As the credits rolled on Passengers, I sat there in my seat plotting out several better movies than the one I just sat through; Passengers could have been a chilling horror movie involving two travelers, one whom had snapped after being stranded and rejected on an interstellar expedition. Instead we were given an improbable love story with an outcome that just seemed completely unearned. It could have been about one person’s manipulation tactics, and we as an audience could have watched their lies slowly unravel in the form of a tense thriller, but instead everything was revealed right away. It could have been a mystery involving the lead characters discoveries regarding the specifics of what had happened to them and why; we could have rooted for them, and cared about both of their safeties, but that’s not the movie we were given either. They could have heavily played this movie up as an allegory for rape, because that theme was certainly there to be explored and expanded upon…but all of the despicable transgressions of a particular character are completely forgiven by the end.
Passengers is not necessarily a bad film, it’s just depressingly unremarkable. The premise of two characters being stranded together can go so many ways, and this film always seems to choose the most uninteresting ones. When I first saw the trailer, I loved everything about it except one thing; there’s a line spoken by Pratt’s character that says, “There’s something I have to tell you…there’s a reason we woke up early.” This line irritated me to no end; why would you ruin the notion that there is a surprise, or some kind of a twist to your audience BEFORE they see the movie? I know a lot of films have to rely on twist endings and shocking value to sell tickets to their movie; we’ve seen this with almost every M. Night Shyamalan film, and, of course, the iconic marketing for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and more recently Arrival, but Passengers absolutely does not need it, the premise of two people being thrust into this terrible predicament is enough on its own to pique people’s interests. Thanks to the trailers, as I was going into this movie, I was painfully aware there was something shocking that was inevitably going to happen. Is there a twist? No, not really. Everything is revealed. There’s no shocking moment, no discovery, no unforeseen change of events or character…we know everything, and it absolutely ruins the experience, leaving the audience with a movie void of any real drama or tension. It’s gorgeous cinematography and special effects with a bland and predictable two hours of going through the motions.
Chris Pratt plays Jim Preston, a mechanic who boarded the Avalon, a ship on its way to a new planet ready to be colonized by about 6,000 other passengers. Jim’s motivations for boarding the ship and leaving behind the life he once had are simple enough; he wants to feel useful. This new world is going to need people with mechanical skills, and he wants to leave Earth behind and go somewhere where there are problems that need to be solved. Jennifer Lawrence plays Aurora Lane, which is a blatantly obvious allusion to the name of the princess in Sleeping Beauty. Aurora is a writer who feels as if she needs to experience adventure in order to escape the shadows of her Pulitzer Prize winning Father. I don’t buy her motivation; there’s a scene in the movie where Aurora is watching a recording of her friends wishing her off on her voyage; she’s apparently very popular and a lot of people are going to miss her. What kind of an asshole would do that to their friends, family, and loved ones? Are there no more adventures left for her to go on Earth? Climb a mountain, go on some kind of spiritual retreat, don’t just go and blast off into space where you’ll never get to see your friends and family again! I’d understand if her character had some kind of tragedy she was running from, or a shady past she was trying to escape, you know? Something. This didn’t work for me, and I found the character completely unappealing for the rest of the movie.
Jim and Aurora eventually begin a relationship together, complete with a montage of all the cool things you can do on the ship; they play a futuristic version of Dance Central, eat extravagant meals, play futuristic basketball, swim in a pool overlooking the vastness of space, and they cruise up close next to a star. We’re then bombarded with boring love scenes that aren’t sexy or provocative, they just come off as awkward. I can buy these two characters as buddies, or even survivors banding together to solve their predicament, but when their relationship escalates it’s borderline nauseating. I feel like these two characters have no chemistry, or maybe it’s just the actors? I’m uncertain; all I know is that it was painful for me to watch.
Michael Sheen plays Arthur, an android bartender who is an obvious homage to Lloyd the bartender from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; Sheen has confirmed this was done intentionally. Michael Sheen is fantastic in almost all of his roles, and this is no different. Arthur’s inability to grasp certain human concepts and questions was really interesting to watch, and Sheen played it with the required balance of sterility and charm. Arthur, and more importantly Michael Sheen’s performance, is hand’s down the highlight of the film for me.
Jim and Aurora’s relationship is interrupted by the reveal of a twist…a twist the audience was privy to from the beginning. Again, I couldn’t help thinking how much more awesome this could have been if it was hidden from the audience too. It wouldn’t have been a groundbreaking reveal, and maybe even a majority of the audience might have guessed it, but it would have been more impactful if we’d had been kept in the dark just like one of the characters was. This is yet another instance of the film dropping the ball when it comes to setting up something compelling and different, but instead opting for something safe and dull. One thing that does come from their ”break-up” is an amusing way the two share Arthur; it’s comparable to a divorced couple having custody of a child.
The rest of the film devolves into a race against time. Laurence Fishburne pops up as Gus Mancuso, part of Avalon’s crew which was protected and isolated due to protocol on the ship. He wakes up and breathes a much-needed breath of life into what was quickly becoming a very tiresome movie. Again, this opens up an opportunity for something really cool and interesting: if we were going the route where this big secret hadn’t already been exposed, we could have Gus discover it for himself. There’s various ways this could have been played out; does he sympathize with the culprit? Does he try and bring them down or lock them in the ship’s brig? Is he horrified? Understanding? Would he threaten to tell the other person? These are all compelling hypotheticals, but ultimately the twist is just as arbitrarily exposited to Gus as it was to the audience, and it has almost no impact on the characters or story whatsoever.
The third act of Passengers has some exciting stuff to it, admittedly. The ship starts to malfunction, and it’s a tad bit menacing. It starts slow; a cereal dispenser goes on the fritz, cleaning robots start spazzing out, etc. Then more serious things happen which pose major endangerment to our characters. It’s scary, visually pleasing, and you begin to sort of feel for the characters and their situation, but then it’s all ruined in one of the biggest cop out endings I can remember in recent memory. It’s so cliché’ in the way it’s written, shot, and acted that it should be banned from happening in any film ever again. We’ve seen it in The Avengers, we’ve seen it in all three of the Matrix films, and pretty much every single Disney movie ever made…it makes one character’s sacrifice and redemption completely pointless and void of stakes. It could have ended on such a high note, but instead it whimpers out.
Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are serviceable in their performances, but the story fails them constantly. Their characters are both despicable and flawed, and nothing they do in the movie redeems them for me. The visuals and special effects are beautiful and engaging, but it’s not nearly up to par with something like Avatar where the weak story, ridiculous dialogue, and plot are forgivable because of the immersive world you fall deep into. The stylistic setting and cool futuristic aesthetics are not enough to save this sinking ship from its holes in logic and monotony. I believe there was a great movie hidden in Passengers behind a long list of “could-ofs” and “should-ofs”. The choices that the story ended up taking often made no sense and left me completely unsatisfied. I believe Science Fiction is at its greatest when it forces you to ask questions, relate to things you wouldn’t normally find yourself relating to, and offering something different from normal storytelling; this film had one ethical question to ask, but it’s quickly swept under the rug by a pointless love story. We have two main characters that I can’t relate to at all, and the story is incredibly basic, complete with a painfully generic ending sequence. Maybe there was something more to the movie, and this is all the result of studio tampering? I honestly don’t know, but as is, Passengers worst crime is being average with a premise ridiculously ripe with potential.
Passengers (2016) Directed by: Morten Tyldum. Written by: Jon Spaihts. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
6 out of 10