‘Passengers’ Review: The Grossest Movie Premise of 2016?
Imagine, you’ve given up your life on Earth, paid a ton of money to take a 120-year-long nap, and when you wake up you’ll start over on a brand new planet without having aged a day. Now imagine something goes wrong and you accidentally wake up early. You’re stuck on a ship that can’t return to Earth and won’t reach its destination before you die. What do you do?
That’s one heck of a premise, and an especially appealing one in light of so many action sci-fi thrillers about survival in the face of impossible odds. (Gravity, The Martian). It’s that premise that sets Passengers apart from those other films, and also what makes it one of the most troublesome movies in recent years.
Passengers had everything going for it: Two of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the form of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, glossy futuristic visuals, romance, and a twisty sci-fi concept from Jon Spaiths (Prometheus, Doctor Strange.) But Passengers isn’t about two people who get woken up at random and fall in love amid the stars, as the advertising suggests. The big “twist,” which happens about 20 minutes in but I’m giving you a SPOILER ALERT for anyway, is that Pratt’s mechanic Jim Preston wakes up Lawrence’s journalist Aurora Lane against her will.
After a malfunction wakes Jim 90 years too early, he spends a year alone on the ship. The 4,999 other passengers and 500 crew members are still fast asleep, Jim can’t get his pod to put him back into hibernation and the only other person he has to talk to is Michael Sheen’s robot bartender Arthur. In one sequence that’s practically Cast Away in space, Jim grows a beard, wears dirty raggedy clothes, and slowly begins to lose his mind from loneliness and isolation. He even contemplates suicide. But then he sees Aurora.
It’s no mistake Lawrence’s journalist shares a name with the sleeping Disney princess. But she’s no damsel in distress, and unlike Sleeping Beauty she went to sleep by choice. Jim fawns over Aurora and becomes obsessed. He hacks the ship’s computer to watch her recruitment videos over and over and he eats his cereal beside her pod each morning. (Yes, this is as creepy as it sounds.) Jim finally decides to wake Aurora up, staging it as another ship malfunction. But remember: Waking her up means she’ll never make it to the colony planet either.
Aurora proceeds to fall in love with Jim, because what else are you going do on a ship with only one other person? But the film also keeps insisiting Jim is so sweet and charming regardless of the fact that he selfishly took a life for his own pleasure. Much of the second act plays like a love story out of a B-grade rom-com. Aurora and Pratt dance in a virtual reality DDR game. They rip each other’s clothes off and have sex in swanky bedrooms. They go on dates, gaze at passing fireballs, and make the most of their private hell. But Aurora doesn’t know Jim has basically murdered her. That’s not me being dramatic, either; that’s what she accuses Jim of when she finally discovers his big secret.
Passengers goes from having a clever premise to an unethical one that romanticizes stalking in a Stockholm Syndrome love story, and somehow the ending is even worse than everything that comes before it. But the problems go way beyond the story. Director Morten Tyldum wastes his two lead actors, whose onscreen connection feels more like smart branding than believable storytelling. Spaihts’ dialogue could use some work too. When Jim says he wants to give Aurora some space she quips back, “Space! The one thing I don’t need more of.”
At least Tyldum (The Imitation Game) photographs the handful of action sequences well. In one, Aurora goes for a nighttime swim and get trapped inside a sphere of water when the ship reverts to zero gravity. The sequences outside the ship that find Pratt and Lawrence floating in space suits look good too. (That is, if you can stomach the painfully on-the-nose Imagine Dragons song they’re scored to.) Sheen also lends his scenes some humor, and Laurence Fishburne does his best to build a minor role into something that comes close to heartfelt.
If Passengers was about two people who woke up at random and fell in love, it could be a pretty decent sci-fi adventure. Instead it suggests that consent doesn’t matter, codes stalking as romance, and lionizes its male lead while turning its female character into a love-sick damsel. Spaihts wrote this script all the way back in 2007; it’s hard not to wonder if the subtext is the reason it’s taken such a long time for it to make it to the big screen — or if this should have been made in the first place. If you want smart sci-fi this holiday season, go see Arrival.