Passengers is a film that gives us an astounding premise. Chris Pratt is Jim Preston, a mechanic travelling across the galaxy to colonize the planet dubbed Homestead II. Homestead II is so far away from Earth that the journey, one way, takes 120 years to complete and the 5,000 passengers and 283 (or maybe I have some numbers remembered incorrectly and it’s 238, but between 2 and 3 hundred anyway) crew members are placed in hypersleep for the vast majority of the journey, only waking months before arriving at their destination. Due to a ship malfunction, Jim wakes up 90 years too early and is now faced with the certainty of living the rest of his life trapped alone on this ship… unless he wakes someone else up. Since Jennifer Lawrence is also in the film as Aurora Lane, the daughter of a Pulitzer Prize winning author, not to mention features prominently in the marketing and trailers, the choice he makes is not exactly a secret, but the consequences of his decision are the incredibly interesting crux of the first part of the film.
Unfortunately, the second half of the film does not live up to the potential of the rather cerebral morality play hinted at by the incident which drives the story’s early focus and devolves into a rather mundane and wholly unbelievable action movie with an unsatisfying conclusion which sidesteps rather than confronts the moral issues brought up in the earlier parts of the movie. It would seem that either the writer or the producers of Passengers didn’t have faith in the film’s initial premise and decided that a modern audience wouldn’t buy theater seats if they weren’t given over the top action science fiction eventually, and looking at the box office grosses of Arrival versus Rogue One I’m afraid they may be right.
Writing aside, the performances given to us by Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are decent. Lawrence is far better than the practically sleepwalking performance she gave in X-Men: Apocalypse earlier this year, and Pratt is on par with his The Magnificent Seven performance, which was definitely fun if not overly memorable. Laurence Fishburne gives us a memorable if brief performance as the ship’s deck chief Gus, and Michael Sheen is a scene stealer as mechanical bartender Arthur. I have to wonder if there is something to the relatively recent trend of the CGI and otherwise at least partially fake characters in film being some of the best written, acted, and well rounded, though in Arthur we only have the first two.
The art direction team actually did make the most of what couldn’t have been an easy set to put together. Every part of the ship is quite distinct, you know when the characters are in the galley, or the entertainment center, the passenger quarters, or the hibernation rooms, yet it all very much feels like a cold, steel spaceship despite the distinctions. The camera work is adequate, never distracting nor amateurish but never beautiful nor inspirational either. The special effects align with the camera work, functional, but never terribly creative.
Passengers is a movie that had the potential to be the second truly intelligent and complex science fiction story of the 2016 holiday season (the other being Arrival), but instead we have a film that didn’t have the faith to stick to its premise and ultimately pandered to the lowest common denominator, who also won’t appreciate it because of its opening in which action and explosions are totally non-existent. Passengers does have a charming cast, and a premise which is fun to think about, and so is worth seeing eventually, but not worth paying top dollar for on the big screen.
Rating: 5.0 out of 10