Film Review – Passengers
It’s rare to find a film in which one problem is so morally reprehensible that it ruins the entire thing. Case in point: Passengers (2016). This is a slick, well made sci-fi romance that features two good-looking movie stars at the height of their popularity. You’d think that this is a formula that’s near impossible to botch. Well folks, that’s exactly what happens.
The worse part is that I can’t tell you precisely what this problem is, because it would give away a major spoiler. Let’s set up the premise. Morten Tyldum directs Jon Spaihts script about two people who wake up aboard a traveling space ship. Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteered to be placed in hyper sleep for one hundred and twenty years as their spacecraft (the “Avalon”) travels across the galaxy to a distant colonial planet. The problem is, both Jim and Aurora mysteriously awaken ninety years too early. Unable to return to hyper sleep, the two realize that they will spend the rest of their lives in this giant sized bubble.
Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence have fantastic chemistry with each other. Their repartee is infectious, as their characters come to grips with their situation. Shock, sadness, and depression lead toward rationale and finally acceptance. At least they’ll have enough entertainment to keep themselves busy in the meantime. The set design does a marvelous job of creating a wide-open environment for them to play in. The Avalon is pretty much a high tech luxury cruiser, equipped with fancy hotel rooms, a basketball court, numerous restaurants and movie theaters, and an arcade that plays an upgraded version of Dance Dance Revolution. They even get a robotic bartender (Michael Sheen), who can provide the distraction of conversation.
Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures everything with a polished, glossy feel. Almost every shot is candy to the eyes. It’s no surprise that the production values lend to the eventual romance between Jim and Aurora. Let’s be honest, when you have two people this beautiful and alone together, hooking up is bound to happen. The filmmakers make this quite clear, giving ample opportunity to highlight Pratt’s muscular physique, or fitting Lawrence in a revealing bikini or tank top that shows off a bit more cleavage than needed.
All this sexiness is fine and dandy, until we run into that one major problem that pulls the rug out from under us. Without getting into specifics, there is a decision that’s made that changes the entire dynamic of Jim and Aurora’s relationship. This decision is so despicable, so misguided, that it destroys any empathy we may have for the person who made it. It turns what should have been a lovely romance into something far creepier. But it’s not necessarily the choice itself that’s wrong, but in how Tyldum and his team chooses to depict the ramifications of that decision. Stories can go into odd and risky places, but it’s in how you handle it that makes all the difference. The problem here is that the narrative wants us to root for this character even after the choice has been made. The film wants us to forgive an act that is unforgivable, and instead of punishing the guilty, it actually rewards them for doing it! This is the kind of stuff that requires a deft hand to navigate through tricky material, someone like Pedro Almodovar could take this and run with it.
But instead, Tyldum and Spaihts hit us with this really gross plot twist and then spend the second half trying to justify it. They push the ickiness away by switching gears and turning the plot into a gonzo, action spectacle. Jim and Aurora put their mounting tension on hold as the Avalon starts experiencing multiple malfunctions within its mainframe. As the problems escalate, Jim and Aurora must somehow find the source before the ship shuts down and they die (along with the five thousand passengers still in hyper sleep).
Here’s the dilemma with Passengers: the issue between Jim and Aurora is so wrong that any reconciliation feels false. However, the narrative sets up the malfunction of the ship in such a way that it can only be solved through their cooperation with each other. A person’s enjoyment of this will rely heavily on how much they’re willing to accept that fixing the ship is enough to clear the problem that comes between Jim and Aurora. For me, it wasn’t enough. I felt a lump in my stomach in how Tyldum and Spaihts took me in this direction, and basically argued that it’s ok for characters to do very bad things because the plot conveniently paints them as a hero in the end. Characters are manipulated and exploited under false pretenses, and somehow we’re supposed to take it all in stride because Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are just too darn cute as a couple? Excuse me as I roll my eyes at this ridiculous nonsense.