There’s a shortage of original science fiction at the movie theaters these days. It’s not that there aren’t talented writers working on outlandish tales that take place on the outskirts of our imaginations, but that most big budget features are driven by preexisting properties, like Star Wars or Star Trek. The latest film from director Morten Tydlum from an original script by Jon Spaihts, Passengers, is an original sci-fi movie with a unique and interesting premise. For every aspect of Passengers that is interesting is a storytelling decision that undermines the story in a wildly uneven piece of storytelling that especially unravels towards its unimaginative conclusion.
The spaceship Avalon is 30 years into its 120-year journey to Homestead II, a planet that has been colonized by humans and the Homestead Company which runs the Avalon. The ship’s crew and its passengers are in hibernation for the duration of the lengthy journey to this brave new world. However, a malfunction has awoken Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) early, and the mechanic is 90 years away from his destination with no one to talk to aside from the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) and nothing to look forward to except his eventual death before the awakening of the rest of the ship. A year passes, Jim is grizzled and depressed but finds some comfort in looking at the history of passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), an author who is abandoning her affluent life on Earth to find a new story to tell on another planet. The solitude that haunts Jim drives him to a strikingly immoral decision to awaken Aurora and pass it off as another malfunction. He does and the two quickly form a friendship that blossoms into a romance despite the fact that the dark, twisted truth hangs over their relationship. On top of it all, the Avalon is in the midst of an escalating number of malfunctions meaning that the relationship between Jim and Aurora isn’t the only thing that’s defective.
The opening scenes of Passengers are fascinating, creating a new world where space colonization is an industry. This is compounded by the mounting loneliness and madness that takes hold of Jim. But then the movie loses its grip on the story and becomes a series of wrongheaded storytelling decisions that unwind every interesting aspect of Passengers. There’s little to flesh out the world beyond the spaceship, which would be fine but it can’t overcome the fact that the central decision of the movie is Jim selfishly taking Aurora from her hibernation, a choice that will result in her eventual death on the spaceship. It makes the central relationship of Passengers one that is irreparably creepy despite the fact that it wants to make it a love conquers all story by the film’s conclusion.
Every decision that doesn’t pan out in Passengers reaches a head in the film’s final act, which is about as underwhelming as it can get. The reason that the ship is malfunctioning is explained and inspires a reaction that can only be summed up by uttering “That’s it?” Then it becomes a generic race against time that operates without suspense and basically serves to remove all the ugliness of Jim’s selfish decision as if the two lovers are destined to be together. Tydlum and Spaihts are uninterested in making this a moral quandary, consistently opting for the simplest forms of reconciliation that erase any traces of ethical shading that make up the film’s central choice.
As seems to be an issue with this winter’s movies, the standout character of Passengers is Michael Sheen’s android bartender. He provides the film with most of its comic relief and often shows more personality than the film’s human characters. Pratt has his moments where he’s able to bring a bit of his natural charms to the forefront, but the fact that he’s solely responsible for Aurora’s plight makes the character wholly unlikable despite any selfless acts that may occur later. Meanwhile, Aurora is a half-baked character that doesn’t often make sense. She’s a successful writer who is leaving behind a life on Earth to live on Homestead II for a year before returning to Earth to write her story about space colonization. Her round trip would mean she returns to Earth 250 years later. It doesn’t seem like a well-thought out plan to get a story. There are moments of chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence, but never the level of heat that the film is intended for and the film’s central premise hangs over their relationship in such a disturbing manner that even when it’s consensual it still feels like a form of sexual assault.
Passengers is a movie that starts out intriguing enough before descending towards some of the creepiest storytelling decisions in a long time but with a desperate need to somehow justify the unjustifiable. A few tweaks here and there in the scripting process could’ve potentially saved Passengers from itself and actually found the deeper moralistic lessons that the story demands, but Tydlum and Spaihts never even seem interested in those lessons. Time and time again, Passengers proves itself more interested in being adrift in space rather than exploring the human topics at the heart of its story.
An original sci-fi movie, Passengers starts out with some intriguing ideas before taking a turn towards the ultra-creepy with a space romance that is as misguided as the film’s lackluster final act.