Photo Credit: Sony Pictures
Chris Pratt has been a big box office lucky charm in recent years, even though sharing the spotlight with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Legos and velociraptors had something to do with it. Still, Pratt's emergence from TV comic relief to big screen comic relief and then to big screen leading man has changed the kind of roles he's been doing lately.
However, Passengers has become recent proof that they haven't always been changing for the better. Yet it isn't the only bit of proof, as it further reflects that Hollywood may not be playing to Pratt's strengths in the wake of his Guardians of the Galaxy breakthrough. At the least, if they want to branch out Pratt's range, the strategy needs far better methods than they used in Passengers and Jurassic World, for that matter.
Pratt slowly broke out over the years as a goofball comedic sidekick, in television's Parks and Recreation and in films like The Five-Year Engagement, Her and Delivery Man. But in one fell swoop, that persona was promoted into main character status for The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. Since then, however, Pratt has played it a little straighter by comparison in the likes of Jurassic World, The Magnificent Seven and now Passengers.
None of that suggested he could play a character who would all but murder the future of a sleeping woman in Passengers, just to give himself a reason to live out decades in space. Quite frankly, the movie itself does everything it can not to suggest he could either.
The controversial and sexist at best secret behind the premise of Passengers was jolting to many critics. Half of it was because it wasn't spoiled in the trailers, and half was because Pratt has never done anything on-screen as dark as to doom Jennifer Lawrence to live out her life on a space station with him. In an ideal world, that could have been used to shock viewers and then keep on shocking them, as Pratt would show a darker, more controlling and more insane side of himself than ever before.
Yet instead of using Pratt's established persona to further our horror at his actions, Passengers hides behind it at every turn. In fact, it bends over backwards to normalize, forgive, justify and ultimately reward the character's actions, no matter what kind of message that sends, and makes it look like they only cast Pratt to make it a much easier task. If they had cast a less attractive actor who more often plays shady or worse characters, the movie probably would have looked much different, even or especially if it wasn't done differently.
Not only does it make the writers, directors and studio look like socially irresponsible cowards, it hardly does Pratt any favors either. Even if he was actually given the chance to stretch himself as a good man turned reprehensible villain, instead of using his old tricks and persona to let someone off the hook who perhaps shouldn't have been, it really doesn't look like a good fit on him in the first place.
But in a more troubling twist, this is the second straight post Guardians of the Galaxy blockbuster where Pratt played a character accused of being in a sexist dynamic with his leading lady, albeit to a less disturbing extent.
When Jurassic World released its first clip of Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in a scene together, Joss Whedon and many others accused it of using the same old "fun/roguish man and humorless woman" dynamic as countless adventure films over the decades. The movie itself didn't make it look any better, although that may have had as much to do with Howard's now infamous heels and the writing/cliches around her than anything Pratt or his character did.
Still, while Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie were tongue-in-cheek in having Pratt play leading man adventurer characters, Jurassic World played it far too straight for him to do much of anything, besides know better than Howard most of the time and bond with velociraptors. It was a role written out of a more old fashioned and perhaps less progressive time, although the troubles with that were nothing compared to the ones that would come in Passengers.
Nonetheless, they have combined to reflect the start of a troubling trend for Pratt since he joined the A-list. Even Guardians of the Galaxy had Star-Lord as a rogue who was a supposed expert in "pelvic sorcery" although it may have been part of the satire. Yet it may have helped plant the seed for Hollywood to get the wrong idea in how to have Pratt recapture the Guardians magic outside of Marvel.
Hollywood appears to be trying to fit Pratt in a Harrison Ford like architype, and has already cast him as a quasi Han Solo and Indiana Jones. But not only is this limiting Pratt’s skillset instead of expanding it so far, it seems to be making studios lazy in thinking Pratt alone can make any character more lovable than they are, regardless of how they are written.
Typecasting is a notorious problem for actors when they make it to the top, and Passengers is now just another cautionary tale in that regard. Despite how the premise is seemingly designed to test the limits of how much we can like and forgive a main character, the fear of letting Pratt truly play such a character and become truly unlikable on purpose for the first time was too strong for someone in charge.
Maybe it would have been the same if anyone else played the part, but it is surely no coincidence that casting Pratt was an easier shortcut on paper. Yet those aren’t the shortcuts he should be taking, especially as he goes deeper into trying to have an A-list career outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which hasn’t been easy for everyone.
Unless Pratt finds a movie that has actual guts in testing how likable his characters should really be, it really isn’t worth it to keep stretching in a Passengers or Jurassic World kind of way. The more he is stuck in this limbo between his new pigeonholed A-list status and his past success, the more diminishing returns are sure to follow, with Passengers showing the clear and present danger.
As such, it may be better just to stick with what made Pratt lovable in the first place, instead of trying to use it to paper over some less lovable characters. The best example can be found in Parks and Recreation, which was a master of course correction in ways that TV and the movies could stand to take note of.
When Pratt started out on Parks and Rec, his character of Andy Dwyer was a dim bulb with lots of one-liners and pratfalls, but was a much less lovable one. In fact he was more of a lout, as his idiocy and thoughtlessness drove away his original girlfriend Ann, and he kept being an oblivious jerk once Ann found a new boyfriend early in Season 2.
But as Parks and Rec did with much of its early mistakes, it course corrected before there was too much damage to clean up. All it really took to soften Andy, and awaken his full potential as a character to laugh at and root for, was pairing him with Aubrey Plaza’s April and never looking back.
Not only did it open the door for her character to thrive beyond her early limitations as well, it forged one of the show’s two bedrock couples and the show’s second shining example of how to treat a relationship, even between two otherwise irresponsible dolts. Maybe that is what Pratt and his movie character development need on the big screen as well.
Instead of giving him outdated or downright offensive dynamics with female characters in blockbusters, perhaps he needs an Andy/April kind of dynamic in a film to bring out his better sides before the worse ones get too settled in. If Parks and Rec didn’t figure that out all those years ago, then there may not have ever been a Guardians of the Galaxy or Pratt film career as we know it now.
Of course, Hollywood is often less inclined to be as flexible with movies and movie stars as Michael Schur is with television. Even with the backlash and low box office opening for Passengers, there’s still Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 and Jurassic World sequels to give Pratt a safety net, and give Hollywood an excuse to ignore any warning signs.
Pratt may be too early in the A-list stage of his career to be in any serious commercial or creative trouble. But if Passengers doesn’t teach Hollywood a valuable lesson on how not to use Pratt, among the other lessons it needs to learn from its backlash, it may not course correct until the less lovable trends on his resume become more than mere hiccups.