Passengers (2016)

(I don’t normally include major spoilers in my reviews, but in this case it is impossible to talk about this film without addressing a major plot development early on that colors the rest of the film. So proceed with caution.)

Since 2005, there has been a list produced of the most liked scripts in Hollywood that have not been made into a movie yet, known as The Black List.  Many scripts have gotten made as a result of being on this annual list.  Passengers is a film that made the 2007 list and is finally seeing a release after languishing in development hell for nearly a decade.  It features two of the hottest commodities in Hollywood currently in Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.  Despite their presence and the popularity of the script for the last few years, the end result is a film that wants to be something more than what it is, and finds itself severely hampered by the central conceit of the story.

The film’s first act focuses solely on Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer who is a passenger on board the Avalon, a spaceship launched from Earth that is bound for Homestead II, a distant planet.  The ship contains 5,000 passengers and 248 crewmembers all in hibernation for the 120 year journey to reach Homestead II, but a malfunction has caused Jim to be woken from his hibernation after only 30 years into the 120 year trip.  Unable to put himself back into hibernation, Jim wanders the ship alone for a year, passing the time trying to figure out ways to solve his conundrum, pass the time, and keep his mind occupied.  There is a Groundhog Day and even Home Alone feel to a lot of these early moments, as Jim goes through several stages of dealing with his solitude, watching movies, walking around with no pants on, occupying every high score slot on the dance simulation game.  Ultimately, though, all of this is fleeting and after a year, he becomes more and more depressed by the solitude and the prospect of dying alone, his only companion on board being Arthur (Michael Sheen), an android bartender who is stuck behind the bar.

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The middle is where things become problematic as Jim’s actions result in a second passenger being woken up from hibernation, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence).  Like the ship they are on, everything seems fine on the surface, even better than fine as they fall in love, but the event that set things in motion is rapidly becoming a cause for concern.  It is here where the film ultimately undermines itself.  Jim, knowing the truth of him being the cause her Aurora being awake, withholds this information from her, to the detriment of their relationship.

Despite efforts to show the depths of despair that Jim was in, despite the effort to show the guilt he lives with because of his actions, and despite the rest of the film essentially being dedicated to trying to redeem Jim, it’s just not quite enough.  The script raises an interesting ethical question involving Jim’s predicament, and Aurora’s reaction to the truth is palpable and justified, but the film ultimately feels like it is incapable of satisfactorily answering these questions and decides to lean on the considerable charm and charisma of Pratt and Lawrence to make up the difference.  In fact, Pratt and Lawrence are just so good together and are so naturally appealing on screen that they almost pull it off.  But the central conceit here is just too messy a problem for the film to extricate itself from.

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It doesn’t help that director Mort Tyldum doesn’t quite know what kind of film he wants to make here.  It starts as a sci-fi comedy, morphs into a sci-fi romance, transitions into a potentially disturbing sci-fi horror thriller, and ultimately ends up wanting to be a sci-fi action flick.  It tries to be too many things and doesn’t really succeed at any of them, especially because the comedy undermines the despair in relation to Jim’s actions, Jim’s actions undermine the romance, and so on and so forth.

Is there a solution to any of this?  It’s tough to say.  For many people seeing this film, especially in the environment of today’s culture where there is so much talk about consent and rape culture, the central premise of this film is going to be a huge turnoff and a complete deal-breaker.  If this film is made in 1996 instead of 2016, it is probably pretty warmly received.  But it’s hard to offer a defense of a film that is so easy to read as a “meet-cute” that more closely resembles Stockholm Syndrome.  If the movie had decided to be one version of itself instead of the three or four kinds of films it is trying to be, perhaps it would have succeeded, though the thriller/horror version of this film is far less marketable than this finished product.

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The film is trying for a fairy tale fable set in space mixed with a Adam and Eve kind of story.  This is evident in the fact that Jennifer Lawrence’s character’s name is Aurora and is literally a sleeping beauty when we first meet her.  And Jim’s solitude on the ship evokes the story of Adam in Genesis where God says in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  It just needed to do more to tidy up the tone of the film, because it tries to thread such a fine needle.

In a lot of ways, it is easy to say that Passengers is a beautiful disaster.  But despite all of the messy and decidedly icky creepiness of a significant piece of the film’s plot, Pratt and Lawrence are nearly worth recommending it.  It does squander a terrific premise of a film.  It is problematic as a whole.  But there are Pratt and Lawrence and a few elements here that are good and could have been engineered into a better film.  As it is, though, it is just so-so.

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Rating 2.5 out of 5 stars

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