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The concept of love in space and the hopeless desolation of a trip in isolation make for a profoundly unique opportunity to explore the human condition, given the extremes the environment creates. With Passengers, a romantic drama set not only in the cold reaches of the galaxy, a place already devoid of any recognizable flourishes of humanity, love is the story and all the pain and joy that comes with it, or at least it could have been. Instead, what we get is a chilling exercise in emotional manipulation that might have been a smart thriller but ends up a disturbing morality tale that gets lost among the stars.
The Avalon is a massive, luxury spaceship gliding through the vast chasm of space on its way to a distant planet called Homestead II. On board are 5000 passengers sleeping in hibernation for the 120-year journey. Some 30 years in, they run upon a group of asteroids, one of which skips through the ship’s barrier shield, sparking a series of malfunctions, one of which triggers a lifepod to activate and waken a passenger.
Mechanical Engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is greeted by a series of automated programs that guide him through the process of acclimating to the coming arrival on Homestead II, but what James soon comes to realize is that he’s a mistake and now has 90 years of isolation on the Avalon with no way to go back to sleep. While exploring the ship, he encounters an android named Arthur (Michael Sheen), a bartender who gives the lonely Preston some company but after a year of no human companionship, no contact, and no way to go on by himself, he makes a fateful decision to wake another passenger, a women named Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), hoping she will fall in love with him so they can spend their lives together on a journey that will see them die alone in space. Of course, while the world Jim lives in is automated to take care of him, a real-life woman is a different story.
Directed by Morten Tyldum, Passengers is an attempt to be a metaphor about loneliness and ask larger questions about morality, which are well worth exploring, but are inescapably lost in a film that paints in broad strokes. From the ship itself that is damaged and failing fast, to the actions of each of the characters, Passengers creates a despicable situation around a man who’s choice effectively is a death sentence for another but leads us away from the morality of that problem so it can focus on the romance instead. That might have been fine if they’d let her wake by accident as well, but as it is, and the way the film handles that dilemma, treating it much like a television drama, it lacks any sense of significant consequence. With ill-conceived humor and little character development, there is not much in making the experience anything but a cliché-riddled curiosity.
Lawrence and Pratt are two of today’s most endearing and naturally-convincing actors, and both help in carrying what little they can to raise this to a higher level, though much of it is buried under a listless script. While the set up is intriguing and the initial conundrum Jim faces is compelling, especially in deciding to awaken Aurora, the movie jarringly shifts from what could be an intelligent story with great potential to a third act that betrays the premise and devolves into an action thriller that turns the highly questionable ethics of Jim into a kind of hero. It leaves Aurora a victim who not only chooses to welcome her fate but embrace it.
The film is slick to look at, though the sterile CGI only serve to remind how much better it was done decades before in greater sci-fi films that were innovative and with more far-reaching purpose. Perhaps it’s not fair to compare this to such movies, but the questions the film raise are ones that need discussing and the film’s steadfast determination in avoiding that conversation in pursuit of a manipulative conclusion ultimately leave this a disconcerting experience. We’ve watched Jennifer Lawrence from the start of her career be a re-defining female presence in movies, a woman of substance and fierce independence, and yet here, it feels like a huge leap backwards as she plays helpless and needy, destined to be saved.
What could have been a thought-provoking story about real isolation and companionship stumbles as it can’t bring closure to a truly troubling plot twist. Passengers is a missed opportunity to be something really impactful but instead is a forgettable love story that is too afraid to challenge its audience.
Director: Morten Tyldum
Writer: Jon Spaihts
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen
Genre: Science Fiction