Passengers is a challenging movie, not necessarily because of its subject matter, but because it’s an original and bold tale with a bit of a questionable execution. Released over the holiday period by Sony Pictures, Passengers certainly makes an impression, namely by thrusting the entire movie on the shoulders of just two actors, while also unfolding entirely within a futuristic spaceship set for an unknown destination. In a way, the comparisons to Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning classic, Cast Away are justified, as this movie could essentially be boiled down to ‘Cast Away in space’, if you strip away all of its finer nuances, and disregard comparative quality.
That said however, there’s no denying that Passengers is yet another December 2016 movie that falls short, ultimately being anchored by a moral dilemma that’s far less deep than the movie would care to admit. Even putting aside that central concept of the need for human connection, Passengers’ storyline is pretty awkward, existing as one of those movies that feels like three separate movies crammed into one singular package. The movie is certainly nicely-produced, having well-realized visuals, a great soundtrack and two genuinely captivating lead performances, but the window dressing isn’t enough to mask the fact that Passengers is ultimately a frustrating waste of a good concept.
The bulk of Passengers stars mechanic, Jim Preston, played by Chris Pratt. Jim is woken up about 90 years too early after a spaceship he was put in hibernation on suffers some sort of unknown glitch. This forces Jim to bumble around for about a year, before he starts to become really lonely, having nothing but A.I.’s and androids to interact with. Thus, Jim considers waking up a woman in another pod that he finds attractive, Aurora Lane, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Obviously, he goes through with this plan, since Lawrence is liberally displayed as being a big part of the movie throughout all of the trailers and posters.
Immediately though, this presents a problem, because it puts Jim in the unenviable position of having to ruin someone else’s life, simply so he can have, to put it bluntly, a sex buddy. The marketing made it seem as if Jim and Aurora had woken up simultaneously due to the same glitch, which, frankly, would have been a better story direction. Sure, the initial moral conflict of having to wake up Aurora to escape crushing loneliness is kind of interesting, but when Passengers then awkwardly shifts gears and becomes a romance movie in its second act, it can’t escape that cloud that’s hanging over it. The movie is trying to force us to feel bad for Jim when we should primarily be feeling bad for Aurora, since Aurora is clearly the bigger victim. It’s definitely not the intention, but when Passengers tries to completely excuse Jim and completely condemn Aurora for being understandably angry about what Jim did, it inadvertently creates an uncomfortable subtext that the end justifies the means when it comes to companionship, i.e. that it’s perfectly okay to coerce someone into falling in love with you simply because you’re desperate. That’s probably not the best message to be sending to some people.
To be fair though, Pratt and Lawrence still manage to elevate their characters with some strong lead performances. Lawrence’s Aurora is indeed easy to love, having no shortage of charm and a solid sense of humour, and despite the impossible situation that sort of ruins his character, Pratt still manages to make Jim a pretty likable guy for most of the movie. For the first act, we don’t even really see Lawrence either, with Pratt left to shoulder everything at the start, and having no one else to play off of, save for occasionally getting to interact with Michael Sheen, who is a performance highlight as quirky android bartender, Arthur. This is certainly an interesting challenge that Pratt does a decent job of rising to, even if Sheen gives him a hand every so often, and it’s primarily due to Pratt’s outstanding personality and comedic talents that we can tolerate watching Jim just bumble around the glitchy spaceship by himself for about a half-hour of real time, and a year of the movie’s time.
In the third act though, when Passengers changes gears again, this time to become a survival thriller, that’s when the movie starts really suffering from only having two actors pushing the whole thing along, at least beyond the interludes with Sheen, and a brief appearance from Laurence Fishburne on the way to the climax. The thematic problems of the second act start bleeding into the higher stakes of the third act, and this creates a situation that feels too difficult to relate to, making any attempts at redemption or heroism by Jim especially sadly ring hollow. Pratt and Lawrence really try their best, and they do have strong chemistry together, but they’re ultimately let down by the patchwork storyline in Passengers, especially Pratt, who has to try and make a hero out of a guy who isn’t even smart enough to masturbate.
Passengers’ main weakness is definitely its storyline, which, as I said, is unable to commit to a singular direction. In the first act, it’s an upbeat one-man show. In the second act, it’s a slightly uncomfortable romance movie. In the third act, it’s a tense survival thriller. There’s pockets of enjoyable moments in Passengers, especially when it’s as well-produced as it is, but the overall message of the story starts becoming confused within a mess of separate ideas that are all thrown together, especially when the closest theme it can muster is that it’s completely forgivable to derive intimacy and sexual satisfaction at someone else’s expense.
That’s also before you consider that the storyline of Passengers is pretty laboured in a few places, and there are some story turns that are just plain badly-written. Hell, the very scenario of the movie feels problematic when you really think about it. Did this migration effort honestly not prepare for the possibility of someone, or several people, waking up early? Why is there no means to do anything about that? Why are there no androids that can help you get back to sleep? How are the machines maintained when everyone is asleep for that matter? Passengers’ best answer for all of this is that nothing has ever gone wrong with this technology, so there’s no emergency protocol in place for any of it. Frankly, that’s just lazy writing, and it’s incredibly unrealistic to boot, even for a movie that unfolds entirely within a spaceship!
