Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexuality, Nudity and Action/Peril
Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Written by: Jon Spaihts
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne & Andy Garcia
Maybe it was because of low expectations set by poor word of mouth and a so-so marketing campaign, but I didn’t have high hopes for PASSENGERS. Everything leading up to this film’s release made it seem like a generic execution of a cool premise. However, this sci-fi/romance/adventure is one of the most pleasant cinematic surprises I’ve had all year. Tackling an unconventional love story alongside a very tense “what would you do?” scenario, this film mixes fantastic spectacle (the production values are amazing) with tough moral dilemmas that might have different viewers seeing the film in entirely different ways. The way I see it, that’s not a bad thing at all.
The Avalon is transporting 5,000 passengers and over 200 crew members to colonization planet Homestead II. The intergalactic journey takes 120 years, so those aboard the spaceship are put into over a century of hibernation and woken up in the voyage’s final four months. When a gigantic asteroid causes an unexpected power surge, two passengers wake up 90 years too early and find themselves unable to go back into hibernation. Faced with spending the rest of their lives aboard the Avalon, mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) begin to fall head over heels for each other and try to make the most of their depressing situation. However, circumstances become dire when malfunctions begin to occur all over the Avalon and the fate of thousands of lives soon rests on their shoulders.
PASSENGERS will likely divide viewers based purely on a character’s decision that doubles as a grim moral dilemma. This has already been spoiled in certain reviews as it happens within the first 20 minutes of the story and massively contributes to the main set-up. This presents one of the protagonists as a deeply flawed human being and ponders some tough questions about human nature. However, the film doesn’t ignore this problematic plot development and frequently wrestles with the questionable ethics behind it. In all honesty, PASSENGERS might have been a deeper, more complex film if it had gone further with this moral dilemma…but it instead opts for a mostly straightforward space adventure/love story. Depending on how you feel about this plot detail (which I will not spoil) and the movie’s treatment of it will ultimately contribute to how much you enjoy or strongly dislike this film as a whole.
Though the story only calls for a handful of performances, the big name actors carry this film entirely on their more-than-capable shoulders. Chris Pratt plays a complex protagonist and drives the story forward, capturing the tragic distress that one would rightfully feel at the universe’s cruel sense of humor in his misfortune. Jennifer Lawrence slightly phones it in during certain scenes, but once again proves why she’s one of Hollywood’s biggest actresses for a majority of the running time. On the sidelines, Michael Sheen delivers amusing comic relief as an overly polite android bartender and provides a shoulder for both characters to cry on. I won’t say much about Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia for fear of spoilers, but the former definitely leaves his mark on the plot.
PASSENGERS excels in terms of effects and spectacle. Rest assured, this movie isn’t only about the special effects and thrives on a compelling story and quality performances. However, the many special effects and lavish sets all contribute to the proceedings. Some moments are comical, e.g. the ship’s technology not recognizing the sleep pod screw-up and treating the two passengers like they’re average customers. Other moments are beautiful, a floating romantic walk through the starry recesses of outer space is stunning. For a majority of the second half of the film, the effects make up the effectively exciting and peril-filled stakes. One of the most intense bits involves Jennifer Lawrence getting trapped in an anti-gravity swimming pool and facing the possibility of drowning in a way that’s never really been seen before on film.
As entertaining, fun and thought-provoking as it is, PASSENGERS does encounter a few filmmaking malfunctions of its own. The romance angle is mostly well done and developed in a convincing way, but there are over-the-top sappy moments (e.g. the characters trying to kiss through their spacesuits and going through romantic-comedy tropes in space). A couple of plot holes also keep nagging at the back of my mind, one of which bothers me almost as much as the floating door at the end of TITANIC. The more I think about this single scene, the less sense it makes. This sloppy story development (late in the film) probably should have been excised altogether or rewritten in a different manner. Nevertheless, these problems don’t come close to overshadowing the film’s many positives.
PASSENGERS is far from perfect and definitely could have been better with a few rewrites to cover up some plot holes. However, it treats a major moral dilemma in a serious fashion and delivers a complicated love story as a result. Ultimately, how you feel about the characters and the treatment of a certain plot detail will likely determine how you feel about this film as a whole. I wasn’t expecting to like this movie as much as I did, but it’s a mature (flawed) science fiction romantic-adventure that also functions as a story about what it means to be human (complete with our imperfections). PASSENGERS may go down as one of the most underrated films to come out of 2016. I wouldn’t be surprised if a stronger appreciation for this film grows over time.