Film Review: Passengers

A slow-moving, heady twist on the space travel sci-fi subgenre that benefits more from Chris Pratt’s dynamic range than Jennifer Lawrence’s performance.
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The idea of space travel has been a film mainstay going all the way back to the 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon, and that stark image of a spaceship floating through space has been revisited and revised many times, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ridley Scott’s Alien and The Martian and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

In fact, the success of space-travel movies in recent years can probably be credited for the making of Passengers, a high-concept science-fiction film that screenwriter Jon Spaihts spent almost ten years developing before it ended up in the hands of Oscar-nominated director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), with the superstar duo of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as its stars.

On the Starship Avalon, making its 120-year journey to the colony planet Homestead II, the hibernation pod of one Jim Preston (Pratt) malfunctions and opens 90 years too early, leaving him all alone on the giant ship with no company except an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen). After a year on his own, Jim gets lonely, and he decides to open the pod of a woman, author Aurora Lane (Lawrence), fully knowing that doing so would also exile her for her remaining life. Having company brings them closer together, as being the only two people on Avalon inevitably leads to romance.

Once the premise of Jim’s isolation is introduced, there’s a comic aspect not unlike the Fox sitcom “The Last Man on Earth,” as we watch Pratt alone on this giant spaceship trying to keep himself entertained. There’s something equally poignant about the loneliness that also entails, and the fact Pratt can portray both extremes so fluidly is partially why his performance in the movie is the stronger of the two.

It’s best not to know too much about the film’s subsequent twists and turns, but it’s fairly obvious Aurora will eventually learn the truth about what Jim did and things will just get worse from there.

Sheen’s Arthur plays a pivotal role in the relationship between Jim and Aurora, as he helps push their relationship forward, but also—and possibly deliberately—he lets slip to Aurora what Jim had done. Arthur is one of the elements that connects Passengers to Tyldum’s previous film, The Imitation Game, which was about how to determine if something is a human or a machine. There might be an underlying feeling that Arthur is meant to be this movie’s HAL 9000 from 2001, and that he might have more malevolent reasons for betraying Jim, but things go in a different direction.

It isn’t surprising the film works as well as it does, since it’s based on a screenplay that’s been carefully crafted for years, but Tyldum and his team do an impressive job of the world-building involved with bringing Spaihts’ script and the interior spaces of the Avalon to life.

Passengers is definitely a slower-moving film, more about character dynamics than outer-space explosions, although the last act does pick up as Jim and Aurora face the potential destruction of the Avalon that could kill the thousands of hibernating colonists on board. Beyond that, it’s a film meant to provoke thought on what you might do in a similar situation and whether you might commit someone to a desert island if it will make the experience easier on yourself.

Passengers does a good job emulating classic literary science fiction, but coming so soon on the heels of the far more innovative Arrival and others, it feels late to the game, even if it has been in development longer than many of its rivals.

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