You might expect a big budget science fiction movie, starring two of the most famous people on the planet, and released on new years day, to play it safe. But Passengers is more than just a movie about Jennifer Lawerence and Chris Pratt getting sexy in space. It actually tries to challenge you... for a little bit. Then it plays it safe.
Written by Jon Spaihts and directed by Morten Tyldum, Passengers is about 5,000 humans travelling 120 years into space to populate a brand new planet. Thirty years into the journey, one of the pods mysteriously opens, basically sentencing its inhabitant, Jim (Chris Pratt), to death. He can't go back to sleep, he can't get help, he's all alone, and he's going to die long before the ship reaches its destination. Basically, he's fucked.
That's the first fascinating dilemma Passengers hits you with. What would you do in this scenario? How would you pass the time? Could you handle the inevitability of the rest of your life, alone, on a sterile ship? And, ultimately, would you make the decision Jim does? It's not something the film's trailers have tried too hard to hide, but just in case:
After over a year on the ship, exhausting every avenue available to him, Jim is so lonely that he decides to wake up another passenger -- a young woman he's been obsessing about for some time named Aurora, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Waking Aurora up is tantamount to murder because, already in her 30s, she won't live another 90 years until they reach their destination. Jim knows this, does it anyway, and then lies to her about it.
This happens in the first act of the movie, which is why I feel ok talking about it. More importantly, this decision is the heart of Passengers. It's an incredibly fucked up, selfish act. Jim has doomed Aurora because he was lonely.
However you feel about Passengers being centered on an act so undeniably selfish and cruel, the fact that it's about something so messed up almost makes the movie interesting on its own. Not many movies with this size and scope would even think to touch a thorny moral dilemma like this; they're reserved for small budget indies where a film can afford to potentially polarize its audience. But Passengers doesn't care. It goes for it... at first.
The problems begin when, almost immediately after waking her up, the film wants us to root for the couple to be together. Jim's lie should cast a bigger shadow over his and Aurora's relationship, but it doesn't. That's largely because of Pratt and Lawrence, who are likable, appealing, charismatic people; watching the two stars together is undeniably entertaining and heart-warming, which feels all kinds of wrong when you know what Jim has done. Meanwhile, the film's interest in consequences of Jim's decision fluctuates. Sometimes you see it, others you don't. It gets a big moment, then it's forgotten.
The rest of the film is also a distraction from the premise that Passengers begins with, albeit a fascinating one. Every nook and cranny of the film Passengers is something you want to explore. Why are these people taking this trip? What's their plan? How many other surprises does the ship hold? Why is anti-gravity swimming even available? All of the scifi ideas, the production design, and the details in Passengers are excellent and interesting, and I wish we could see a movie solely about them. However, they also work against the core of the film, which is Jim's horrifying act of selfishness.
Eventually, the whole drive of the movie changes, leading to a situation where Aurora is faced with a decision similar to Jim's. By this time, though, she's all but forgotten about what he did, and it's obvious any of the film's initial ambition has been abandoned. Beat after beat leading to the end is completely predictable. The film knows it, too, as evidenced by an ending so detrimentally abrupt it renders several of the story's different tangents meaningless.
Passengers is such a mixed bag. Lots of people are not going to be able to get past the controversial premise; others, like myself, may be impressed that its grand stage holds such lofty goals, only to be let down as things veer off into the expected. To be fair, not many movies of this calibre even attempt to go as dark as Passengers does, so props for that. Plus, along the way, there are lots of almost-as-interesting asides and details to ponder.
It's almost enough to forgive the huge misses at the end.... but not really. All that's left is a movie that feels like it went into the Hollywood machine as a thought-provoking scifi film, and came out the other side as a squandered opportunity.
Passengers opens January 1.