Despite decent chemistry between the leads and a fascinating concept, Passengers is a bland, unsatisfying sci-fi story that fails to connect.
At an unspecified point in the future, 5,000 passengers leave an overpopulated Earth aboard the starship Avalon, embarking on a 120-year voyage to colonize the new planet Homestead II and give humanity a fresh start on another world. Thirty years into this journey, the ship begins to experience system malfunctions, and two passengers - Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) - awake from their hibernation pods long before anyone else. Coming to the harrowing realization that they will spend the rest of their lives alone together on the Avalon, Jim and Aurora attempt to make the best of their situation, forming a connection and befriending the ship's robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen).
Unfortunately for the two, the Avalon continuously suffers numerous breakdowns and failures, which puts the ship (and the thousands of other passengers) at great risk. With the ship on the verge of destruction, Jim and Aurora have to figure out a way to repair the damage in order to save everyone else so the others can reach Homestead II safely.
After lingering in development for years, Passengers is arriving on the heels of some successful space-survival films such as Gravity and The Martian. The hope here was that an interesting premise combined with the skill sets of Pratt and Lawrence would lead to a compelling adventure that blends style with healthy amounts of substance. However, this is far from the case. Despite decent chemistry between the leads and a fascinating concept, Passengers is a bland, unsatisfying sci-fi story that fails to connect.
Many of the film's problems lie in the script written by Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange). There isn't much to the narrative, and the film is plagued by pacing issues throughout. The first act is somewhat rushed as director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) hurries through to get Pratt and Lawrence together - yet when the two are on-screen, there really isn't anywhere for the story to go. The middle of the movie meanders and drags along, turning what should be a fun rom-com into a boring slog. The rather thin characterizations factor into this as well, since neither of the two principal figures are all that complex. There are attempts to flesh out both Jim and Aurora on a surface level, which helps a little, but that can't make up for the other shortcomings in the screenplay. As a result, the movie feels longer than it is, since there's little driving the tension until things pick back up in the end.
Passengers also toys with some moral and ethical questions that sound intriguing on-paper, but are ultimately poorly executed on-screen. Certain themes are touched upon, and the creative team deserves some credit for taking a risk with a big-budget film, yet it doesn't pay off in the end. Some moviegoers will be unable to look past the multitude of issues it brings up, which makes the entire endeavor feel uncomfortable. Spaihts also fails to fully develop these core concepts (which are integral to the narrative), meaning key emotional beats are unearned as the film builds to a problematic and messy conclusion. The potential was there for captivating sci-fi drama, but Passengers is unsettling and doesn't command the audience's attention as intended.
The script is a hurdle Passengers can't get past, but the other departments definitely give it their all. Tyldum is making quite a leap with this feature, as it serves as the directorial followup to his mid-budget war drama The Imitation Game. Tyldum and his production design team (spearheaded by Guy Hendrix Dyas) do a good job of crafting the world of the Avalon. The movie takes place entirely in the ship, but it never feels small scale. The filmmakers make the most of the one location, building a place reminiscent of a futuristic high-end cruise ship with various luxuries for Jim and Aurora to enjoy. Passengers is not as dependent on visual effects as some other sci-fi works of the past, but when they're called for, they deliver the spectacle (in particular, a zero-gravity sequence in a swimming pool). Granted, the eye candy doesn't make up for the storytelling deficiencies, but Passengers looks very nice on the big screen. It is also playing in 3D, but the premium format is not necessarily required - save for perhaps a pair of space walk scenes.
As expected, Pratt and Lawrence do make for a likable pair and have solid chemistry with one another. The second act is where the romantic element starts to take shape, and the two use their charm to play off each other in a manner that feels natural. In terms of performances, both get the job done, but the two have also done better work in other projects. Pratt gets the more layered character, carrying Passengers for stretches while also showcasing his action hero chops. On the flip side, Lawrence doesn't have a whole lot to do as Aurora besides serve as the love interest. The Oscar winner tries to elevate what's on the page, but Aurora ultimately is not all that interesting, and her motivations and actions are more for the service of the story than realistic. The supporting cast is understandably small here, though Sheen shines as Arthur the android in a role that's an obvious callback to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Arthur is quite possibly the most memorable character and the actor has fun playing him - offering words of advice and companionship for his weary human friends.
In the end, Passengers had all the makings of the next great sci-fi movie, but it ultimately cannot deliver on that promise. If the core idea (and main catalyst of the story) was handled in another way, the movie could have been a thought-provoking piece that challenged viewers instead of the flawed tale it turned out to be. Viewers who took to the marketing may still be inclined to check it out, but those looking for a venture into space this holiday season would be better served seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and waiting for Passengers to hit home media.
Passengers is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 116 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity, and action/peril.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments!
- Passengers (2016) release date: Dec 21, 2016
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