Movies

With Scattershot Priorities, Passengers Veers Way Off Course

What does one do when confronted with a lifetime of utter isolation aboard a voyage to a utopia they will never see? It’s an interesting original premise in a Hollywood that’s sorely lacking in them, and with two of the biggest stars as leads and an Oscar-nominated director, it should’ve made for a no-brainer success.

Instead, we get Passengers, which further proves that nothing is supposed to make sense in 2016.

Jim (Chris Pratt) is the first to awaken aboard the Avalon spaceship, greeted by holograms and robots promising an enjoyable home stretch to Homestead II, a colony for people sick of living on the overpopulated planet Earth. But the other 4,999 passengers aboard are still asleep, and will remain so for another 89 years. Jim is alone, with only a charming android bartender (a scene-stealing Michael Sheen) to keep him company. After a year passes, gripped by maddening loneliness and close to suicide, Jim finds another passenger in her pod, the ethereal-looking Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence).

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Yes, Aurora and Jim do not awaken at the same time. He watches her pre-boarding interviews and falls in love. Jim fights the urge to, but fails, choosing to sabotage her pod and force her to share his fate. Of course, she doesn’t know this, and thus, their love story begins. Despite the film’s best efforts, every romantic interaction they share is shaded by Jim’s horrific, selfish deception. Eventually, Aurora learns what Jim did, but the consequences are dwarfed by the ship’s descent towards destruction. The moral, ethical quagmire is shot into the ether in a third act that is random, clichéd and frustrating in how dull it all ends.

The chief problem among many with Passengers is its indecision. Is it an awards season prestige drama, like its release date suggests, or an ill-timed popcorn blockbuster? Does it want to meaningfully engage the psychological trauma that accompanies utter isolation, or the profound implications of damning another person to join in said isolation, or does it just want to watch two attractive stars make out and save themselves from a galactic grave? Morten Tyldum, who was more resolute in his Oscar-nominated direction of The Imitation Game, tries to cram all of these concepts into one glossy blockbuster package, and fails to satisfyingly address any of them.

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Passengers is, ironically and disturbingly, most successful as an old-school romantic star vehicle. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt makes sense as leads, as they are easily the biggest film stars of the moment. Lawrence is an accomplished, bankable awards season darling, with four Oscar nominations and one win to her credit. Pratt has parlayed his rugged, comedic chops into box office gold, leading two box office smashes in three years, Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. As talented as they both are, they operate in distinct lanes, and the film struggles to play against both his affable, everyman charm, and her volatile, dramatic fire.

That said, the two stars do what they can with the baffling contrivances. In his first dramatic role since his superstar ascension, Pratt is quite the surprise, conveying as much existential crisis and dread as the script allows. He plays very well against Lawrence, who dives into Aurora’s horror at her forced circumstance with aplomb. Even with their characters’ thin sketching and the story’s flaws, there is real chemistry, and they would’ve properly sizzled were they free from halfhearted dalliances with ethics and romance born of what is effectively murder.

For a film set in space on a century-long journey to another planet, Passengers is lacking in ambition, wandering aimlessly instead of committing to the ideas it either ignores or undercuts. Even with its nagging potential and likable stars, Passengers may be better lost in space.

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