A film review by Craig J. Koban December 30, 2016


2016, PG-13, 116 mins.


Chris Pratt as Jim Preston  /  Jennifer Lawrence as Aurora  /  Michael Sheen as Arthur

Directed by Morten Tyldum  /  Written by Jon Spaihts


No discussion of this film can seriously occur below without me revealing key plot points.  Consider this a SPOILER heavy review.

The new sci-fi romance thriller PASSENGERS reminded me considerably of the recently released COLLATERAL BEAUTY. 

Now...here me out for a bit. 

Both films are, yes and obviously enough, fundamentally different on paper, but both featured trailer advertising campaigns that were essentially...well...fraudulent.  

When both films were respectively released they played a mighty large game of bait and switch with audiences.  I was incessantly angered by what the makers of COLLATERAL BEAUTY did, but not nearly as much so with PASSENGERS, seeing as the resulting film here is far more intriguing.  There's a darkly compelling thematic undercurrent to its story that's not even remotely hinted at in its marketing, which made PASSENGERS eminently enthralling during its first sixty or so minutes.  It's ultimately a shame, though, when the film all but loses its way in a neatly wrapped up and woefully conventional third act that never continues to deal with and explore some of the film's more nagging questions about isolation and morality.   



Again, the trailers for this film...lied to us, but nevertheless relayed a portion of its narrative truthfully.  Set in an unspecified time in the distant future when long term space travel through the cosmos is possible, PASSENGERS introduces us to a massive luxury cruise line spaceship that's heading towards a distant planet that's home to a new human colony.  There are 5000 tourists from various professions, social classes, and walks of life on board the vessel, not to mention 200 crew members.  All of them are placed in long-term hibernated sleep in order to survive the 120-year long journey to the planet.  Unfortunately, things go very haywire on the ship when it plunges into an asteroid field, causing multiple programs on it to go all screwy...one of which controls the life support pod of a mechanic, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and a writer, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence).  Of course, the pair fully learn the shocking truth: they were awoken 90 years too early, and when all other methods to fix their pods are fruitless, they decide to make the best of their nightmarish situation.  Predictable romance ensues.   

That's the plot and premise included in the trailers for PASSENGERS.   

That's not at all what this film is about.  Not even close. 

Where PASSENGERS takes a huge divergent plotline turn is at the early point when the ship begins to malfunction...as it's really only Jim that's accidentally awoken from hibernation (wait...what?!).  The opening 20-30 minutes details this poor sucker trying to come to grips with the severity of his extremely dire situation all alone on a vessel that still needs to make a near century long journey to the colony.  All his efforts to fix his pod are for naught.  He's trapped...albeit alive and relatively safe...on the ship, but the prospects of spending the rest of his natural life in solitude (minus the ship's only humanoid robot, a bartender that looks alarmingly like Michael Sheen) are hellish for him.  He spends the next year staving off boredom, insanity, and suicidal thoughts.  Of course, he starts to get nosy with some of the other sleeping passengers' log details, and grows particularly fascinated with one in particular. 

Do you see where I'm going with this? 

The non-advertised version of PASSENGERS is startlingly effective and is kind of a mishmash of other sci-fi films that have dealt with human isolation in space like SILENT RUNNING, THE MARTIAN and MOON with a dash of the earthbound CASTAWAY.  What makes PASSENGERS surprisingly ingenious in its early stages is how it deals with Jim's ethical quandary.  He knows, deep down, that sabotaging Aurora's pod to wake her up so that he has another human being to spend his life with on the ship is fundamentally wrong.  That selfish move on his removes an element of choice for her.  But he does the deed, and in doing so sells her one rather massive lie that it was the ship's malfunctioning doing.  As was shown in the film's trailers, an intimate relationship ensues between them that's born out of their situation, but it's based on an a rather unforgivable deception on Jim's part.  There's an aura of inherent creepiness that permeates these two lost in space souls. 

But is Jim a truly evil man?  He's more of a depressed and lonely figure that's trying to process the enormity of spending his next five or six decades on a space ship alone.  He's driven to waking Aurora up for empathetic reasons, I think, that many viewers can easily relate to.  I'm not entirely sure that any man - or woman, for that matter - would be able to resist the thorny temptation of waking up another passenger to avoid isolation that would seemingly feel like an eternity.  Jim's predicament is horrendous.  Walking up Aurora is equally horrendous too, but the screenplay here by Jim Spaihts (he previously wrote PROMETHEUS) takes great pains to present Jim as a deeply flawed, but relatable person that we come to understand his motives without directly agreeing with the morality of them.  All in all, this makes PASSENGERS much more thoughtfully rendered and fascinating than I was frankly expecting. 

The film also benefits from the extremely easy on the eyes presence of both Pratt and Lawrence, two incredibly attractive actors (almost distractingly so at times) that generate decent chemistry with one another throughout.  The film also relays with great enthusiasm how two people on board a space ship kill time (it offers bars, fine restaurants, video games, movie theatres, gyms, pools, and even space walks).  The film is also a bravura piece of production design and Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (THE IMITATION GAME and the mercilessly effective HEADHUNTERS) shows a painterly eye with not only the ship's grand interior spaces, but also with the highly unique design of the ship itself, which looks so refreshingly different from the countless other space ships that we've seen enumerable times before in sci-fi films.  Granted, there are instances when the ambitiously envisioned visual effects kind of betray themselves a little, especially in the scenes involving characters journeying outside the ship.  GRAVITY this film is not. 

PASSENGERS, as already mentioned, really begins to freefall in its final 30 minutes, which is kind of disheartening considering the rich potential of its premise and the solid manner it sets everything up early on.  The film careens towards an obligatory action heavy climax, during which time Jim and Aurora are faced with multiple survival challenges (which oddly places Lawrence to the sidelines as a rather one-note damsel in distress spectator to Pratt's masculinized heroism) and then achieves some awfully false moments of closure for everyone involved that's way, way too artificially contrived for its own good.  The final third of PASSENGERS feels like it was written by a completely different writer with completely different aims, not to mention that it also feels like the product of some hasty editing that potentially left a far more macabre conclusion on the cutting room floor. 

PASSENGERS is a hard film to dissect.  On one hand, the film looks sensational (one sequence in particular featuring Aurora in a swimming pool at the wrong time during a failure of the ship's artificial gravity is simply stunning) and the actors give it their respective all.  Then film's sinister undercurrent of Jim's actions - are they self-servingly charitable, monstrously dubious, justifiably relatable, or a combination of the three? - helps to shape PASSENGERS as a well beyond average space trekking adventure film; there's more going on under the surface of this story than many will expect going in.  To the film's disappointing detriment, it never finds a manner of dealing with its tough existentialist themes and hard to answer questions about how isolation and loneliness drives men to questionable actions.  The premise here is absolutely on point, but its payoff and wrap up of it - marred in rosy clichés and easily digestible platitudes about love and happiness - is scandalously lacking.  PASSENGERS is a few re-writes away from achieving something profoundly special for the its genre.  

It was definitely not as advertised, but that's a good thing here.  


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