Passengers presents itself as a “Titanic in space” type of film, yet its approach towards creating a tale about literal star-crossed lovers comes across as disturbingly questionable. Considering how the script for this film was in development hell since 2007, one would expect a great deal of care placed into the final product. Unfortunately, while this effort shows in the visual effects and in the two lead roles, all of that is hampered by the presentation of Passengers‘ driving force: the romance between its characters. The result is a film that leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth, trying to be passionate yet at the same time uncomfortable. And, this is a real shame for someone who envisioned Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt as an awesome dream couple.
The story for Passengers takes place upon the spaceship Avalon, an enormous luxury vessel on its way to the planet Homestead II. On board are over two hundred crew members and five thousand passengers, all in a state of suspended animation within their hibernation pods as the ship makes its 120-year journey to this new world. However, a malfunction on the ship causes one of the pods to activate thirty years too early, awakening its passenger: engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt). Unable to return to sleep, Preston tries to enjoy his newfound freedom on board the Avalon, a lone guest with no one to talk to except for robotic bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). However, a year of this freedom takes its toll on Preston, who is forced to wake up in constant reminder than he is surrounded by 4,999 hibernating people, none of whom he can contact. Until he falls in love with one of them.
This passenger’s name is Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), and Preston soon becomes fascinated with her in every way possible. This obsession ranges from sympathetic to eerily stalker-like, but because it’s Chris Pratt so we can’t really bring ourselves to hate him. That is until he makes the desperate, yet still horrible decision of waking her out of stasis, pretending that her pod also malfunctioned. With only each other for company, the two begin to form a relationship and it is here that the film begins to stumble. At first, I found the opening act entertaining, with Pratt delivering a one-man show of loneliness as his character tries to grapple with the reality of his situation. This also allows the film to display its sci-fi elements, delivering the gorgeous graphics and computer effects of the spaceship and its many features, all of which look eye-popping. Pratt does share pretty decent chemistry with Lawrence, so you get the feeling that this story could have worked out in depicting its romance between their characters. Unfortunately this is all undercut by one MAJOR problem: the catalyst for Jim and Aurora’s meet-up was a selfish decision.
There’s no real way to avoid this: Jim awoke Aurora against her will, dooming her to live out the rest of her life on the Avalon because he couldn’t handle being alone. And whether or not you sympathize with his grief, the film still tries to play up this romance as a sweet Jack-and-Rose relationship, which ends up making their attraction to one another seem uncomfortable rather than genuine. It’s this contrast of tones that ultimately makes Lawrence’s character feel like a forced love interest and brings up some iffy gender politics that probably were not meant to offend anyone, but may very well will. Had the film kept the circumstances of Jim’s deception rather ambiguous from the audience instead of flat-out admitting it, I’m not sure it would have saved the film, but the dynamic would definitely have changed.
Naturally, since Passengers needs some cliché romantic tropes, Aurora eventually finds out about what Jim did and their relationship falls apart due to her understandable outrage. You would think this would mark the beginning of Passengers‘ third act but not only is it the halfway point, but also its third shift in genre tone. First the film starts out as an intergalactic Cast Away, then switches to a questionable romantic film before settling down as a sci-fi thriller that ultimately comes across as predictable. Not good or bad but simply a predictable conclusion that one could ultimately point out scene for scene. And once again, a lot of this is ruined by how the film continues to treat its romance, still playing up these characters as destined for one another while toning down the conditions that got them there in the first place. This is ultimately Passengers’ biggest flaw: what is supposed to be the film’s driving force ends up holding it back, simply because the consequences of Jim’s mistake is never properly addressed.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
It might look pretty and have two talented leads, but even Pratt and Lawrence can’t make up for a script that feels rather lopsided. Passengers wants to be a sci-fi romantic film, but it can’t seem to balance the dark and light elements because they all lie in the shadow of a rather worrisome meet-cute. It’s completely possible that the writers could have adjusted the screenplay to create a better narrative, but ultimately what we get is rather disappointing.