[Movie Review] THE PASSENGER
Courtesy Dark Star Pictures & Bloody Disgusting
Alien invasion films often approach their subject on a grand scale. It makes sense that stories about humanity facing forced extinction would use bombastic action set pieces and a large cast to drive home the idea that this could be the end of life as we know it. Some of the most compelling films about extraterrestrial threats, however, adopt a more pared-down approach, focusing on a small group of characters to emphasize the human toll of such an invasion. THE PASSENGER chooses this option, wisely spending most of its runtime sketching its finely-drawn characters so that the horror cuts deeper. With offbeat humor and strong characterization, directors Raúl Cerezo and Fernando González Gómez turn their invasion story into an affecting work of microcosmic devastation.

Blasco (Ramiro Blas) is a rideshare driver with an ancient van he affectionately calls Nessa. He is driving Mariela (Cecilia Suárez), Lidia (Cristina Alcázar), and Lidia’s daughter Marta (Paula Gallego) to a village several hours away. Mariela is a devout Catholic traveling in search of a miracle, and Marta is going to live with her estranged father. Though charming and funny, Blasco is chauvinistic and blustering, and tensions run high between him and his three female passengers. The mood in the van takes an even darker turn when the group encounters a strange woman who has fallen victim to an alien parasite, and Blasco and his passengers must find a way to help her and survive the night themselves.

When THE PASSENGER leans into its horror, it is eerie and disturbing, showing off gooey body horror effects and unsettling creature work. Its title refers both to the women riding in Blasco’s van and the parasitic aliens who menace them, emphasizing the terror of being a woman who has to defend her bodily autonomy at all times. The moments of terror often take a backseat to the film’s character work, though, which is a tonal shift that THE PASSENGER executes impressively. Blasco’s irreverent machismo makes you laugh despite yourself, and his relationship with Marta — troubling, at first, as he eyes the teenager’s figure, but sweet and charming as a paternal dynamic begins to develop — becomes the heart of the movie.

Courtesy Dark Star Pictures & Bloody Disgusting

The bulk of the film takes place inside a cramped van, and cinematographer Ignacio Aguilar’s clever camerawork keeps THE PASSENGER visually engaging and focused on its characters’ inner lives. One of the strongest sequences tracks the two conversations going on in the van: Mariela and Lidia open up to each other about their personal struggles, and Blasco and Marta start to crack each other’s defensive exteriors. Rather than cutting back and forth between the characters, the camera focuses only on one person at a time, holding each person in a tightly framed shot for an extended period of time before gliding fluidly to take in the next character. The technique (along with the cast’s engaging performances and screenwriter Luis Sánchez-Polack’s economical dialogue) allows the viewer to get to know each person on a far more intimate level, and we start to root for these strangers, not just in their fight against alien invaders, but in their personal lives as well. The viewer becomes invested in these characters very quickly and organically, which is vital in such a small-scale story of struggle and survival.

One of my least favorite words in the world is “quirky,” but I can’t come up with a better way to describe THE PASSENGER’s combination of horror, heart, and humor. The film is far from a horror-comedy, but it has occasionally goofy moments (including some delightfully ironic music cues) that lend it a unique tone that feels refreshing in the genre landscape. It is a gooey work of body horror, a story about the surprising ways we connect to other people, and a disturbing tale of unstoppable alien invaders. Ultimately, THE PASSENGER argues, the end of the world comes with a bang and a whimper: humanity’s last days will be a cataclysmic event, but the end comes for each of us one person at a time. What matters is how we meet it.

THE PASSENGER will arrive in theaters on June 3, 2022. The film will then become available on Demand and on Digital on June 28, 2022, from Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting.

Jessica Scott
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