Ro­man­tic sci-fi comedy or psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror flick?

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By John Wen­zel

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.”

Jaimie Trueblood, Columbia Pic­tures/Sony

Chris Pratt and Jen­nifer Lawrence are trapped on a mal­func­tion­ing space­ship in “Pas­sen­gers.”

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