Here’s a true test of movie stardom: isolation. You lock an actor in a room, strand them at sea, or catapult them into outer space, far away from anyone else, with nothing to play off of but themselves and their environment, and with only enough backstory for us to care whether they live or die. You provide the character a simple objective: survive. And you give the actor a hurdle that’s lower stakes, but nonetheless comparably terrifying: make it interesting. Then you kick back and see what happens.
Or doesn’t happen. It takes a lot for us to want to watch an actor do nothing but live for two hours, even if the locale and scenario are exotic, like, say, a deserted island populated by nothing but coconut trees and a volleyball named Wilson. We didn’t need Cast Away to prove Tom Hanks has more charisma in his big toe than the other 7.5 billion of us combined, nor Gravity to tell us that Sandra Bullock’s secret assets are her face and her grace. But sure, the blockbuster reminders help. And when they work, they work. You leave The Martian with an exhilarating feel for how an actor the caliber of Matt Damon can carry a movie. You finish All Is Lost, meanwhile, with the distinct sense that the magnificently aged Robert Redford let himself be hopelessly shipwrecked for 100 minutes merely for the chance to show ’em how it’s done.
Sometimes, however, the experiment fails. In Passengers, released in 2016, Jim Preston, played by Chris Pratt, is irreversibly awakened from an induced hibernation that was supposed to last for 120 years of space travel. He and the 5,237 other sleeping people on the spaceship Avalon are traveling through deep space toward a colony called Homestead II. Having been accidentally woken up, however, it appears Preston’s character won’t live to see the colony when they get there. He was released from his hibernation chamber with 90 years of the journey left to go and with no one to keep him company. So he lounges around for a while — and by a while, I mean an entire year. He lets his beard grow long, plays basketball by himself, takes lovely space walks, and suffers through a low-grade meal plan.
This is about an hour of movie time. And it is interminable. It’s no wonder the movie eked out an Oscar nod for Production Design: Watching Chris Pratt alone for an entire hour in a leading dramatic role has a way of making you notice everything that isn’t Chris Pratt — you know, the way losing one of your senses heightens all the others. Other people will tell you that the movie’s greatest flaw is what happens after that first hour: Preston rousing fellow passenger Aurora Lane (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from her sleep without her consent, consigning her to a grim fate of living out the rest of her days on a spaceship with a lonely dweeb played by Chris Pratt — and, even worse, lying about it. This is, of course, quite bad — but a script can be fixed. Can an actor?
Typically, movie stardom is as much a matter of the market as it is of an actor’s talent. A movie star is someone whose name draws us into the theater. Doing so takes great skill and untold amounts of X factor — but we measure that skill with box-office receipts. That’s how it used to be, anyway; nowadays, to hear studios tell it, it’s apparently IP, not a particular actor, that draws audiences into theaters. And whereas it was once enough that performers the likes of Denzel Washington, George Clooney, or Julia Roberts — all still powerful draws — were the stars of the movie, now it takes a baker’s dozen of similarly world-class actors, usually wearing capes and leaping between buildings like idiots, to incite interest.
Pratt is an interesting case, in that regard: a TV-to-movie transfer whose career has genuinely taken off, unlike other recent transfers — namely Taylor Kitsch, whose career dive at the cineplex is by now campfire lore, or Jon Hamm, whose utter failure to compel us on the big screen we’ve somehow not really talked about. Pratt has luckily been in the habit of starring in movies that make a shit ton of money — hence the difficulty in arguing that he’s not a star. To be clear, however, I’m a fan of Pratt. He’s a great ensemble player, and the majority of his recent output, from Guardians of the Galaxy to The Magnificent Seven, makes good use of that; Passengers is the clear and devastating outlier. I get the feeling, however, that with Passengers, Guardians, and the Jurassic World films (the second of which is slated to drop in 2018), the industry might be leaning a little too hard on Pratt’s leading-man capacity. There’s something discomfiting about a studio thinking Pratt could carry a space movie on his own for an entire hour or play alongside the likes of a firecracker (if oft-miscast) talent like Lawrence: I dwell on this because the miscalculation distresses me.
