Starring: Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), Michael Sheen (TRON: Legacy), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), Andy Garcia (Ocean’s Eleven)
Director: Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
Writer: Jon Spaihts (Prometheus)
Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes
Release Date: 21 December (US, UK)
In Hollywood, it’s almost a given that if your story world is high concept, requiring lavish production assets and a lot of visual effects, then you’re going to have to big on spectacle and stakes too. However, this can often get in the way of the true core of the movie, and nowhere is this more obvious than in Passengers. The film is getting a tough time with the critics for numerous reasons and I can see why, but there is a lot of great material here being held down by an unnecessary need to go big.
The film has a solid premise from the very start, and in the first half it really shines when it focuses on the human drama of the situation. Jim (Pratt) is alone for much of the first act and runs the gamut of emotions as he deals with his isolation in a very Groundhog Day-like way. There is a lot of heavy exposition dumping during this section but it’s lampshaded well enough and the fun of watching Pratt live alone on this massive spaceship indulging himself more than makes us for it. Once Aurora (Lawrence) and the central conundrum of their relationship comes into play, the film poses an interesting moral question in a mostly compelling way and it evolves from watching someone alone dealing with this situation to watching two people trying to make the best of it and learning to love each other regardless. When Passengers is entirely focused on this, it’s actually a really sweet and absorbing human story. The question the film poses and the direction the characters take it is one many might see as having worrying connotations, but the film doesn’t shy away from those concerns and the character building done up to that point helps to justify those troublesome choices.
However, without wanting to spoil anything, the film begins to fall apart around the halfway point after a key character revelation. It’s an inevitable moment but the reveal just comes out of nowhere, causing what should be a really devastating point in the relationship between these characters to feel undeserved. It’s also at this point when the ultimate revelation of what’s happened to the ship is explained and it is incredibly underwhelming. It’s a problem that could have easily been fixed early if not for a series of understandable but still frustrating plot contrivances keeping our characters from doing so, and from there the film leaps into an action climax that brushes away all of the good character building that had been going on up until that point. By the film’s conclusion, the entire third act feels perfunctory and its message would have run just as true, if not better, if it had just stuck to the drama of two people trying to get along instead of the drama of human annihilation.
Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are two of the most charismatic and in-demand actors in Hollywood at this moment, so it was only a matter of time before the two had to work together. As you’d expect, their shared penchant for awkward banter means they have strong romantic chemistry right from the start, but when it comes to the more dramatic elements they also manage to shine too. Pratt is especially good in that secluded first act, showing a depression and vulnerability far removed from the wisecracking goofball we’ve come to love. Lawrence is more than capable too, but a character shift with her in the third act never rings true. It just happens abruptly with no event or character interaction that shows us why she’s changed her mind so suddenly.
Michael Sheen makes for an interesting bit of comic relief as an android barman, functioning in a similar capacity to Kevin Spacey in Moon, but his character doesn’t serve much purpose beyond giving someone Pratt to talk to in the first act and being the bearer of that botched revelation that sends the plot spiralling downwards. Laurence Fishburne comes into the story very late and is effectively a human plot contrivance, entering to explain some important story beats and literally give our characters the key to do everything they could have used to fix this problem ages ago before leaving before we can form any attachment to him. Oh, and Andy Garcia is in the movie for one shot. Not for one scene or one line. Literally one shot. Why?
Passengers presents a believable view of the future through its stark but warm production design. It doesn’t take technology too far into the future in a way that would feel dated in just a few decades, instead amplifying our modern tech in directions they inevitably seem headed in. However, the visual effects used to create them are never fully convincing. Maybe it’s the high-quality sheen everything seems to have even when the ship is in disarray, but too often at points it can feel like the movie takes place on the set of a spaceship instead of an actual spaceship. Thomas Newman’s score is appropriately wondrous and soothing, but anyone with an ear for soundtrack will tell he is aping from a lot of his previous music here; there are moments that I swear are slightly altered copies of tunes from American Beauty, WALL-E and especially Finding Nemo.
Passengers is not the Hollywood disaster the mainstream critics would have you believe, but it is a flawed film hampered under the weight of its scope. It’s a movie that might have actually benefitted without all the high-budget glam, ignoring the action and intrigue that ruin it and instead focus on what it clearly wants to be: a love story. Films like Moon and Looper proved you can do high-concept sci-fi on a low budget without sacrificing much quality, and under those circumstances maybe its best qualities would have risen to the surface. Then again, on a low budget you’d never be able to afford Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence anyway. If you’re at all still curious, give it a watch and judge for yourself.
FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10