A starship on its way to a planetary colony suffers malfunctions, accidentally waking one passenger 90 years before arrival.
It’s too good to be true: enlisting A-listers as leads and lovers, Chris Pratt, known for the likes of comedic domestic Parks and Rec and comedic galactic Guardians of the Galaxy, is Jim Preston, a mechanic seeking to build a new life on a planet in need of his skills. Jennifer Lawrence, now renowned actress known for action films like The Hunger Games and X-Men: Apocalypse as well as nuanced adult works like Silver Linings Playbook and Joy, is Aurora Lane, a charismatic young writer known for her father’s famous name. She plans to make the 120-cryo hibernation to the colony Homestead II, write a novel, and return to Earth.
But aboard the sleek, commercial starship Avalon, things are not what they seem. Jim finds himself woken an earth-shattering 90 years before the ship is due to arrive at Homestead II. And after several failed attempts to reach out to Earth, or penetrate the ship’s control center, he resigns himself to making the best of it. While the entire ship sleeps, he has the luxury ship to himself. There’s the programmed android Arthur (Michael Sheen), designed to be the ultimate barman with a human upper body and whirling lower cogs. And Jim has a good time at first, pigging out, enjoying entertainments, gyms, all while slowly losing hope he will be able to fall asleep in time to arrive where he meant to start a new life. He can’t get his sleeping pod to re-close, to send him back to hibernation, nor can he find any more pods. But as a year passes, Jim starts to lose his mind without any other human contact.
And here’s where the film lost me. Jim stumbles across one woman in cryo one day, the gleaming and golden Aurora Lane. He’s too curious, and researches her story, her work, all while beginning to convince himself she is the woman for him. But as Jim wastes away without another person to talk to, he faces growing temptation to deprogram her pod and wake her up, too, staging it as an accident. He would condemn her to the same fate of living out her life on the ship. Eventually, he does.
They meet, atoms fly, and have the most impossibly exotic galactic honeymoon imaginable. Then another person wakes up, this time truly on accident, debilitated and poisoned by his pod that malfunctioned. He’s a crew member, and is able to point out that the ship is starting to have dangerous problems. It’s up to Jim and Aurora to save the plus 3,000 civilians and crew, before they’re all passengers to a torrid, fiery death. But even when Aurora finds out Jim woke her up on purpose, and launches into rage and recluse, I couldn’t get over the feeling there was something off.
Reviews are mixed online; critics have generally yielded the film little more than a squashed, rotten green tomato. But some people really, really like it, heralding it as an action movie for families to come. And like one reviewer commented on IMDb, I also think Passengers had tremendous potential to become a space thriller. It’s already debilitating, watching as the ship falls apart, all while you realize it’s hurtling through empty space. The storyline could have played up Jim stalking Aurora, and turned it into a horror hybrid piece. Instead, as we watch Jim research a video on why Aurora chose to come aboard the Avalon, as we watch him read her writing, spend time by her unconscious and watch her fondly, his behavior is normalized, even gleaning a few chuckles. And when Jim pulls the wrench and wakes her up, appearing surprised to “meet” her for the first time, Aurora is someone else entirely: charismatic and fiery, refusing to accept she is condemned to this ship before her journey begins. Her role on the new colony was only a one year book, a single project. And even when Aurora finds out and she’s furious, after they mutually save the ship from a fire-ball malfunctioning death (what was apparently causing all of the ship’s problems), she forgives him, even decides to live out her life with him on the ship. It’s a little surreal, and feels slightly poisonous, wrong, patting Jim on the head for the sentencing act. It’s not just mean--he robbed her of her life, and manipulated her, creeped on her beforehand.
It’s true, he was going insane. After less than a year of living quite literally on his own, one day, Jim comes across a suit that lets him walk along the starship. He looks out, heartbrokenly, and there’s the moment we’re meant to assume he’s contemplating letting go completely. Is his life is over, what has he to live for? But Jim’s genuine loneliness, and distress, his temptation to wake her up, all while knowing it’s wrong, is only skin deep, like a snapshot of time, pushed out of the way and condensed to make room for their romance and, later, ship-saving. Aurora is finally able to understand the terrifying idea of being alone when towards the end, Jim faces almost certain death if he is to open a hatch, and save the rest of the ship. Here, she forgives him. But even that is underplayed, underdeveloped, and we don’t feel the humanity, any true loneliness of these people feel on this great big spaceship. Instead, we dwell on how the film was sold, a cool and shocking new action-romance-space-thriller. It’s a shame that where the plot relies on very human moments, passengers fall short.
There’s also technical errors that don’t quite fly. Critics describe the crew would have to be cycling in and out of cryo the entire journey, in case even one of the pods on the luxury ship malfunctioned. In a place as harsh and sparse as space, there would have to be backups, and backup backups. So it’s also hard to believe there would literally be no other available pods anywhere on the ship, or way to send a pod back into hibernation, that the technologically-able (and apparently engineering-literate) Jim wouldn’t be able to figure out. And the final crisis with the ship--the tremendous theatrical whirling ball of fire in the ship’s reactor--is generally vague. Then, somehow Jim is not incinerated, or seemingly hurt, when he is bombasted by said fireball erupting from the ship and left in space cold without oxygen, ably resuscitated wholly back to life when Aurora reels him back in and drags him to a medical pod. The only explanation to all this would be the fault lies in the commercial, money-driven ship, belonging to a company more interested in image than in immaculation. Perhaps we are far enough into the future to have these industries. But that isn’t communicated in the movie.
And it’s a huge miss. Not only are actors Pratt and Lawrence plenty skilled in their own right, and hugely charismatic, able, intelligent, but the film doesn’t do them emotional due. I personally didn’t think Pratt was the right man for the role of Jim “every man” Preston. Pratt has huge comic potential, and is fantastic at action, but Jim is too streamlined, horrifying in his actions, which are all too quickly internalized by the film. And it’s also disappointing, since the starship Avalon is so surreally gorgeous. With outer rotating, curved arms (that some also comment would provide physics problems), and beautifully designed pods arranged around an artificially Vitamin-D producing “tree,” Avalon is magnificent, and eerily silent. There was obviously a lot of thought that went into the design. The barman-android’s bar, designers describe, was one of the most fun to create--recalling glamorous, exaggerated Art Deco, or perhaps what future humans would simplify Art Deco to be, it’s golden and huge and gleaming. Unfortunately, that’s the best of it, a film that is prettier than anything else. We’re just passengers, for better or for worse.