It’s anchored by a love story that has little heft and a bigger mystery that gets less interesting as it unravels.
Passengers takes place on the Starship Avalon, which is on a 120-year journey from Earth to a distant planet called Homestead II. The ship carries over 5,000 passengers in hibernation pods. However, only 30 years into the voyage, one of those pods opens, awakening engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt). Preston lives out a year on the ship alone, driven mad by his loneliness and the fact that he is doomed to die there. However, there’s still hope for him (unfortunately). As he scans the pods, he stumbles upon the one inhabited by journalist Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). He looks through her files, falls for her and, not wanting to be lonely again, releases her from her pod. Once they are out, she too begins to fall in love with him. But the ship they are on begins to malfunction, forcing them to work to find the cause and save themselves and the passengers onboard.
If you read that synopsis, you will find it interesting that one key piece of detail was left out of the marketing, and it really hinders this entire film. The marketing makes it seem like Pratt and Lawrence awake under the same circumstances, when in fact, he wakes her up. Pratt’s character finds someone he has never met, stalks her through her files, and wakes her up for his own selfish desire. This detail really sticks when the film tries to force a romance between the two. All would be forgiven if Pratt’s character was held accountable, but Jon Spaihts’ script brushes it under the rug just to move the story along.
It is hard to believe that one flaw like that could sink an entire film before it even has the chance to get off the ground. This love story turns into a stalker fantasy. Worse still, this love story is meant to be our emotional connection to this sci-fi thriller. When the man’s gross fantasies are only fulfilled because the woman is required by the story to go with it, there’s a problem. There’s a big problem.
There’s no doubting the star power and talent of Lawrence and Pratt. They even have some chemistry, but that romance does not work at all. It also doesn’t help that Lawrence’s character is basically reduced to damsel-in-distress status as the ship falls apart, leaving Pratt to save the day. Laurence Fishburne shows up in a “plot device” role that is gone almost as fast he appears. The only actor who gets off free is Michael Sheen, who plays a robot bartender named Arthur with sly wit.
There’s a bigger mystery going on about why this ship is about to go down. I will not spoil anything, but I will say the reason is lame. It also gives the film some needless set pieces that are not really that exciting.
Director Morten Tyldum made a name for himself with his Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game. He definitely has an eye for detail. There are great production values in Passengers, from the ship’s circled design to its color scheme. This setting is an unending vehicle of walkways and visual delight; it’s hard not to admire it. Rodrigo Prieto gives it his all with a bleak look at space that works. Maryann Brandon’s editing helps to push the film along (sometimes at the expense of the story). Thomas Newman delivers a suitably atmospheric score.
Original sci-fi is hard to come by in this revamped age of Star Wars, and Passengers’ risk of being one of those outliers is certainly welcome. But what’s good in intent does not mean there will be success in execution, and Passengers is guilty of being just that. Bogged down by a central character arc that is more unnerving than romantic, Passengers never lifts off into orbit. It is a wasted opportunity. | Bill Loellke