Get ready for a bumpy ride.
By Louis Balzani
Posted 8:03 pm on Dec 29, 2016
WATCH THIS IF:
- You like watching Chris Pratt or Jennifer Lawrence do what they do.
- You’re in the mood for an undemanding, romantic action movie.
WARNING: Plot spoilers for Passengers follow. Read at your own risk.
Big-budget science fiction is so in right now. For the past few years, Hollywood has gifted us thought-provoking, edge-of-your-seat thrill rides in the form of films like Gravity and Interstellar, and the bar for this genre has never been higher. In the face of all that comes Passengers, a journey through space that promises action, romance and intrigue with two of Hollywood’s biggest stars front and center. Unfortunately, though it builds a interesting world, the film never achieves the greatness it was so clearly capable of.
With its crew and thousands of passengers in cryo-sleep, the starship Avalon heads toward a distant planet to help ease the overcrowding of Earth. Mechanic Jim Preston awakens with 90 years to go in the Avalon’s journey, which gives him plenty of time to explore the ship and fall into despair. Along the way, he develops a relationship with fellow passenger Aurora Lane, and the two are eventually tasked with fixing the ship’s sudden and catastrophic problems before everyone aboard dies.That’s about it, really. Passengers tells a straightforward tale about the adventures of two people on a really big spaceship. There’s only four characters to be concerned about: Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence’s protagonists, Michael Sheen as a charismatic robot bartender, and Lawrence Fishburne as what basically amounts to a human plot device. There’s no complicated plot, no mind-bending mysteries, no grand monologues about mankind’s place in the universe. In fact, there’s really only one narrative wrinkle I didn’t see coming; though the marketing suggests otherwise, Jim actually wakes Aurora up himself by sabotaging her hibernation pod.
That big twist does inject some intrigue into the story, but it also rubbed many people the wrong way. In essence, Jim condemns Aurora to die on the Avalon simply because he’s lonely and he likes her. Of course, Aurora finds out what he did and justifiably loses her mind, and of course they get back together once the obligatory action-filled climax resolves itself. Contrary to the internet’s belief, this is not some broad statement on female submissiveness or mankind’s moral shortcomings; it’s the result of a thin plot struggling to bring the film to a satisfying conclusion. It would be easy to infer that Passengers promotes the objectification of women or that Jim’s decision is justified, but it never achieves the depth necessary to make such inferences valid.The film’s main problem, in fact, is that it lacks depth pretty much everywhere that matters. The Avalon looks amazing, hurtling through space toward the greatest colony in the universe, but we never learn about its history or its secrets. The all-too-brief ending conveys the film’s only concrete takeaway by urging viewers to make the most of the cards they’re dealt in life, advice that rings painfully tone-deaf if you come down on Aurora’s side of the conflict. The film spends a lot of time introducing us to the ship and its digital caretakers, but without the backstory necessary to give them purpose, it all takes a backseat to an interstellar love story that doesn’t always work. There are so many good ideas kicking around here, and the world Passengers creates is really quite intriguing; it’s a shame that the story doesn’t spend more time exploring all of this.
If anything, it’s even more of a letdown because the film’s presentation is excellent. Standout set design gives the Avalon a very distinct look and feel; it’s an upscale, resort-like ship that’s somehow intimately comfortable, imposingly mechanical, and crushingly isolated all at the same time. A rich, emotive score from the ultra-talented Thomas Newman gives the whole film more weight and emotion, sometimes where there would otherwise be none. Clear and sharp cinematography captures the Avalon, its amenities, and even the cold depths of space in attractive ways. All of these design elements are focused, cohesive, and they work very well in tandem with each other.That, perhaps, is what’s most frustrating about Passengers. The narrative is weak, but everything else around it works so well. It does its job in telling a simple story, and it’s certainly pretty to look at, but there’s little to keep you coming back for more; by the end of it, I wished I was more invested in why I was watching. That said, Passengers is not a bad film, and you certainly won’t be wasting your time by seeing it, but I doubt you’ll feel the need to schedule repeat viewings. It’s effortlessly watchable, but only sporadically enjoyable.