The best science fiction stories start by asking “What if…?” and then explore that question. Last year saw two major studio science fiction releases grapple with “What if?” scenarios. One of those, Arrival, is a great movie from start to finish. Passengers is 3/4 of a great movie undone by an outlandish and ludicrous finale, trading smart character exploration for blockbuster spectacle to the film’s detriment. That first 1.5 hours is intriguing, well acted, and stays true to the dark question at its core. It’s just too bad the filmmakers didn’t go for a more unconventional ending.
The marketing materials for Passengers has hidden it’s central idea which is an odd choice. When the movie was first announced the premise was spelled out in the plot description. It was only after the first trailers started to appear that the main “twist” was obscured from audiences. If you have seen the movie you know this twist isn’t a twist at all, it’s the story’s premise. However for those that want to remain unspoiled I will break here with the warning that beneath are spoilers for the plot.
30 years in on an interstellar voyage aboard the starship Avalon bound for the colony world Homestead II, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is accidentally awakened early when the ship malfunctions while flying through an asteroid field. How early? 90 years too early he soon finds out. His only companion, other than the swarm of custodial robots that patrol the ship, is an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen). Jim is completely alone, other than the 4,999 passengers and 274 crew members that are all still in hypersleep. With no way to put himself back to sleep or call for help, Jim goes slowly crazy. On the day he considers throwing himself out of an airlock he happens upon the hypersleep pod for Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). He becomes fixated on her, spending more and more time at her side during the days, watching her pre-flight interviews, reading her articles, and a horrible, crazy idea starts to take shape.
This long first act is by far the best part of the movie. It is a one man Chris Pratt show and he is terrific. Jim is a mechanical engineer by trade so he spends the first several months trying to science his way out of the problem. The direction from Morten Tyldum does a great job here showing time passing through Jim’s lengthening hair, beard, and growing amount of signs of Jim’s influence all over the ship. He desperately tries to break in to the bridge of the ship during an effort that must have taken weeks. His fixation on Aurora is terrifying and heartbreaking at the same time. He tries desperately to turn his mind from the idea, knowing that if he intentionally wakes her it is in essence murder. He’s a smart guy, and seems to be a good guy, but once the idea takes root in his brain he can’t let it go so one day he does the unthinkable and wakes Aurora.
Predictably Aurora is just as shell shocked as Jim when she wakes up. She spends weeks herself trying to find a way to get back to sleep, never knowing the truth for why she is there. Over time she and Jim grow closer and end up becoming friends and finally lovers. All the time we know that Jim woke Aurora, that he knows a lot about her, that he chose her. It’s creepy, it’s terrifying, its enormously compelling drama. And once Aurora learns the truth, as she must, her reaction is honest and filled with fury. Jennifer Lawrence is enormously talented at multifaceted emotional performances and in Passengers she is mesmerizing. We learn why Aurora was on the Avalon and more about who she is even as all of that is being stolen from her. In a different movie this is a tale of horror. But Passengers is a blockbuster science fiction film starring two of the biggest stars in the world. And that is why Passengers ultimately falls short of greatness.
What begins as a compelling, haunting story of one man making an unconscionable decision and being forced to spend the rest of his life trying to atone for it instead veers in to science fiction spectacle. The movie culminates in a finale that breaks the suspension of disbelief for the audience as one calamity after another is unleashed on board the ship leaving Aurora and Jim as the only ones that can save the ship from disaster. I don’t know if the script from Jon Spaihts is to blame or if its meddling from the suits at Sony.
As much as I wish the finale was less conventional, or at least avoided the ludicrous happy ending, there is enough great stuff in Passengers that I have to recommend it. Lawrence and Pratt are both compelling, the production values are excellent, and special effects are top notch. I just can’t help but wonder what Passengers could have been in the hands of a filmmaker and studio that was more willing to take a bigger risk and make a darker movie. As good as the leads are they are also two of the most beautiful actors working today. It’s easy to root for Jim because he’s played by Chris Pratt. What if Jim was played by Paul Giamatti or Steve Buscemi? Or what if the genders were flipped and Aurora was the mechanical engineer going slowly mad from loneliness? There were so many ways to take the premise in new and unexpected places that feels like missed opportunity.
Passengers is a smart movie undone by several bad choices to make it more bankable. It’s a flawed movie, and for some they may never be able to get over the central premise. But I find myself unable to stop thinking about it and that’s a pretty good indicator for me that it is still worth recommending.