Star power can’t cor­rect ‘Pas­sen­gers’ path

The Washington Times Daily - - LIFE - BY JAKE COYLE

We seem to be shoot­ing our best movie stars into outer space with alarm­ing fre­quency. Ge­orge Clooney, San­dra Bul­lock, Matthew McConaughey, Matt Da­mon and now Jen­nifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt have all been rock­eted out of the strato­sphere.

Per­haps they’re try­ing to make the best im­pres­sion pos­si­ble with alien life forms. Maybe they’re seek­ing to col­o­nize new worlds of movie­go­ers.

In any case, the stars have never looked so starry.

And the movies — “Grav­ity,” “In­ter­stel­lar,” “The Mar­tian” — have been among the best block­busters in re­cent years. Space isn’t just the last fron­tier; it’s the new west­ern.

But in Morten Tyl­dum’s “Pas­sen­gers,” Mr. Pratt and Miss Lawrence have been handed a faulty flight log.

Mr. Pratt plays Jim Pre­ston, one of a few thou­sand peo­ple in sus­pended an­i­ma­tion on the Aurora, a spi­ral­ing star­ship hurtling through space on au­topi­lot, headed to­ward a dis­tant col­o­nized planet, Home­stead II.

But after a par­tic­u­larly big as­ter­oid dings the ship, Pre­ston’s pod opens 30 years into a 120-year trip. He’s a bear wo­ken from hi­ber­na­tion too soon. De­spite his ef­forts to restart the process, hit­ting the snooze is out of the ques­tion.

For any­one who has found them­selves un­rea­son­ably wide awake in the mid­dle of the night, Jim’s night­mare will have a ring of fa­mil­iar­ity. But his math is grim­mer. With 90 lonely years to go, he’s es­sen­tially been roused to his death. The other­wise des­o­late ship is his cof­fin.

Jim goes through var­i­ous stages rec­on­cil­ing him­self to his fate. He pleads with the ship’s cor­po­rate­s­peak com­put­ers. He bus­ies him­self play­ing bas­ket­ball and chat­ting with a ro­bot bar­tender, Arthur (a chip­per Michael Sheen), who, cu­ri­ously, has been pro­grammed to pol­ish glasses and lend a sen­si­tive ear to any cus­tomers for the decades­long jour­ney.

After a year, Jim’s gaze turns to­ward the sleep­ing pas­sen­gers. One catches his eye. Who should be there, locked un­der glass, but Jen­nifer Lawrence. Later, the film’s other late-ar­riv­ing char­ac­ter (Lau­rence Fish­burne) will give voice to the movie’s sex­ist, sleep­ing beauty fan­tasy. Of Jim’s good for­tune at hav­ing such a mate while lost in space, he sim­ply re­marks, “Damn.”

A sui­ci­dal Jim, after wrestling over the de­ci­sion for months, fi­nally de­cides to wake up the woman he’s al­ready fallen for, a jour­nal­ist named Aurora Lane — which sounds like the moniker of ei­ther a street or a porn star. (The only com­fort­ing thing about this is that ap­par­ently jour­nal­ism is still be­ing prac­ticed in a fu­ture where hu­mans can travel at half the speed of light.)

The de­ci­sion — tan­ta­mount to mur­der — is a cos­mic mix of the creepy, the amoral and the un­der­stand­able. And it’s a credit to Mr. Pratt’s ex­pan­sive good-na­tured­ness that “Pas­sen­gers” doesn’t com­pletely tor­pedo at this mo­ment.

A creepy courtship fol­lows, though nei­ther Mr. Tyl­dum nor Mr. Pratt is much in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing the dark­ness at the cen­ter of its premise. Mr. Tyl­dum, the di­rec­tor of “The Imitation Game,” has a han­dle on the sci­encefic­tion gloss of the tale, thanks partly to the sleek if fa­mil­iar pro­duc­tion de­sign of Guy Hen­drix Dyas.

But Mr. Tyl­dum fails to rec­on­cile the cen­tral twist of Jon Spai­hts’ screen­play with the lighter tone he’s seek­ing — of a big-bud­get ro­mance in zero grav­ity. The vast­ness of space here has been re­duced to sit­com size, with none of the ru­mi­na­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tions that char­ac­ter­ize the genre’s finest films, like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “So­laris” or In­ter­stel­lar.”

There’s room in the galaxy for less thought­ful for­ays into deep space, es­pe­cially ones that pair such en­gag­ing ac­tors. But what ul­ti­mately has self-de­struc­ted in “Pas­sen­gers” is its cen­tral metaphor. It’s about how the act of fall­ing in love dooms com­pan­ions to a sin­gle fate, sen­tenc­ing them, for bet­ter or worse, to a life­time to­gether. It’s a clever enough con­ceit, doomed by a bun­gled meet-cute.

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