Romantic sci-fi comedy or psychological horror flick?
Sci-fi. PG-13. 116 minutes.
Note: This review contains mild spoilers and plot points.
For the first few minutes of “Passengers,” Jim Preston is as likable as they come.
As a mechanic on the Starship Avalon, Preston — played as a childlike everyman by Chris Pratt — has accidentally been roused from his hibernation en route to a new world, where his future seems as blank and promising as his character.
It’s a mystery for Preston as to why he’s the only one of 5,000 passengers to have woken up early — really, really early, as in, 90 years before his ship’s arrival on the distant Homestead II (Preston is from Denver, it says on his pod, but that fact never
plays into his character).
Faced with a lifetime of solitude, Preston attempts to make do on the luxury space cruiser, which is basically an empty, live-action version of the Axiom from Pixar’s 2008 sci-fi masterpiece “WALL-E.” Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Jon Spaihts check the boxes on Preston’s slow realization of his fate, from comedic montages of Preston dealing with the ship’s imperfect technology to blatant foreshadowing of its everincreasing malfunctions.
With a production design that wisely declines to improve on mid-to-late 20th century futurism (especially Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”) and some convenient monologues by Preston, “Passengers” hums along nicely for much of its first act.
“We’re all in this together,” a hologram announces to a room that’s empty except for Preston. It’s both an ironic joke and cutting commentary on technology’s role in alienating people in a crowded society, since Preston is basically living in a hyperrealized version of customer-service hell.
After nearly a year alone, Preston notices a beautiful woman in one of the hibernation capsules and sets out to learn everything about her. Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) is an ambitious writer with hours of video testimonials available for Pratt to watch. He does, seated next to her capsule, as he becomes increasingly desperate and obsessed with the idea of waking her up. He knows it’s wrong to doom her, but he’s unable to help himself.
What happens next deserves a violent tonal shift — from the film’s budding sci-fi romantic comedy overtures to psychological horror — that never arrives. Preston wakes Lane, lies to her about how it happened and then cautiously starts wooing her into a sexual relationship. She’s skeptical and smart but also arrogant, a stereotype of a snobby writer who claims to know the human condition but is prone to elitist generalizations.
Seeing these gorgeous, sparkly-eyed actors with palpable chemistry is diverting enough for a while — and it’s meant to be. As an actor, Lawrence brings warmth and charisma to the screen as we’re presented with classic romcom montages of her and Pratt dancing, laughing and otherwise loosening up in each others’ presence. It’s a desert-island fantasy come true.
Only when Lane learns the truth about how she woke up is there anything resembling a coherent viewpoint in the film. She screams that Preston has essentially murdered her, and she’s right: Preston has decided that what’s best for him is also what’s best for her.
In these brief minutes, we see a glimpse of the more interesting movie this could have been, one that wrestles with the damage that men inflict on women when they make assumptions about what women need.
Instead, we swing fully back to Preston’s point of view as we’re caught up in a cascading series of sci-fi tropes and not-so-interesting revelations about the ship’s malfunctions. Laurence Fishburne shows up briefly and too late, playing a one-dimensional father figure and crew member who effectively absolves Pratt of his sins.
Cultural outrage is so common today that reading “Passengers” as a film by and for the male mindset feels simplistic. But truly, it’s not hard to see “Passengers” as fundamentally justifying Lane’s stalking and captivity. “Don’t worry if she’s mad at first, she’ll come around because you’re a good guy at heart,” it says unambiguously, over and over again.
Seen from the perspective of Lawrence’s character, “Passengers” is a story of emotional manipulation and eventual acquiescence to a numbing fate.
At best, “Passengers” is a pleasant, big-budget movie that unfolds in glib and cutesy ways despite its otherwise serious themes. At worst, it’s an argument that men can do whatever they want with the knowledge that things will always work out for them.
Whether this message is intentional or not, Preston’s character is still rewarded for it. Lane identifies with, and ultimately declares her love for, her captor.
Even if you’re not bothered by the plot or politics, “Passengers” is a waste of two immensely likable actors’ talent — with Lawrence flexing the most acting muscle. There are a few things to applaud, from the non-franchise-ready story to sleek imagery and occasionally inspired set pieces (see the zero-gravity swimming pool).
But it’s hard to shake the feeling that deep down, “Passengers” is making a disturbingly regressive statement amid the generic sci-fi spectacle. It’s not sure what kind of movie it is and that, above all, may be the thing that dooms it to a lifetime of rudderless drifting.
Jennifer Lawrence, left, and Chris Pratt wake up 90 years early on an insterstellar flight in “Passengers.”
Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are trapped on a malfunctioning spaceship in “Passengers.”