Director: Morten Tyldum
Writer: Jon Spaihts
Release Date: December 21, 2016
Summary (from IMDB): A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.
Review: 3 out of 5 Dogwoods
Passengers is a love story about Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), two voyagers on the interstellar cruise ship Avalon, making their way to a newly colonized planet for those seeking to start over their lives and escape the overpopulated Earth. But things go wrong about 30 years into Avalon’s 120-year sojourn, and Jim wakes up from suspended animation too soon. From that point on, he’s alone — save for affable robotic bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), who does his best to keep Jim company and manages to steal every scene.
At the heart of Passengers is a moral question that has largely been kept out of the movie’s marketing. As much as the film is about two people meeting and connecting after being awoken on a colonization spaceship decades before their planned arrival, there is a human dilemma that drives the conflict of the film. When talking about the strengths and weaknesses of the movie, it is necessary to discuss this human dilemma/moral question, but it will constitute a spoiler for those of you who have yet to see the film.
***Spoiler Alert! Do not continue reading unless you want to read some major spoilers!***
Passengers puts Jim in an impossible position: either live out the rest of his days alone after accidentally being awoken from hibernation 90 years before the spaceship arrives at its destination planet, or awaken someone else who will be forced to suffer the same fate with him. Considering Jennifer Lawrence also stars in this film, it is easy to guess which option Jim chooses. But the exploration of that concept — which would you choose: to live your life alone or condemn someone else to suffer the same fate? — is both where Passengers has its biggest successes and most disappointing failures.
Jim does his damnedest to stay sane in near-total isolation on the ship for a full year. The Avalon’s interior resembles a gorgeously constructed but abandoned hotel, full of recreation rooms, viewing galleries, futuristic helper robots, and no guests. That is the point: Jim is not supposed to be alone.
So when it is time for Jim to make the impossible decision about whether or not to wake someone else up for the sake of simple human contact, the audience wrestles with his moral failing as well. What would anyone do in his shoes? This is a compelling question worth grappling with, and it is the best thing the movie has going for it. It just makes no sense whatsoever that all of this is packaged inside of a romance. In this moment, the film feels like a space opera that attempts to blend Gravity with Titanic, but it misses the groundwork for a healthy or believable romance.
Enter: journalist Aurora Lane, who must learn to live with the profound injustice of being woken up by a half-crazed man convinced he is in love with her. This is the movie’s principal failing. Aurora is an ambitious (though thinly written) woman looking for adventure and fulfillment, and Lawrence plays her ably. But her character exists for Jim, and even though he wrongs her, the movie treats her plight as something for Jim to overcome.
This is deeply disturbing, even enraging, on its face — which Aurora later makes plain by acting out her frustrations with her fists all over Jim’s face. But the film is mainly concerned with Jim’s good heart and redemptive arc. For a good stretch of the film, the characters are on one long date together, with scene after scene of fun dinners, red-dwarf-gazing, and sex. The movie certainly has its manipulative little charms; the rom-com moments designed to make us root for the two as a couple. But it also means the audience is expected to go along with the romantic premise, even after Aurora discovers the truth. Never mind that Jim lies to her, robs her of her future, and essentially sentences her to a lonely death in space, far from the place she thought she was going. If Stockholm syndrome is the height of romance, we should all join hands and swear off romance together.
Only actors as immediately likable and emotionally dynamic as Pratt and Lawrence would be able to pull off a film that requires this much heavy lifting, and their easy chemistry makes up for many of Passengers‘ misses. Pratt, in particular, has to fill a lot of the film by himself, and he makes a convincing case for Jim as he makes his tough choice and then deals with the fallout of it.
The biggest problem with the film is it does not follow the moral dilemma through to the end. At a certain point, Passengers goes a more Hollywood route with its story, and suddenly the focus is not on the human conflict but instead an impending disaster that had been set up carefully throughout the length of the movie. Once the disaster is resolved, there is a moment in the film that had the potential to resolve every problem with the romantic relationship between Aurora and Jim, but once again, it misses the mark.
Jim discovers a machine that can put a person back to sleep, offering to let Aurora go back to sleep, finish the 90 year journey, and live out a life without him. In true Hollywood fashion, Aurora chooses to live out her life with Jim on the Avalon. What we are left wondering is if she truly loves him: did Aurora ever have a choice in loving Jim, or has she been manipulated into loving him via Stockholm syndrome? As a result, Passengers does not have as big of an impact as the theoretical conversations it raises could have and falls flat. A better ending would have been to find a way to put both Jim and Aurora back to sleep, let them awaken in 90 years, and then, once they are free of the ship and on a new planet full of other humans, see if their romance is true or simply a product of extreme isolation, thereby restoring Aurora’s free will.
Passengers is not hard science fiction like this year’s Arrival, and never achieves the same highs as movies of its ilk like The Martian. It feels familiar in a lot of ways, from a climactic scene reminiscent of a similar Pratt moment in Guardians of the Galaxy to a space walk that feels straight out of Wall-E. The film falls back on familiar tropes, like a cable that pulls taut just shy of where someone needs to reach, and rings a bit false with resolutions that feel implausible within the world its created.
Passengers does create an interesting sci-fi world, offering enough of a taste of the futuristic backdrop to please lovers of the genre. It is more interested in living in the world than exploring it, especially since the movie is set in space where the fact that there is not an easy connection to the outside human world is a major part of the narrative. The ever-present danger on Avalon does provide Passengers with a few incredible action set-pieces and there are several truly breathtaking sequences. In one, gravity fails, leaving Aurora drowning in a levitating pool. In another, the pair are nearly killed by a hole in the ship’s hull.
When Passengers is firing on all cylinders, it is well worth the journey. Though the script is sometimes a bit too on the nose, the chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence pops on the screen no matter what they are doing, and Jon Spaihts’s story offers both of them emotionally dynamic opportunities. Sheen also is a standout as the android bartender Arthur, who is successfully the movie’s comic relief and steals most of the scenes.
If you love science fiction and enjoy Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, then see this film, but consider waiting until it comes out on DVD or instant streaming.