Passengers isn’t nearly the disaster the early buzz would’ve led me to believe, but I understand the collective bemusement. The premise is so bold and the execution so timid that it almost feels like the first and second halves were written by different people. The cerebral sci-fi premise gradually devolves into a MacGuffiny chase sequence that feels rushed, shrill, and out of character, not to mention cheap (over the summer there were rumors about unfinished VFX work). After hooking you in the opening scenes, it just sort of flails toward an ending — one of several versions shot — until it gets tired and collapses, whiffing successive creative opportunities along the way (to mix a few metaphors). It feels less like a bad movie than a cautionary tale about trying to shoot before you’re finished writing.
Directed by The Imitation Game‘s Morten Tyldum from a script by Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange), Passengers opens on Chris Pratt as Jim Preston (he does look like a “Jim”), a mechanic traveling on a giant space ship hurtling through the cosmos on its way from Earth to Homestead II, a planet that takes 120 years to reach. A pod malfunction wakes Jim up from hibernation early, leaving him all alone among 4,999 sleeping passengers. The opulent ship (think Titanic by way of Siri) is entirely automated and the glitch so rare that Jim is looking at 90 years with no one to keep him company except chat bots who haven’t been programmed to deal with his only problem. It’s such a perfect sci-fi premise, simultaneously so fantastical and so relevant, like Wall-E meets a phone call with Comcast, that I can imagine it was greenlit immediately. And I don’t blame them: I would’ve done the same thing, it sounds great.
With only a robot bartender (Michael Sheen) and some futuristic Nintendo Wii games to keep him company, Jim eventually faces a Sophie’s choice: ruin someone else’s life or die alone? I suppose this next bit is kind of a spoiler, considering Passengers’ marketing, but you know it’s going to happen five minutes into the movie so screw it: He wakes up Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurora Lane, a writer from New York whose name makes her sound like Bella Swan’s career girl sister. Aurora is unaware that Jim woke her up at first, and if you thought this fact was going to hang over their heads for half the movie, DING DING DING, go to the head of the class.
Obviously that had to be in there, but it’s also one of the least interesting parts of the story. And the script just hammers it, over and over, giving us banal moralizing instead of exploring the possibilities of this unique premise. Would he or wouldn’t he? It’s just not that interesting a question. Of course he would. It’s human nature. Misery loves company. The first thing I do when I eat something gross is try to get the other people at the table to try it. Interstellar‘s characters got mad at Matt Damon for luring them to a deserted planet, but they couldn’t really blame him.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. First Aurora wakes up, then she realizes they’re stuck there, and then slowly, slooowly they start to fall for each other. Again, how long did we have to draw this out, really? If the only two awake people on a booze-filled luxury space ship to nowhere look like Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, the over/under on when they start f*cking is about 25 minutes, I guarantee you. People would screw their own family members if a camping trip went too long. I’m supposed to believe two attractive single people with 100% leisure time and unlimited booze didn’t instantly tear each other’s clothes off? Please.
Her tantrum when she inevitably finds out is equally overplayed. Because once she’s furious, what’s she going to do? Pout forever? He’s still her only companionship. They are each other’s only human connection, which isn’t that different from what they signed up for, which could’ve been an interesting comment on the nature of relationships. But instead it becomes this tiresome teen movie trope where the script manufactures some lame reason for the two lovers to hate each other at the end of the second act.
That being said, the setting is so compelling and the stars so attractive that you’re willing to forgive a lot, and Passengers still manages some interesting moments. Like the simple wonders of living on this giant abandoned playground (with shades of 28 Days Later) and a cool depiction of what would happen if your indoor lap pool suddenly went zero g.
But there are really only two characters, and what about them? What kind of person is willing to do a hard reset on their life, to trade their every human connection for a chance to see another planet, a chance to see the future? Passengers is smart enough to ask such a compelling question, but not to answer it. Jim wants to outlive everyone he knows and travel to a distant planet he’s never seen because… he likes building things and wants to feel important. Gee, okay. Aurora Lane wants to go there and travel back because she’s a journalist and it’s “the ultimate story.” Sure, fair enough, I guess. But there isn’t anything otherwise noteworthy about their personalities? They’re not weird loners or outcasts or eccentrics or deviants? Just pretty people with one-sentence backstories? Why write such an interesting premise if you’re just going to fill it with square dorks?
Not to mention all the possibilities. What if he’d fallen in love with her, woken her up, and then realized she wasn’t at all what he thought, like a bad online date? What if she hated him and immediately woke up someone else? What if they woke up other people together and it ruined everything? There are so many potentially intriguing choices, but Passengers just punts, making progressively duller narrative choices after building a world so rich. It stays interesting almost to the end, but eventually the dull decisions start to add up until everyone’s running around trying to put the doodad into the whatchamacallit to fix the hyperwhatever and to save the people and blah blah blah. Who cares? I thought this was about companionship and mortality and difficult choices. In the end, Passengers is… well, kind of like falling in love with a sleeping beauty only to find out they’re kind of dull.