Directed by: Morten Tyldum.
Written by: Jon Spaihts.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Aurora Lane), Chris Pratt (Jim Preston), Michael Sheen (Arthur), Laurence Fishburne (Gus Mancuso), Andy Garcia (Captain Norris).
Spoiler Warning: Since I basically caught Passengers at the tail end of its theatrical run – and only because it picked up two unexpected Oscar nominations (for Production Design and Score), I’ll be freer with the spoilers than normal – in particular because the only thing worth discussing about the movie is the spoiler that the trailer specifically did not reveal, but has been widely discussed since the film was released two months ago).
The saddest thing about Passengers, is that the film has a fascinating premise, and had the film been more willing to follow through on that premise, it could have been a darkly fascinating sci-fi movie about morality. Instead, it seems like the filmmakers decided that because they have the ever charming Chris Pratt and even more charming Jennifer Lawrence in the two lead roles, that the film didn’t have to do anything except coast on their charm. This is a major missed opportunity. If the filmmakers had more courage – like say Hitchcock, in the way he cast Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant in very dark roles, because he knew the audience would follow them into dark places, without realizing where they were going until things were too late. Instead, Passengers bends over backwards to make its main character sympathetic from beginning to end – which undermines the dark places the film should be headed. Worse, it gives Lawrence her weakest character to date – not just in terms of the complexity of how her character is written (her character has none) – but that she is stuck playing a character who is basically an observer in her own life.
Passengers takes place on board a space ship that is on a 120 year journey to a new planet. All the crew and passengers are in suspended sleep until they arrive – or at least that’s how thing are supposed to work. One of the passengers – Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up early – 90 years early to be precise. Now, because the thousands of passengers are supposed to be woken up 4 months before arrival – to get used to their new lives before they land – there is no danger of him starving to death. He can live a fairly comfortable life – but he will be entirely by himself for the duration, and die before anyone wakes up. His only company is Arthur (Michael Sheen) – a robot bartender. He spends a year growing his beard and trying to stay sane. But he happens upon the sleeping pod of Aurora Lane (Lawrence) – and becomes smitten with her through her passenger profile. But he couldn’t wake her up, could he? That would be dooming her to his same fate.
You could easily make an interesting idea out this – a complex one, where a sympathetic character does a horrible thing. Does that make the audience hate him, or is he able to win back our affection? How does the woman he dooms – she, correctly, calls him a murderer for what he does – respond when placed in a situation where she has but two choices – forgive him, or live the rest of her life by herself. Does she forgive her abuser, or not?
These could make for fascinating questions to build a movie around – one that calls into question morality, sexuality, gender roles – and more. The problem with Passengers is that it doesn’t actually seem all that interested in those questions. Instead, all it wants to do is coast on the charm of the two leads – the film waits until fairly late before Jim reveals to Aurora the truth – and then spends more time on various special effects sequences – to save the ship – than on what their characters think. Worse, even in these scenes, it basically reduces Lawrence’s character into an observer – the woman who has to watch the smart man do everything, as she asks insultingly simplistic questions.