Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen
Rated: PG-13 for sexuality, nudity and action/peril
There are common tropes in movies that drive some viewers up a wall but don’t bother others in the slightest. Modern romantic comedies are stuffed with them, and don’t let its scifi premise fool you: “Passengers” is in the same general genre. If you don’t mind obsessive, unhealthy relationships and women who reward bad behavior in heroes, you’ll probably like it. If, on the other hand, love being used as an excuse for female characters abandoning their own lives and ambitions aggravates you, stay far away.
The setup for the film is pretty straightforward: the starship Avalon is on its 120-year trip from Earth to the colony planet Homestead II. Its 5000 passengers and 200-odd crew are in stasis, set to wake up a few months before the ship arrives at their new home. After something goes wrong, one of the passengers, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up 30 years in.
There’s plenty of humor as he discovers his situation and tries to make the best of being the only person up and about on the ship. He finds an android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen), but the artificial intelligence is only intended to make small talk and serve drinks, not be a friend to an increasingly lonely person. Things get dark as Jim falls into a depression, but then he discovers Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a beautiful journalist who’s also a passenger on the Avalon. Jim becomes obsessed with her, and it’s no surprise when he decides to sabotage her pod so that she wakes up as well – but of course he lies about that, and persuades Arthur to lie too.
Jim and Aurora’s romance is pretty typical, and at times charming – if you can forget that he stole her life and sentenced her to live on the ship, alone, with him, for the rest of their lives. No Homestead II, no continuation of her work as a journalist, nothing for her but the Avalon and Jim. The film seems, for a bit, to take his action seriously, but we can’t have a big Hollywood ending if she doesn’t forgive him and decide they’re meant to be together, so it’s eventually just dropped.
Visually, the film is amazing. There are some impressive special effects, and the design of the Avalon both inside and out is beautiful. The sequences when characters go on spacewalks are stunning. Pratt is a gifted comic actor, and the first act of the film, before Aurora, is very good.
But nothing can fix the problems at the heart of “Passengers.” It slaps a pat, saccharine ending onto the deeply problematic story, and does nothing to fix the numerous holes in both the plot and the worldbuilding. Numerous creative decisions were clearly made for convenience and as excuses for cool visuals rather than to serve the story. It’s not even solid on the science part of the science fiction.
It’s a shame to waste such good actors and an interesting premise, but that’s exactly what “Passengers” has done. It might be worth seeing if you can turn off your brain and just enjoy the ride, plot holes and moral problems and all, but anybody who likes their sci-fi flicks scientific and their romance stories healthy should stay away.