4 out of 10
Jennifer Lawrence as Aurora Lane
Chris Pratt as Jim Preston
Michael Sheen as Arthur the Bartender
Laurence Fishburne as Gus Mancuso
Directed by Morten Tyldum
There are many problems with Passengers, but probably the biggest of them is in the casting. There’s nothing wrong with Jennifer Lawrence or Chris Pratt as actors. They have charisma and are generally likable in the work that they have done so far. They are especially convincing in Passengers, and therein lies the issue – much of Passengers’ ideas and plot points are so awful that Pratt and Lawrence end up selling us a deeply-flawed bag of goods. You can grind up glass as fine as sugar, but you wouldn’t want to spoon it over your Rice Krispies.
With Passengers, you can see the challenging movie inside, before the Hollywood rewrites (and I can only assume that there was some heavy meddling on the part of the producers, because the tonal changes play about as subtly as a fart in church). Jon Spaihts’ script for Passengers had been buzzed about for years, almost being made a few times. The premise is just simple and high-concept to excite any Hollywood middle marketing management – Jim Preston (Pratt) is an engineer who has decided to forgo his life on Earth to live on a colony on a planet many lightyears away. Unfortunately, the luxury spaceliner that he’s traveling in, the Avalon, experiences an asteroid storm that causes some malfunctions on the ship, not least of which is the deactivation of Preston’s pod 90 years too early. Facing the fact that he will likely die of old age before the ship reaches its destination, Preston becomes enamored with one of the ship’s 5000 passengers – Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). Soon events unfold that Aurora wakes up as well, and Jim and Aurora strike up a kinship, then a romance.
Most people can see the “twist” coming a mile away – and is it really a twist if it occurs in the first half-hour of the movie? – but for brevity’s sake and for spoilerphobic readers, I won’t reveal it here. Still, it’s best to say that Passengers, for being a science fiction movie, is oddly behind the times. I could see an audience in 1986 eating this movie up, but in present day, the themes of Passengers play just a little bit too creepy and too problematic. And Lawrence and Pratt sell the hell out of it, too. They almost get away with it, except that the premise is so icky and uncomfortable that the smell factor is just too strong. Again, had they cast someone, like Paul Giamatti (and Giamatti is one of my favorite actors, but stick with me), or someone not as easily affable and, let’s face it, attractive as Pratt, the message of this movie wouldn’t have been nearly as palatable. As it stands, while there will be many audiences who will enjoy the sweeping “romance” of Passengers, there will be others who will call it for what it is – an uncomfortable justification for what is, for all intents and purposes, rape.
You can feel the clumsiness of the material shift into rewrite mode as well, especially once everything is revealed and the stakes of what is happening grow. I couldn’t lift the weight of disbelief on several plotholes – in one scene, Preston does a spacewalk outside the ship, which is supposedly going half the speed of light, and while I’m no physicist, I don’t think you can just tether yourself to a ship going that fast and not suffer some pretty devastating gravitational forces. I imagine Neil deGrasse Tyson, if he saw this movie, would have a thing or thirty-three to tweet about the wonky science on display here. There are too many plotholes like that, most of which, again, I can’t reveal, but one particularly egregious one involves a crewmember that exists, mainly, to be Captain Exposition before making some pretty heinous moral leaps with the story.
Morten Tyldum directed a very fine movie a few years ago called Headhunters, a thriller that dodged cliché at every opportunity. The same cannot be said of his work since then – The Imitation Game has some interesting performances but can’t avoid being sappy and maudlin. Passengers is insidious in what it has to say; the film can candycoat the message all it likes, but it’s still a poison pill that it’s asking us to swallow. I can’t fault screenwriter Jon Spaihts too much for this – Passengers was obviously rewritten by committee, and had the film taken its premise to its most logical conclusion, instead of a left field disaster movie plot point, Passengers might have been a daring and troubling movie. Instead of forcing the audience to face its sins head on, Passengers asks the audience to overlook them for the sake of a good time. We can’t be troubled by awkward sexual politics on a Saturday night movie run. Too bad. Although the message of Passengers is grotesque, at least the movie fails on so many other levels that perhaps people will avoid it. If you want to see a beautiful romance, see La La Land or Moonlight. At least those movies are honest. Passengers lies from the first frame, and I don’t like being lied to.