Despite its two stars, Passengers is one of the biggest disappointments of the holiday movie season.
Warning: Important parts of the story that are spoilers are discussed in this review. Spoilers are clearly marked, so they can be avoided while reading the rest of this review. But if you don’t think you can skip them, you may want to come back after seeing Passengers.
You wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking that a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt stands a chance of being pretty good. And what if that movie puts Lawrence and Pratt in outer space? We like outer space. We’ve even already seen Pratt in space as Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy. Spaceships are cool. The future in science fiction almost always looks promising.
Unfortunately, Passengers doesn’t follow through on what looks like a sure hit. Lawrence and Pratt are two of our most appealing current movie stars, and they portray their roles as well as expected. Pratt’s Jim Preston is funny, manly, dashing and surprisingly vulnerable. Lawrence’s Aurora Lane — despite her character’s name — is smart, tough, feisty and sexy. The two leads have great chemistry, which has been apparent throughout their promotional appearances for the film.
The film’s premise is also fascinating. In the future, a company called Homestead has created colonies on other planets, allowing people to escape an overpopulated Earth and create a new life for themselves. Travel to the new colony via the starship Avalon takes 120 years, with the crew and passengers kept in suspended animation until four months before reaching their destination. After waking up, the spaceship essentially becomes an intergalactic cruise ship with virtually every sort of amusement you could imagine, which also includes going out into space to get a view you’ll never see any place else. But what happens if someone is woken from their slumber far too early, like 90 years too early, with a giant spaceship all to himself?
The first act of Passengers is basically Cast Away in space and provides an intriguing study into what would happen if a person lived for more than a year in complete isolation. Preston’s only interaction is with an android bartender (Michael Sheen) whose programming isn’t quite equipped to deal with someone slowly losing his grip on reality because he has no people to talk to and trying to cope with the reality that he will die alone while trapped on a spaceship. The new life he envisioned for himself will never happen and couldn’t be further (or farther) out of reach.
Preston is a mechanical engineer, which gives him the skill set to attempt to fix his problem. But the hibernation pods were never meant to be used again once they’ve been opened (and it’s pointed out that the passengers are put asleep in another facility.) His vocation that is considered necessary for a new colony and thus has granted him access to an opportunity he could never afford on his own. One of the more intriguing undertones of the story is the class separation that exists on the Avalon. Even though the other 4,999 passengers are still in suspended animation, the socioeconomic structure is held in place by the computers on the ship.
For instance, Preston can’t have any of the fancy espresso drinks with his breakfast, which are meant for the wealthier guests. The computer menu will only let him drink black coffee. Oh, and he’s only allowed to eat what appears to be a giant Rice Krispies Treat (which presumably has more nutrition, especially given Pratt’s physical shape). Yet he’s also allowed to dine on sushi, so maybe the economic class restrictions only apply to breakfast? Or perhaps only to the cafeteria, not the other gourmet restaurants and creature comforts that the Avalon has provided for its guests. (Or maybe that’s an inconsistency which neither screenwriter Jon Spaihts nor director Morten Tyldum considered.)
This leads Passengers into dark territory which the trailers and marketing don’t exactly hint toward. As you could surely imagine, spending so much forced time alone would eventually mess with one’s mind. (Even introverts occasionally go to where other people congregate, just to acknowledge the existence of other people.) Preston lets his hair grow into a mangy tangle and develops an impressive exile beard. Men love to grow their trauma beards. (He apparently stays in good physical shape by constantly trying to smash down the impregnable door to the cockpit and flight crew quarters.)
When pushed to the brink of sanity, faced with a lifetime of isolation and loneliness, people would conceivably be pushed to make decisions they would never consider under normal circumstances. This is territory that Passengers flirts with exploring, but doesn’t take that path as far as it could — or should — go. Maybe Pratt wouldn’t be the ideal actor for a character study like that. But he would also be an intriguing choice, since he’s a lovable personality who’s charming and funny, in addition to a burgeoning action hero. Like how could Pratt get us to dislike him? That would be a much different movie than the adventure/thriller in space that trailers and commercials advertised. However, since Passengers isn’t the movie that’s being sold to prospective audiences, maybe it should have gone in that direction anyway.
All right, you should skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want one of Passengers‘ story developments ruined for you. I try really hard not to spoil movies when I review them, but in this case, I feel like it’s impossible to say what really bothered me most without going into this territory. You have been warned. Don’t read the two paragraphs that follow the embedded video clip. We’ll let you know when it’s safe to begin reading again.
** SPOILER WARNING **
Passengers has sold itself as a love story in which two travelers have found themselves in a similar situation of isolation and have to solve the mystery of what happened to wake them out of suspended animation. But that’s not what happens here at all. As it turns out, Preston discovers Aurora in her hibernation pod while goofing around, falling in love with her based on her looks and what he’s learned about her in the profile each of the passengers provides. Consumed by loneliness, terrified of dying alone, and infatuated with the fantasy that he’s created in his mind, Preston decides to wake Aurora out of her 120-year slumber so he has someone to be with.
Though the movie up until this point has gotten us to like Preston and sympathize with his plight, it’s a horrifying decision that has essentially stolen another person’s life. It’s one of the most selfish choices imaginable. There’s nothing romantic about it. To be fair, Preston does agonize over the decision and realizes what he wants to do. Presumably, we’re supposed to understand where he’s coming from and might make a similar choice if confronted with the same situation. But it could certainly be argued that Preston ultimately is not punished for what he does, and that could turn off many people. Personally, I was never able to get past this.
** END OF SPOILERS **
I understand that Sony Pictures doesn’t want to give away a big story development in trailers, although that’s been done for plenty of other movies. Yet the movie that Passengers is selling to people is quite different from what is actually provided to the audience, and it feels like audiences are being deliberately deceived, rather than having a compelling story twist kept from them for their own enjoyment.
Yes, it’s a love story, but not that one you’re led to believe you might see. Maybe there’s a bit of mystery here, but it’s not the driving part of the narrative that trailers indicate. Why were Preston and Aurora woken up? Is there some kind of conspiracy or scheme happening? That really isn’t resolved in a satisfactory manner. And it also seems like a decision may have been made during production to cut storylines and characters out along the way, perhaps changing the story drastically. If not, Andy Garcia hopefully got a nice payday for the shortest day of work he’s ever had on a film. If that’s the case, his agent should be commended. He is barely in this movie. Seriously.
The only way I can ever imagine watching Passengers again is if it were in a different language. I noticed photos on Getty Images of Chris Pratt’s press tour to promote the film in Mexico, where the title was translated into Pasajeros. If the title had been Pasajeros (or something like that) for all audiences throughout the world, that might have made the movie more intriguing. Maybe what happens in this story would make more sense if it was presented in a language that viewers didn’t understand. I think I’d enjoy it more that way.
Some people might like this just because of Lawrence and Pratt. (I’d enjoy seeing these two together in a different movie.) However, I’m guessing most will wish they had been shot into outer space about halfway through.