It’s especially frustrating when the ultimate cause of the ship’s issues is revealed too, which only drives home the point that this script has quite a few holes in it. I can’t go over the minutiae of what exactly is wrong with this storyline, for want of avoiding spoilers, but it’s not like these plot holes and narrative contrivances are difficult to spot. All in all, despite its commendable originality, Passengers is just too clumsily put-together, having handfuls of entertaining moments within a storyline that, by and large, doesn’t truly work.
Passengers is directed by Morten Tyldum, who actually directed one of 2014’s best movies, the Oscar-winning The Imitation Game. Tyldum’s direction at least helps to salvage some of the more problematic story bits, since the way that certain emotional scenes are conveyed is actually handled really well. That said though, Tyldum still falls victim to leaning into the same idea that Jim is the bigger victim of the movie’s over-arching situation than Aurora, and that continues exacerbating the movie’s woefully misguided idea of how human relationships should ideally function.
When you’re able to put that aside and just enjoy Tyldum’s directing work though, Passengers certainly has quite a bit of artistic beauty and style. Again, for want of avoiding spoilers, I can’t go too much into the movie’s many lovely moments, but such finely-crafted direction sometimes feels wasted on such a problematic script. There is a credible love story buried somewhere within the messy final product of Passengers, and that does occasionally shine through. Not even Tyldum can do much about some fatal story mis-steps here though.
One of the surprising highlights of Passengers is its soundtrack, which feels nicely atmospheric and distinct. There’s a futuristic sci-fi flavouring, but nicely blended with a haunting human touch in the musical compositions. Thomas Newman’s score helps to build off of the personalities of the two charismatic leads, and deftly helps the spaceship setting avoid feeling too sterile or alien, while still highlighting how fantastical it all is.
The rest of the audio work is also pretty powerful, and again, is mostly well-done. The idea of being trapped on the spaceship that houses the leads is conveyed very well, especially in the third act, when the glitches creeping through the ship start reaching a boiling point, creating some truly hostile scenarios. It’s a powerful person-vs.-nature audio styling that makes you wish Passengers had just jettisoned the romance entirely, and functioned as a pure survival thriller. At least that third act carries some excitement though, which helps to make up for a sense of drama that’s pretty difficult to fully get behind.
Another better element to Passengers is its visual design, which is inviting without feeling too natural. The spaceship setting often feels like a character in and of itself, with a first act that does manage to keep audiences’ attention by virtue of all of the fun, silly little things that Jim discovers as he pokes around. The scenes outside of the ship, when Jim and Aurora float through space together, are equally striking and often beautiful, creating a credible emotional relationship that helps to distract from the difficult and overly uncomfortable circumstances of how these characters came together in the first place.
That just leaves the matter of the 3D presentation in Passengers, which is fairly average, and not wholly essential. The 3D does create a sense of added atmosphere in the spacefaring scenes, as well as some of the scale-driven scenes within the spaceship proper, but it’s nothing that truly elevates the movie. If you like 3D movies, then you don’t lose anything by seeing Passengers in 3D, but if you could care less about the 3D format, you might as well just save the few extra dollars and watch this movie flat in 2D, since you’re not really missing anything that way. Either way though, at least there’s a lot of polish in the sets and visual direction, so you’re getting a nice-looking movie, if nothing else.
Passengers is a movie with enough good points to get by, but it’s still overall a disappointment. The more you actually think about this movie’s themes and storyline, the more it starts to come apart. The many issues with the storyline ultimately drag down an otherwise well-produced and original concept, leading to a movie that is frustratingly uneven, and largely pushed forward by the talents of two exceptional actors. You don’t even get one of those actors in the first act either.
As a sci-fi movie, Passengers is passable, though it falls well short of its potential. In the slow January months, it’s still probably one of the better movies that you have the option of seeing, though as with most wide January releases, it still doesn’t really end up being more than a tide-over flick that you see while you wait for bigger and better movies. Besides, if you haven’t seen it already, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a far better sci-fi experience for your moviegoing dollars.
The standout lead performances should allow avid fans of Pratt and/or Lawrence to be entertained, but it just sucks that Passengers didn’t end up being more than a middling let-down. With a few script tweaks, this might have been one of the best dark horse hits of this past December. As it stands though, Passengers is a movie that you could just as easily wait to rent on home video, if you’re that curious.
Like I said, had the movie not been a love story, it probably would have been a lot better. As in real life, some relationships just really aren’t meant to be, even when you’ve got nothing but lots of time and a spaceship to call home.
- Pratt and Lawrence give good lead performances
- Sharp visuals with striking direction
- Enjoyable, well-produced soundtrack
- Awkwardly changes story direction with every act
- Uncomfortable sexual subtext in the romance
- Several plot holes and lazy story turns