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Passengers (2016)

passengersDIRECTOR: Morten Tyldum

CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL DISCUSS AN IMPORTANT PLOT POINT

Passengers is somewhat tricky to categorize; it’s firmly within the sci-fi genre, but without the action of Star Wars or Star Trek (at least until the third act), and it’s a love story but one steeped in moral ambiguity.  Some will find it too slow-paced, while others accuse it of romanticizing the unsavory circumstances under which its romance begins (which I do not, for the most part, agree with).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its controversial premise and somewhat indecisive tone, it’s already set to be an expensive flop, which is a bit of a shame.  The movie has flaws, but they’re not insurmountable, and the premise and themes are substantial enough to be compelling.

The setting is the future; the date is not specified, but technology and space travel is obviously further along than, say, The Martian.  The spaceship Avalon is 30 years into a 120 year voyage from Earth to a distant colony world, with 5,000 colonists in cryo-sleep.  A collision with an asteroid disturbs the ship enough to prematurely wake one solitary passenger, mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), who quickly becomes confused, then alarmed when he realizes he’s the only one awake and no one else will wake up for another 90 years, leaving him facing the prospect of living in complete isolation with his only companion the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), and dying of old age without ever reaching his destination or seeing another human face.  For a time, Jim tries to figure out a solution to put himself back to sleep, then when this fails, avoid facing reality by indulging in Avalon’s luxurious amenities (wining and dining, playing basketball and a futuristic Dance Dance Revolution, and spacewalking on the outside of the ship in a spacesuit), but loneliness eventually drives him to despair, wandering the halls naked with a beard and contemplating throwing himself out of the airlock.  By chance one day, one of the sleeping passengers, journalist and writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) catches his eye, and Jim becomes obsessed with her, scrolling through her passenger profile, watching recorded interviews, and reading everything she’s written.  Finally, after wrestling with moral conflict, he deliberately awakens Aurora, thereby condemning her to live out her life onboard Avalon the same as him, and lets her believe it was an accident.  Jim and Aurora start as complete strangers with little in common, but as each other’s only companionship, it doesn’t take long for them to fall into a passionate affair, even as Jim’s guilt gnaws at him.  But complications arise when Aurora learns the truth and to make matters worse, the ship starts to malfunction.

It’s impossible to fully review Passengers without discussing the controversial premise.  Jim’s actions are unquestionably selfish and essentially robbing Aurora of her future, but unlike some reviewers (who subjected the film to harsh criticisms), I didn’t feel that Passengers attempts to romanticize or gloss over what occurs.  Jim’s action is not condoned, but it’s committed out of desperate loneliness, not malice.  We might like to think we would hold ourselves to more noble and selfless impulses, but can any of us say with certainty what we would or wouldn’t do in Jim’s predicament?

For its opening act, apart from sporadic pop-ins by Michael Sheen’s robot bartender, Passengers is essentially a one-man show, as we see the progression of Jim’s deterioration: confusion, alarm, futile attempts to solve the problem, denial, and despair.  Once Aurora is conscious, the middle act is a romance, as the two get to know each other, play basketball, dance, and have dinner together, go for a spacewalk, and have PG-13 sex.  Their companionability is light and playful, but there’s always the cloud hanging over their love affair of the despair that it is holding at bay, and if and when Aurora will learn the truth.

The third act is the most action-packed, yet also the weakest segment.  The first two-thirds are slow-burn and character-focused, and the third act, with the duo scrambling to fix the malfunctioning ship, feels rushed and slapped-on because the studio wanted an action-packed climax to liven things up.  Generic contrivances pile up, including a glorified cameo by Laurence Fishburne as a crewman whose name might as well be Officer Ex Machina and is as blatant a convenient plot device as they come, and the climax borrows elements from other “stranded in space” movies, including The Martian.  Director Morten Tyldum (previously Oscar-nominated for the very different historical docudrama/biopic The Imitation Game) directs smoothly whether in low-key character moments or more pyrotechnic action setpieces, but it’s a shame the movie drops a couple IQ points as it nears the finish line.  The slow-burn first two-thirds, while they might be too “boring” for those expecting a sci-fi action flick (who are in the wrong theater to begin with), are more compelling than when it surrenders to obligatory convention.

passengers2While Jennifer Lawrence is first-billed, Chris Pratt’s Jim is more of the main character, at least during the first act, where he’s virtually the only person in the movie for a good stretch of runtime.  This is an attempt by Pratt to step into somewhat more serious acting than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Star-Lord, and he’s solid for the most part; there are moments where he feels like a lightweight and we feel like a more accomplished dramatic actor might have given a more powerful performance, but on the other hand Pratt has the charm and likeability to make Jim mostly sympathetic despite the movie’s premise hinging on him committing an action that could charitably be called questionable, which some actors might not have pulled off.  Though she doesn’t show up for a while, Jennifer Lawrence is in top form and arguably makes Aurora a more emotionally complex character than Jim (possibly because Lawrence is a stronger actor, and/or because Aurora’s wronged status makes her more unambiguously sympathetic).  Lawrence capably navigates Aurora’s emotional journey as she realizes her dreams and future plans are lost to her, eventually accepts reality and makes the most of it, and then after falling in love with Jim, learns the devastating truth.  Obviously picking up a paycheck in the X-Men films, this is some of the most engaged Lawrence has been since her Oscar-winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook, and she and Pratt have good chemistry and make for an engaging duo.  The only other actor with more than cursory screentime is Michael Sheen, who has a suitable blend of superficial charm and eeriness as the ever-cheery android bartender Arthur (whose resemblance to The Shining‘s creepy bartender Lloyd is too much for me to believe it’s coincidental; he’s dressed the same, and his bar even looks exactly the same).  Laurence Fishburne joins the journey for a few minutes, and Andy Garcia pops in for a wordless blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance at the end (it’s unclear why the filmmakers and Garcia placed him in this “role” that literally any extra off the street could have filled).

Passengers is somewhat reduced by its 11th hour surrender to obligatory popcorn flick convention and is hard to classify—it’s a low-key character-based drama with big summer blockbuster special effects and “hot” movie stars, and it’s a love story that’s sometimes unsavory—but its central questions and dilemmas are intriguing and compelling and there’s enough of substance to override a somewhat slapdash final act.  It’s a flawed movie that won’t sit well with everyone, but it’s a journey worth taking.

* * *

 

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