Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishbone, Aurora Perrineau, Jamie Soricelli, Kimberly Battista
Runtime: 1 hr 56 mins
Rating: PG13 (Scenes of Intimacy)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 22 December 2016
Synopsis: A spacecraft ravelling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in one of its sleep chambers. As a result, a single passenger is awakened 60 years early. Faced with the prospect of growing old and dying alone, he eventually decides to wake up a second passenger.
‘Passengers’ wants to sell you a romance between two passengers prematurely woken up from hibernation while on a 120-year journey on board the luxury interstellar spaceship Avalon bound for a distant colony planet. Whereas they are supposed to wake only four months before, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer from Denver, Colorado, and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer from New York City, find themselves roused only 30 years into their voyage. Alongside their space-set love story is supposedly a mystery about why they were awoken in the first place and how that is tied to the fate of the Avalon at some point in the near future, suggesting therefore a unique twist on the science-fiction genre that recent critical and commercial hits like ‘Gravity’ and ‘The Martian’ have made fashionable all over again.
And yet, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s sophomore English-language feature wants to be even more but ends up being even less. Scripted by rising screenwriter Jon Spaihts (whose credits include Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’, Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ and the upcoming ‘The Mummy’ reboot), it is a film of three related but distinct acts. The first is best described as ‘Castaway’ in space, as an outsized meteor hit causes Jim’s pod to malfunction and jolt its subject back to consciousness. Jim doesn’t suspect anything amiss at first, following dutifully a hologram greeter’s instructions to his room and thereafter to an orientation briefing – only when no one else shows up does he realise the predicament that he is in. After trying but failing to call for help or put himself back to deep sleep, Jim is resigned to living the rest of his days in solitude, with only an obliging, crimson-jacketed bartender droid named Arthur (Michael Sheen) for company.
Unlike Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland, Jim has a choice (in fact, 5,000 of them) and he decides to exercise one on Aurora. Oh yes, faced with the prospect of living out the rest of his days alone and the certainty of death before the Avalon even reaches its destination, Jim commits the selfish act of reviving the girl he has been obsessing over – not only does he sit by her pod from time to time, he reads all the books she’s written and watches videos of her. Thus begins the middle act, which plays out as a series of meet-cute encounters between a man and a woman who are forced to live with a diminished horizon but whose mutual company allows them to focus on the here and now. Pratt and Lawrence share such radiant chemistry that their potentially clunky exchanges – such as one where he tells her that he is giving her space and she responds that it is the one thing she does not need more of – are no less than charming repartee that is simply delightful to watch.
But that is not quite enough justification for us to forget Jim’s unethical deed, and there is an inevitable expectation that the last act will address just that. Alas, there is little intention on the part of the filmmakers to explore that moral complexity in depth; as far as it is willing to go is for Aurora to demonstrate her horror and disgust at what Jim had done and work out a routine that will allow her to avoid Jim. Rather than give Jim and Aurora the time and (well) space to sort out their philosophically thorny situation, both are forced into a deus-ex-machina where the ship’s systems start faltering with increasing severity, such that they have no choice but to work together to save each other and the rest of the passengers. It is also at this point that Jim and Aurora are joined all too briefly by another accidentally reawakened passenger Gus (Lawrence Fishburne), a crew member who helps the couple figure out what is wrong with the ship.
By this time, what began as a one-person show that evolved into a two-hander has become a standard-issue action adventure – and indeed it is no surprise that the fate of the Avalon as well as that of its 5000 passengers and 255 crew members rests in the hands of Jim and Aurora. Tyldum is not blockbuster-material, so despite a finale paced like the climax of a ‘Star Trek’ movie, it isn’t nearly as exciting. Worse still, because it is trapped within the confines of a love story, the ending feels sugar-coated to satisfy die-hard romantics who would cry foul at a less-than-happy conclusion. Even though the epilogue tries to give Jim the chance to redeem himself for essentially dooming Aurora to death on the ship, it comes off ultimately forced and insincere, inadvertently serving as reminder of the compelling questions at its premise’s core that were glossed over.
Visually though, ‘Passengers’ is undeniably attractive, in large part due to Guy Hendrix Dyas’s sleek and stylish production design. The spidery double helix-like shaped Avalon traversing through space is in itself a sight to behold, and even more its interiors of shopping complexes, basketball courts, Gold Class suites and observatories. Unfortunately, Tyldum is not quite imaginative enough to push the genre forward, as evinced from Jim’s dull suspense-free spacewalks; in fact, there is but one memorable sequence in the entire movie, based on a swimming pool freed from gravity that causes its water to rise like aquatic plumes and swallow Aurora within. More than anything, Tyldum is a competent executor who at least ensures that the movie is engaging to watch, though there is a harriedness to the proceedings which undercuts any real dramatic tension or character emotion.
Most significantly, the film’s flaws lie with Spaihts’ over-plotted yet under-developed script that tries to be part outer-space romantic comedy and part science-fiction thriller but comes up short either way. If there is any reason that ‘Passengers’ remains watchable, it is because of Lawrence and Pratt, two of Hollywood’s most talented young actors who possess a golden-age chemistry that is irresistible and irrepressible. Pratt’s leading-man charisma holds the first half-hour together, while Lawrence’s undimmed magnetism infuses warmth, humour and ferocity into the morally questionable setup. As disappointing as this space-set sci-fi romance eventually turns out, Lawrence and Pratt are the only two passengers save this misbegotten mishmash from being lost in space.
(Part ‘Castaway’ in space, part romantic comedy and part sci-fi adventure, ‘Passengers’ is over-plotted and under-developed mishmash that is saved only by Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt’s radiant chemistry)
Review by Gabriel Chong