is just so fucking dreadful. Seriously, it makes the film look unwatchably bad, like a mystical Lifetime movie you’d see on cable at 2am Christmas morning.
While I imagine you can credit many different factors for the decisions made in marketing these two films, ironically what I think it really comes to do is one simple idea: honesty in advertising. There might be a gigantic gulf between the synopsises I provided above and those trailers, but as each film progresses, the swing back to something closely approximating the stories being sold in those trailers.
I should clarify, which necessitates stepping into spoiler territory. Collateral Beauty, you see, isn’t really interested in interrogating the ethics of the ad execs who set out to sabotage their grieving boss’s career, nor does Passengers care all that much about the ramifications of dooming a woman to a life of solitude because Chris Pratt felt like getting a little nooky. While each film’s first act promises something thoughtful and controversial, each rapidly descends into a close approximation of the films promised by their trailers. Collateral Beauty’s actors playing Love, Death and Time are, as it turns out, actually the incarnations of these concepts merely pretending to be actors (it’s as dumb as it sounds), while Passengers hand waves away any moral ickiness in its last act by imbuing Pratt’s character with enough heroism to – apparently – forgive any amount of Josef Fritzl-esque behaviour.
As it turns out, then, those tasked with putting together the trailers for these two films have sold what the films actually are doing, rather than what they feint at doing for a half hour or so. Those going into Collateral Beauty expecting a sappy, undercooked mess will have those expectations met, while those hoping for a romance between Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence occasionally interrupted by explosions will be amply catered to. It’s actually quite clever: if you sell audiences a film that they’re not delivered, they’ll walk out unsatisfied; but recalibrate a film’s marketing to resemble what it achieves (rather than what it limply attempts), and at least audiences know what they’re getting into.
In both cases, however, I admit to wishing for something closer to those synopses I provided at the beginning of this article. Collateral Beauty has become an internet punchline even before its release, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s the fascinating kind of bad movie, the kind of bad movie with a stellar cast and crisp cinematography (from Creed DOP Maryse Alberti) and a premise so monumentally misjudged you have to see it for yourself.
While I’m (mostly) glad I saw the film, I can’t mount a defence for its sprawling sappiness, especially considering that the problems solved by Love, Death and Time are so bone-headedly obvious the supernatural explanation didn’t occur to me until the end. Yeah, Edward Norton, maybe don’t let your pre-pubescent daughter boss you around? Michael Peña, probably a good idea to tell your family your terminal cancer has returned. These are not problems that require a cosmic intervention. You not what might? Trying to sabotage the mental health of your deeply depressed co-worker to earn a buck! Whew.
These problems pale in comparison to the way Passengers forgives the violation acted upon Jennifer Lawrence’s character, wrenched out of peaceful hypersleep to serve as ‘wife’. It’s as though screenwriter Jon Spaihts felt their central relationship needed a twist beyond the sci-fi premise, and concocted a secret to complicate matters. But there’s a big difference between an omission like that in, say, 10 Things I Hate About You, and essentially imprisoning someone in your company for the length of their natural life because you got a bit lonely. Passengers well and truly deserves the scorn it’s received; morally, it’s pretty well unforgiveable.
Here’s the thing, though: disregard the unconscionable ethics, and it makes for a slickly entertaining blockbuster. Cleverly constructed to initially resemble the thoughtful new wave of sci-fi – think Interstellar, think Arrival – the film is really more interested in base pleasures: pretty people wearing skin-tight clothing (or less than that), flirting through ultra-modernistic sets, and a ludicrously-plotted thriller besides. The film is egregiously over-directed by Morten Tyldum, but honestly I enjoyed myself watching it, largely thanks to the way it telegraphed its true identity early enough for me to switch my brain off and enjoy it for the dumbed-down shiny thing it was. (That said, I don’t begrudge anyone who dismisses it out of hand for its rapey subtext.)
Neither Collateral Beauty nor Passengers is an especially good film, but I suspect your average audience member won’t find them as disastrous as the critical community has. Not just because A-list Hollywood actors and fancy cinematography forgive many sins, but because your average audience member won’t go into these films hoping for depth or an examination of ethical ambiguity. Thanks to these films’ trailers, they’ll be expecting a sappy supernatural film about grief and an intergalactic romance, respectively, and those expectations will be well and truly met. Whatever you think of these films, they definitely deliver what they promise on the packaging.