Passengers is marginally successful entertainment”

by Steve Pulaski

Passengers opens by telling us the sleekly designed, immaculately detailed spaceship we are on is the Starship Avalon and it’s on a 120-year voyage to a planet known as Homestead II. With over 5,000 people from Earth in tow, its passengers are in a hibernation-induced sleep, intended for them to stay sedated until they near Homestead when an unheard of malfunction results in a mechanical engineer named Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awaking only thirty years into the trip. Jim wanders aimlessly through the spacecraft, scared and alone, his only solace being the companionship of a humanoid bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen in a delightfully charming role), who serves him whiskey and offers him inspirational small-talk, but little emotional resonance.

After about a year of trying to make the spaceship home, coming to terms with the fact that he’ll likely die before reaching Homestead II, Jim begins to become infatuated with a beautiful writer named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), who is asleep in her pod. He researches her using Avalon’s equipment and after much contemplation, decides to tinker with her sleeping pod so that it too malfunctions and she prematurely wakes up as well. Upon awaking and going through the same initial shock and dismay of Jim, despite not knowing the true motivations behind her pod’s breakdown, the two grow close as they try to embrace every minute and come to terms with what seems like the inevitable.

It doesn’t take in-depth analysis to realize the problematic premise of Passengers. It’s essentially about a man who is both lonely yet selfish enough to ruin the life of another woman without her consent, with the narrative treating it as a tribulation in their relationship that is more of a speed-bump. In America, where the sexual assault/rape conversation has substantially grown in the last year, with consent and mutual respect for dating/sexually involved parties being a bigger topic than ever, while Passengers is not about assault specifically, like The Girl on the Train, it deals with the idea of “gaslighting” in a very basic sense.

Directed by
Morten Tyldum
Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen
Release Date
21 December 2016
Steve’s Grade: C

That’s Passengers‘ main problem, in addition to its third act that almost entirely discards the mannered and methodical build-up that introduced the entire operation of Starship Avalon very quaintly for something more in-line with a sci-fi spectacle. The result is a special-effects-heavy sound-and-light show that will inevitably make the criticisms for Lawrence’s Aurora Lane character louder and even more justified as her character is resorted mostly to being a cooperative mannequin so Jim can save the spaceship and the fates of thousands of individual, sound-asleep souls.

It’s easy to be critical of Passengers, but being overtly so overshadows the previous hour that is worthy of praise. Director Morten Tyldum, who is coming off his Oscar-nominated Imitation Game just two years ago, works with frequent Scorsese-collaborator/cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who did the cinematography for Scorsese’s new film Silence) to imagine a modern space-complex that is equipped with everything you could ever want if you were stuck on a spacecraft sans human company. Moments that would be aimless and nothing special for other directors, Tyldum turns into breathtaking events, like Aurora swimming in a pool, where part of it looks to be suspended in the vast galaxy, as well as chromatic hallways and computer-screens that echo the visual dazzle of Ex Machina (albeit with seven times the budget).

Tyldum also never loses sight of the human aspects of the story, which is ultimately, above any kind of sleek aesthetic or intricate plot device, why we are and should be so in-tune with the film at hand.

Passengers is marginally successful entertainment if you can look a bitbeyond some serious and unfortunate shortcomings. As troublesome as both can be, they don’t distract from what Tyldum gets right about the tone, Prieto gets right about the look and style of the film, and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange, Prometheus) gets right about the screenplay in a minimalist sense that prevails in the first two acts. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence prove why they’re two hugely bankable, recognizable faces at the moment, and the result is science-fiction that’s original enough to distract those a bit tired of hearing about the latest Marvel or Star Wars installment.