It makes me wonder what the industry has in store for Pratt. Way too many of us saw Jurassic World (a bad movie) and the first Guardians. Just as many, if not more, will make it out to Guardians 2 this week, and inevitably, the studios’ sense that Pratt is a draw will in some way be confirmed. That’s fine, but it’s only half of the equation. What about presence? Sure, Pratt has plenty of it — when he’s not the star of the show. On Parks and Recreation, where most of us encountered him for the first time, Pratt was fabulous: a little doughy around the hips, but lively and lovable as the endearing doofus Andy Dwyer. He was the emotional glue that held the other characters together: His dopey presence had a way of diffusing dramatic tension with an unobtrusively lighthearted sense of comedy. This happens in Guardians, too: Quill is constantly the guy talking his fellow guardians out of killing each other.
His knack for being a unifier is probably what makes it tempting to want to push him further to the fore. But in more dramatic or outright action-movie roles, Pratt has sometimes been reduced to a cipher: a living, breathing placeholder around which you can build a CGI universe full of dinosaurs, or whichever IP is the flavor of the season. I’m worried that the success of these dull options spells more dull options in the future. The Guardians franchise stands out as a rare fit. He’s a match for the franchise’s "Good vibes, man" aesthetic and for its soft emotional innards. But what’s he gonna do when the Guardians cast joins Avengers: Infinity War, and he’s surrounded by bona fide commanding presences like Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr.? The only thing more cruel would be to cast him as a sidekick next to an action-movie savant like Tom Cruise. Then again, if that happened, Pratt might play the comic relief — a role that suits him wonderfully, but somehow not the kind I see him taking for much longer.
Part of my suspicion comes from the fact that we can’t seem to let actors of Pratt’s caliber be lighthearted anymore — always with this "renaissance" business. The trouble started with Matthew McConaughey, who was never not good — especially in romantic comedies — but whose talent was taken for granted until he started to pile on the hefty dramatic fare. Pratt has been a major player in Hollywood movies for barely five years, and he’s already made the rounds from one blandly masculine role to the next: the cowboy (The Magnificent Seven); its close cinematic cousin, the dinosaur rodeo rider (Jurassic World); the soldier (Zero Dark Thirty); and the athlete (Moneyball). It’s routine; Jurassic World even makes sure to add a scene of him playing the grease monkey by fixing up a motorbike in case we had any doubt as to how authentically masculine, and hands-on, his character is.
Recently, Pratt got into a little trouble for suggesting that blue-collar America is underrepresented in Hollywood movies. He later backpedaled, tweeting, "That was actually a pretty stupid thing to say. I’ll own that. There’s a ton of movies about blue collar America." (That’s not quite true, either; there aren’t a ton of films about blue-collar America, just a ton of films about blue-collar white people.) All of this buries the lede: Even if more such roles existed, should any of them go to Chris Pratt? I suspect it’s the kind of role he’ll one day — fairly, but wrongly — be tempted to take. That’ll be a miscalculation. Guardians is a good choice because Pratt is ideal for a "legendary outlaw" who no one in the galaxy seems to have heard of — which isn’t a slight. It takes a special talent to make lines like, "We had a deal, bro!" and a boyishly dejected "Come on, man," work ad nauseum; these are the fumes this Marvel vehicle runs on. I’m inclined to want him to stay this way.
The ideal career arc for an actor like Pratt is being lived out by Channing Tatum, who has seamlessly (and, frankly, miraculously) managed to weld his knack for physical performance and his dopey attitude to unusual roles with big-name directors like Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers. These are artists who know how to weaponize Tatum’s persona and his consummate physical skill, in thrilling ways. If only some of Tatum’s luck with auteurs would rub off on Pratt. In art — as in life! — a beefcake with a heart of gold is a great rarity. It’s no wonder, then, that the studio system might not know what to do with someone like Pratt. He epitomizes the type, but runs the risk of not being given, or simply not taking, the chance to prove it.