Romantic, sci-fi drama ‘Passengers’ could have been much more
Imagine being trapped on a spaceship with only your lover and a robot bartender for nearly a century — there isn’t a spaceship big enough or a bar that wellstocked to make that sound appealing. This is the issue at the center of the ostensibly “romantic” sci-fi drama “Passengers,” directed by Morten Tyldum from a script by Jon Spaihts.
While romance is the intended effect, the film’s real premise — concealed by the glossy trailers — is imbued with some seriously creepy undercurrents about bodily autonomy, consent and stalking. Instead of turning it into a horror movie, these issues are all breezily glossed over with the sex appeal of stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.
The spaceship is the Avalon, 30 years into a 120-year autopilot journey to the planet colony Homestead II with 5,000 passengers on board, encased in pods that keep them in a state of suspended animation. The pod of Jim Preston (Pratt) malfunctions after a meteor hits, and he wakes up a full 90 years early. The ship remains frustratingly on autopilot, and no amount of helpful robots can put Jim back into suspended animation. The pods never fail, they claim.
Unable to engineer himself back into suspended animation, Jim partakes of the lavish accommodations the ship has to offer, which all grow tiresome after a year. He descends into a drunken, pants-less, suicidal depression, until he spots the lithe figure of Aurora Lane (Lawrence) in her pod, and develops a crush.
He checks out her profile, reads her writing (she’s a journalist), eats cereal next to her. Though he wrestles with the decision, he ultimately decides to wake up his dream girl, effectively dooming her to a life and death aboard this spaceship. But before then, he’s the only available guy around to date, and they fall in love. Until Aurora finds out about what Jim did, and is justifiably enraged.
The quandary of being stuck on a spaceship with only your ex and a robot bartender (Michael Sheen) is quickly tossed aside for the high stakes action as the ship starts to malfunction. As they try to troubleshoot the ship, the film takes on the tenor of a very high-stakes version of yelling at an iPad or trying to bypass an automated phone menu.
Ultimately, what’s a rather intriguing premise, replete with meaty themes to chew on — time as a prison, class, colonialism, artificial intelligence — eschews all that to focus on sexy space fun times, turning Jim’s morally reprehensible choice into a meet cute, and a love story for the ages. The problem is that one can’t help but think of better, more interesting movies based on this premise. Most glaringly, what if Aurora were the subject, not the object? This is Jim’s story, not hers; we’re to sympathize with nice guy Jim, who fell in love with her mind, he claims. But the film could have been more intriguing if it were from her perspective, or even if it were more balanced.
Tyldum and Spaihts could have steered into the inherently problematic issues at hand, creating something far darker and more complex. Instead, it’s all French robot waiters and champagne cocktails and sex in the cafeteria. “Hell of a life,” Aurora admits, conceding that the space pool is pretty awesome if she has to be trapped here.