Passengers is a great movie. At least, it’s a great movie if you hate thinking. The makers and marketers were clearly aware of this. Razzle and dazzle ‘em enough, they must have thought, and they’ll look past the fact that it's deeply flawed on a basic, storytelling level. It’s true enough. If you mentally check out, Passengers is a pretty enjoyable experience.
The tale of two interstellar space travelers, who wake up from hibernation 90 years too soon, is packed with gorgeous special effects and tense action sequences. The two leads have a heavy burden, and they pull it off in grand style. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, semi-stranded like Robinson Crusoe, are on a lonely craft adrift in the vast ocean of space instead of on a deserted island. Almost the entire movie rests on their shoulders, and they prove themselves capable of the task. But they do all that in a movie so clunky and half-baked that it’s easy to forget; the film’s rightful destiny.
I try to avoid talking about a movie’s marketing, if at all possible. The actual content of the film, and my personal reaction to it, is where I try to put all my focus. Passengers makes that impractical. The trailers for the movie are so disingenuous that I need to address a spoiler plot point. It’s a point so integral to what is wrong with the movie that not describing it would make writing a meaningful review of the film impossible. The revelation comes at the end of the first act, though, so it’s fair enough game. If you wish to remain spoiler free for Passengers, you might want to skip the rest of the review. You have been warned.
If you saw the trailer, you were probably under the impression Passengers is about two people travelling to a distant planet (Homestead II), who wake up decades too soon when their hibernation pods malfunction. This is only half true. Jim Preston’s (Pratt) pod does malfunction. Jim spends over a year trying to figure a way out of his predicament. There is no way to get back to sleep. He’ll be long dead before a message and response can make the round trip between the ship and Earth (and he’ll be out $6000 for his trouble). The crew are all in hibernation behind a fortified door that Jim can’t penetrate. By the time the 5000 other passengers wake up to start their new lives on Homestead II he will have spent almost his entire life in solitary confinement, his only companion an android bartender named Arthur.
This is where Passengers takes a disturbing turn. Jim becomes increasingly despondent and depressed, even contemplating suicide. On his way back to his bunk, after nearly opening the air lock sans spacesuit to float off into the abyss, he notices one of the hibernating passengers. Her name is Aurora Lane (Lawrence), and Jim becomes obsessed. It turns out Aurora is a writer, and through what must be the equivalent of the entire internet archived on board the Avalon, Jim reads everything he can find by or about her. He starts sitting next to her pod, talking to her. Jim becomes the far-distant-future version of a creeper. You know, those guys who become obsessed with someone they’ve never met, lurking in the digital shadows, building a fantasy relationship by reading every Facebook status update or blog post. Jim not only decides to short circuit Aurora’s pod, damning her to his fate, but he decides to lie about it (at least through omission), and pretend her pod malfunctioned just like his.
If this were a meditation on obsession, or a deep character study of a flawed and broken man, it might have been interesting. I’m as big a fan of Taxi Driver as the next cinephile, but that’s not what Passengers is. Jim is our classic Hollywood hero, and Passengers spends a lot of time making him just that. The first third of the movie shows Jim filling the endless hours mastering a hologram version of Dance Dance Revolution, or tricking the Avalon into allowing him access to the premium suites on board. These scenes of Jim dealing with the tedium of his situation are actually some of the movie’s most charming moments. He’s a humble, if impossibly hot, mechanic who could only afford the most basic accommodations to his new life. Actually, the fleeting references to class issues in Passengers is one of its most interesting aspects, though precious little time is devoted to it.
Here lies the film’s other main flaw. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts tried to shoehorn three or four movies into his script. After Jim wakes Aurora, we are inundated with the consequences of his decision, a crew member of the Avalon also waking due to a malfunctioning pod, a desperate race to discover what’s wrong on board the ship, and a frenetic rescue attempt reminiscent of the far superior Gravity. Passengers becomes a rather numbing experience by the time you reach the climax. Not helping in that regard is composer Thomas Newman’s overbearing, obnoxious score. Movie music usually works best when it almost imperceptibly enhances what’s happening on screen. Newman’s score constantly calls attention to itself in the worst way imaginable.
There are several highlights to Passengers, as I mentioned earlier. When done right, the majesty of outer space is a setting where computer generated special effects can work magic. That is certainly the case here. From exterior shots of the Avalon burning up oncoming meteors with a heat shield, to scenes of Jim and Aurora taking a spacewalk together, the effects department did some gorgeous work. There is also a sequence where the Avalon loses power, and subsequently gravity, while Aurora is taking a swim in the pool. The water rises, floating above the deck in massive bubbles, trapping Aurora. It’s an inspired scene.
The chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence is another of the few elements that allowed me to hook into Passengers. Same goes for Michael Sheen as the robotic bartender, Arthur. There’s a comedic surface to the character that belies a creepy, sinister component. Sheen makes Arthur a spiritual, mechanical counterpart to another famous movie bartender, the diabolical Lloyd in Kubrick’s The Shining.
Those strengths make Passengers all the more frustrating. There’s a good movie hiding in this mess somewhere (maybe even two good movies). It’s hard to tell if a few more drafts of the screenplay, better editing, or something else could have saved it. What’s sure is that the end result is a terrible disappointment.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- The chemistry of the leads, and some beautiful space effects can't come close to salvaging this mess, which feels like three or four movies crammed into one.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There is a cameo, if you can even call it that, that lasts exactly one shot in Passengers. I was so perplexed by why such a famous and highly regarded actor would wind up in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role. I won't divulge it, but if you want to read the particulars, you can spoil yourself here. A short description is given in the article I linked, and it involves multiple endings being shot for Passengers. I desperately want to know more, and I'm sure some day there will be a longer-form piece written about the troubled production that lead to such a weird outcome. I can't wait to read it.