Passengers is yet another example of a film that falsely beckons a certain premise in its promotions, yet eventually delivers something far less interesting. The trailer for it, though not particularly well orchestrated, at least instilled an aura of mystery around the story, which ultimately made me curious about the film.
Unfortunately, such a mystery is sidestepped in an effort to simply create something more akin to a romantic dramedy in space starring two A-list actors. It’s an ordinary and predictable stumble into generic territory.
Groundhog Day Meets Gravity
Passengers focuses on a ship crossing through space on its way to a new habitable planet. The crew is placed into hyper-sleep until their arrival in approximately 90 years; that is, until Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), for as of now unknown reasons, is awoken ahead of schedule. After some time, he is joined by Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), and together the two must figure out just what happened to cause their hyper-pods to malfunction, realizing that if they are unable to get back to sleep, they will never make it to their new world.
Written from an original story by Jon Spaihts, and directed by Morten Tyldum, the film has initially promising implications. Due to its focus on a singular character who is isolated, here in the expanses of space, the film could have easily been something reflecting the gritty or forbidding feel of a movie like Gravity, or even last year’s more lighthearted The Martian. Granted, this isn’t necessarily a story of survival, since Jim Preston has everything he could possibly need in front of him – including food, virtual games for entertainment, and an endless supply of whiskey served by the most courteous bartender android (delightfully played by Michael Sheen, who seems to be the only one having fun in this movie).
Instead, then, the film had the potential to become a repetitious story of how, even with everything you could possibly need, the lack of human companionship is enough to drive someone to their wit’s end (à la Groundhog Day). Here, it drives Jim to make a choice that will later come back to haunt him – I won’t spoil it, of course, but it’s something which, rather than raising the stakes, causes the remainder of the film to crumble down around him.
This is a film about love, as we are soon reminded, and that comes in the form of our two principal characters, brought to life by Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. The two, who many would consider to be amongst the biggest current stars in Hollywood, seem to serve the purpose of starring in this film simply to remind you of that.
Once Aurora wakes up and joins Jim, the film noticeably switches tone, losing any trace of the desolate feeling it previously possessed, and instead becomes a poorly-wrought and forced romantic drama. Aurora and Jim don’t seem to belong together other than for the simple fact that they are the only two people conscious on the entire ship. Through a montage which could be either days, weeks, or months (the film skips through time in an often abrupt manner), the two simply become romantically involved, with no deeper meaning behind it. For a film that would only succeed based upon this prospect, what’s here is sorely lacking.
That’s not to fault Pratt or Lawrence for this, either. Pratt, known for his usually sarcastic, witty persona, here gives a more sensitive performance, with his personality coming off as more innocent in nature (though this impression is completely shattered later on).
Lawrence is finely suited as Aurora, though her performance is mostly indistinguishable from other roles she has played in the past few years. Together, the two could have shared some great chemistry, but the film’s notable absence of engaging dialogue prevents this. Their relationship is also marred by the perplexing choice that Pratt‘s character makes early on, yet as mentioned it’s not something I can go into too much detail about.
Lawrence Fishburne also has a role in this movie, playing a passenger who is awoken from hyper-sleep much like Jim and Aurora. Through a brief, unmemorable cameo, his character, who conveniently is able to explain everything that is happening to the ship, merely serves the purpose of driving the film towards its eventual climax, since it had been meandering for some time.
Visuals, Influences, and Catastrophe
As with many sci-fi films set in space, Passsengers seems to be at least partly influenced by Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The interior of the ship, with long rotating white corridors, its use of AI, and shots of the ship jetting through space are all of a similar nature. What’s missing, though, is what could have been the film’s saving grace: the visuals.
There is one visually impressive scene in Passengers in which both Jim and Aurora stare at erupting sunspots on the surface of a giant yellow star (and somehow aren’t blinded by it). But nothing else stands out through the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto; not even when the two step outside the spaceship and look at the stars is there anything even approaching the level of grandeur of other sci-fis. Like their ship traveling through endless stretches of space, the film, without anything further to drive it, simply pushes on towards its predictable conclusion.
Just as Fishburne‘s character steps in towards the film’s ending, we, as an audience, are suddenly reminded that the film needed a conflict. So, in a shoehorned action sequence, both Jim and Aurora must step in to save the ship from a catastrophe.
But what is this catastrophe, you ask? I won’t reveal it, but it’s nothing even remotely unexpected. I kept hoping, even now, that Morten Tyldum would peal back the curtain of his film, revealing something I hadn’t seen coming. Perhaps there will be a twist that changes the film for the better, much like Denis Villeneuve‘s infinitely superior Arrival.
Just like the famed Wizard of Oz, though, there isn’t really anything behind the curtain of Passengers; it’s just an ordinary film boasting itself up as something more.
Morten Tyldum‘s Passengers is a misstep for all involved. Though starting with potential, it jarringly switches tone, attempts a forced romance, and concludes with an action sequence that is neither earned nor warranted. Not even the star power of Chris Pratt or Jennifer Lawrence could save the film, and really seem to be the only reason for it to exist in the first place.
Neither an awards contender or a universal crowd-pleaser, Morten Tyldum‘s Passengers is a foundering film that will likely be lost through time and space.
What is your favorite sci-fi of 2016?
Passengers will release in the U.S. and the UK on 21 December 2016. For all international release dates, click here.