Warning: This review contains some spoilers, so proceed at your own risk if you have not yet seen the film.
While watching Passengers, I couldn't help but feel that it had started as something much darker, much more twisted, and much more challenging and had at some point been reworked and massaged into something much slicker, polished, and emotionally rewarding. Only one screenwriter-Jon Spaihts, who also co-wrote Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2014) and Marvel's most recent hit Doctor Strange (2016)-is credited, and I have not read anything that his screenplay went through a major overhaul ala J.F. Lawton's for Pretty Woman (1990) to make its potentially disturbing story more palatable to a mainstream, Christmas-season audience. But, it wouldn't surprise me at all if we found out such was the case, especially since the script has been floating around the industry since the mid-2000s, and the project has gone through several studios and directors and leads.
The story takes place in the distant future entirely aboard a massive luxury spaceship that is cruising through the cosmos on a 120-year journey to a colonized planet. Onboard are 250 crew members and more than 5,000 colonists who are willing to restart their lives on another planet more than a lifetime after they left Earth. Everyone onboard is in a state of suspended animation in cryosleep chambers, where they will be blissfully unaware of the lengthy trip, which is being managed entirely by the ship's autopilot system. Unfortunately, the ship flies through a meteor shower, which causes some kind of damage that results in one of the cryosleep chambers opening and awakening a mechanic named Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) about nine decades too early. Once he realizes what has happened, he tries desperately to return to his state of suspended animation, but finds that it is impossible to do so, which leaves him faced with what amounts to the rest of his life alone, knowing that he will die long before anyone else on the ship wakes up.
Right there we have the kernel of a potentially fascinating film about a deep existential crisis and the horrors of isolation, and it is during this stretch that Passengers is at its most intriguing. Like Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away (2000), the film strands us with a single, solitary character trying to survive mentally and physically (although, to be fair, the physical aspect of survival is a breeze here since the luxury spaceship affords him all kinds of amenities, including ample food, a luxurious suite, a movie theater, a hologram dance-off simulator, and more). Jim does what he can to keep himself occupied and sane while also trying everything he can think of to either get back into hypersleep or alert someone who might help him (the crew is safely tucked away behind an impenetrable door, as are the ship's controls, and an attempt to send a message back to Earth will pretty much take the rest of his life to be delivered). His only companion besides himself and the tiny clean-up robots that scoot around the ship is Arthur (Michael Sheen), a refined cyborg bartender who is always ready to lend an ear, although his responses often betray the limits of his circuitry.
Things take a turn when Jim looks into one of the other cryosleep chambers and sees the face of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a New York author with whom he falls in love. He is not just enamored with her sleeping beauty looks, but with her personality and her intellect, which he is able to engage via her writings and recordings she made as part of the colonization process. Desperate for human interaction and companionship, he is tempted to sabotage her chamber and wake her up, which he manages to resist, but only for so long. After nearly a year and a half of being alone, he finally breaks down and wakes her up, hiding from her the fact that he is responsible for her arising 90 years early. On the face of it, this is a hideous thing to have done-cruel and unusual, even-although understandable, given his predicament. This is where the film starts getting into tricky territory, as we have to engage with Jim and Aurora's isolated relationship-which, them being two beautiful movie stars, soon develops into passionate romance-knowing all the time that he is responsible for stealing her life for his own selfish purposes. The moral conundrum at the heart of Passengers is theoretically intense, but the film constantly skirts the implications by drowning us in the characters' romance and by constantly overstating the conundrum instead of delving into its complexities.
Suffice it to say that Aurora eventually finds out what Jim has done, which drives them apart and turns her love for him into almost abject hatred. But, just as the third act appears to be descending into a truly dark place, they are forced to come back together to solve a major problem, namely the fact that the ship is starting to come apart at the seams. It turns out that the damage done two years ago that initially caused Jim's chamber to malfunction has been, over the ensuing two years, causing a string of ever-escalating malfunctions that the ship is not able to repair, and unless Jim and Aurora can come together again to solve the problem, they and everyone else on board will die a fiery death in the vacuum of deep space.
Of course, Pratt and Lawrence are good enough actors with an appealing enough presence that it is easy to get lost in their various predicaments. Pratt, who has specialized in the kind of handsome rogue that Harrison Ford popularized with the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises of the late '70s and '80s, is an almost diabolical casting choice for Jim because his very presence on screen immediately softens the terrible nature of his arguably unforgivable actions. If he had been played by an actor less handsome, less charming, less immediately likeable, Passengers would be a very different film, indeed. But, laden with A-level star power and beauty, the film's various ethical and moral issues fall to secondary status in the climatic act, which sacrifices drama for action and, worse, uses the latter to excuse massive, potentially unbelievable character shifts in the former. Spaihts's screenplay is also guilty of using too many conveniences to keep the plot mechanics flowing smoothly. It sure is convenient that Jim is a mechanic, so he will be in a position to fix the broken ship; it sure is convenient that Aurora was a writer, so that Jim would have plenty of material of hers to absorb and fall in love with before actually meeting her; it sure is convenient that when the cyrosleep chambers malfunction again, not another random passenger awakens, but rather a deck officer (Laurence Fishburne) who comes supplied with both important plot information and access to the parts of the ship needed to save the day.
Of course, that is all academic, the kind of stuff that only stands out in hindsight. Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) keeps the film humming along, and it is never for a moment dull, even when we're watching a character nearly die of boredom. The film's production design is also outstanding. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas (who has worked previously with Terry Gilliam, Steven Spielberg, and Christopher Nolan) creates an artificial world that is brimming with luxury and convenience, but is also indicative of the sterility that follows the complete removal of nature. Especially when Jim is alone, we are made acutely aware of how ultimately empty creature comforts are without an accompanying sense of humanity, which is what makes his terrible-horrible decision both haunting and strangely poignant. It is too bad that Passengers didn't put more emphasis on the underlying emotional trembling and less on the big setpieces and third-act crises that create an artificial means of bringing the beautiful couple back together. Passengers isn't a bad movie, but it sure feels like there's a better one in there somewhere.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Sony Pictures
Overall Rating: (2.5)
Get a daily dose of San Jose Sun news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.