For fans of mature sci-fi drama disappointed by recent hits like Arrival, Interstellar and The Martian who are hoping the romantic space thriller Passengers might fulfill our oft thwarted dreams of intelligent storytelling set in amongst the cosmos, prepare for anther really big disappointment. Morten Tyldum’s film stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as Jim Preston and Aurora Lane, hibernating passengers on a luxury transport ship in the middle of a 130 year trip to a new world. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Jim and Aurora wake up ninety years early and find themselves the only two conscious people aboard a resort pleasure craft equipped to service five thousand awakened guests during the final four months of the journey. With no way to restart the hibernation process, they make the best of their situation. Fortunately for them (and for us) they are both exceptionally beautiful people. Watching them you can’t help but think, well this could be a lot worse—both for the characters and the audience.
Passengers boasts a terrific premise full of possibilities for moral conundrum, fascinating psychological exploration, and deep character study. Were it made in the 1970s (or perhaps as a modern stage play) it might have become a moving, intelligent, and intensely romantic drama—think My Dinner with Andre set in space where the two protagonists have stimulating intercourse of both the cerebral and physical variety. However, produced within the simplistic international blockbuster parameters of today’s Hollywood, the resulting film is so corny in its execution and so saccharine in its emotional stakes that it falls into the so-bad-it’s-good category of entertainment.
Though created solely by screenwriter Jon Spaihts, the scribe who penned the unforgivably awful Prometheus (2012) Passengers feels like a script designed by committee. You can almost see hacks sitting around a windowless room saying, what if we combine 2001, Castaway, and Titanic! The first third unfolds in such an unimaginative fashion it feels like a first time writer who read too many how-to-write-a-screenplay books. The second third has the confident but inelegant vibe of hastily rewritten scenes by a high-end script doctor like Damon Lindelof or Tony Gilroy. And the last third could only have been written by a fourteen year-old kid with no understanding of actual emotional experiences like love, regret, commitment, sacrifice, or loss.
You might think that a big budget movie like this one would at least pay off in terms of its impressive settings and special effects, but once again you’ll be let down. The story must be set many decades in the future, since intergalactic space travel and colonization of other worlds is commonplace. Yet the future envisioned by Spaihts and Tyldum looks and sounds exactly like contemporary destinations of mass tourism —Disney World with more articulate audio-animatronics. Of course, all science fiction reflects the culture at the time of its creation, but usually writers and directors try to be at least a little bit inventive. Worse, the filmmakers completely fail at convincing us that we’re on a starship hurtling through the depths of outer space. The interiors look like large, earthbound office complexes and the exteriors look like laptop screen savers.
Fortunately, it is kind of fun spending time with the leads of this essentially four-person cast. Pratt and Lawrence are not just gorgeous movie stars, they’re fine actors. While not good enough to make this picture work, they at least keep it from being unpleasant to watch. While the isolation, terror, and sense of hopelessness Jim and Aurora experience feels no more credible than the feelings of abandonment Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin felt in Home Alone, we do enjoy watching them make the most out of their situation.
At least we enjoy them until the third act in which Jim and Aurora must save the ship from destruction. At this point, all attempts to keep us invested in their relationship get sucked out the airlock as the filmmakers pour on so many absurd levels of escalating danger accompanied by relentless hackneyed dialogue it becomes impossible to take the movie seriously. Some lines and bits of business the actors are required to say and do are so cliché they seem designed to elicit laughs from audiences rather than gasps or tears. The only thing to do for the last twenty-five minutes of Passengers is surrender to the entertainment value of its near-satirical levels of over the top filmmaking. The actors make this a painless surrender. You stop caring about whether or not Jim Preston and Aurora Lane will survive the destruction of their spaceship, but you’re still invested in seeing if Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence survive this picture.