'Passengers' Asks, Are You Willing to Ruin Someone Else's Life to Save Your Own?

by J.R. Kinnard

21 December 2016

Passengers raises worthy questions about social arrangements in the future.
 
cover art

Passengers

Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

(Columbia Pictures / Village Roadshow Pictures)
US theatrical: 21 Dec 2016
UK theatrical: 21 Dec 2016
2016

Review [12.May.2009]

Sometimes you just need to get away. For 5,000 passengers aboard the spaceship Avalon, this need seems answered by the promise of adventure—and some reasonably priced real estate on a newly colonized planet called Homestead II. As Passengers begins, they’ve embarked on a 120-year journey, the ship spiraling through the galaxy on auto-pilot to allow the passengers and crew to sleep away their journey in suspended animation. Hopefully, they’ve programmed their DVRs accordingly.

In sci-fi, of course, suspended animation is a conventional way to circumvent the pesky little problem of aging. Sure, the people on the Avalon will wake up with an epic case of morning breath, but at least they’ll still be young and beautiful. Unless… they wake up too soon.

Cut to: Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) waking up 90 years too soon!

A dazzling meteor shower has pummeled the ship, disabling critical systems that trigger a premature end to Jim’s nappy time. Understandably distressed when he discovers he’s the only one awake, Jim passes through several stages of emotional turmoil, including “fear”, “grief”, and “self-indulgence”. Pratt is the perfect actor for this type of material. He can switch between playfulness and desperation with the arch of an eyebrow. After skulking around the ship wearing nothing but a Grizzly Adams beard and a smile, Jim accepts the reality that he will die alone. Unless… he awakens another passenger.

Cut to: Jim waking up Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence)!

Jim’s decision to wake her comes after some deliberation, as well as some examination of her digitized history and cursory consultation with the ship’s android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen). Still, the decision seems a rash one and, once made, it troubles Jim and provides the tantalizing moral dilemma at the center of Passengers. Director Morten Tyldum (who previously made The Imitation Game) wants to know if you’re willing to ruin someone else’s life in order to save your own.

As context for this question, Tyldum and screenwriter Jon Spaihts cram plenty of Biblical subtext into the first act, with Jim’s “Adam” determined to create a paradise for Aurora’s “Eve”. Jim even plants a tree at the center of the Avalon to stand in as their Garden of Eden. These are the types of flourishes that make for good science fiction and world-building.

Passengers, however, is not good science fiction. Rather, it epitomizes what Hollywood gets wrong about the genre. For all its amazing visuals, terrific premise, and about two-thirds of a compelling story, it lapses in its final third into the kind of mindless action dreck that negates the good stuff preceding it.

Everything that’s impressive about Passengers before this point boils down to its convincing technology, Oscar-caliber special effects, and subtle satire. That tech starts with, perhaps, the most impressive cinematic spaceship ever conceived. The Avalon is an elegant beast, its living and engineering areas ensnared by a spinning coil that resembles The Machine from Robert Zemeckis’ Contact. It feels impossibly large, yet also sleek and convincing.

The set designs are equally impressive, harkening back to some of Ken Adam’s super-villains’ lairs from the Bond series. Tyldum uses on-screen space to amplify Jim’s desolation just as surely as he creates breathtakingly endless vistas. He also films the best zero-gravity water shenanigans since Ren Höek took an insane floating bubble bath in The Ren & Stimpy Show

The movie also raises worthy questions about social arrangements in the future. If you thought you could escape classism in space, think again. Much of the film’s humor and sarcastic edge reside in the divides established amongst the passengers. Poor Jim nurses his black coffee and protein bar while the wealthy Aurora indulges an artery-busting breakfast and a coffee confection that would tongue-tie a Starbucks barista. The wisecracking Arthur is programmed with demographically appropriate banter.

Another sort of hierarchy is more troublesome once the ship is damaged, however. To ward off sabotage, the ship also institutes multiple guards against passengers entering the bridge, where they might, for instance, steer or repair the ship.

Passengers abandons these potential obstacles once it starts searching for an emotional crescendo. It’s not content to nurture Jim’s relationship with Aurora, or build toward her soul-crushing discovery that he awakened her. Lawrence is forced to do much of the heavy lifting here, which includes sobbing uncontrollably and distracting herself in order to ignore Jim’s pleas for reconciliation. She does a passable job, but these scenes work against the capable, self-reliant character we’ve come to expect from Lawrence.

Even worse, the final act reeks of studio manipulation. The slow burn that so effectively moves the plot forward in the early part of Passengers is abandoned for breakneck and clumsy action. You can almost hear a producer in a darkened screening room snarling, “All this lovey-dovey stuff is great, but where’s the action?”

When the action does begin, it’s laughably bad. Like, B-movie, shlock-fest bad. The peril is ill-defined and the solutions come much too quickly for characters who can’t possibly understand the physics involved. They become hell-bent on sacrificing themselves through acts of bravery that make no sense (and are physically impossible). For those who found the ending of Armageddon too understated, Passengers is the movie for you.

This could have been so easily avoided. The box office success of Arrival proves that audiences are hungry for smart science fiction. They want believable characters in extraordinary situations. Here, we have the current generation’s most likable actor in Pratt, and the most bankable actress in Lawrence. We spend an hour coming to know their characters and care about their relationship, only to be drowned in a cacophony of explosions and stupidity. Passengers is one of the most disappointing misses of 2016.

Passengers

Rating:

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