TL;DR – The biggest problem with Passengers is that it keeps hinting at a better film out there, but unfortunately it never quite gets there.
Score – 3 out of 5 stars
So would you say goodbye to everyone you love, board a spaceship in a hibernation pod for a 120-year journey just for a chance of a new life on a new world, even though you know when you get there everyone from your past will be dead. It’s an interesting thought experiment and one of many that Passengers speculates on throughout the film. When the film is at its best it is looking at an answering these questions, when it is at its worst it’s ignoring them to quickly tie the story up.
Passengers has had quite a rocky launch finding itself getting caught up with general furore surrounding Will Smith’s latest film Collateral Beauty (which I haven’t seen yet). With many people painting Passengers with the same dodgy marketing brush this is not a great place to be with on your opening weekend, and while some of that is warranted I think that a lot of it was also a little unfair. I don’t think you should judge a film on its marketing but on what the final product delivers or does not deliver, unless the marketing is outright lying or giving a completely false representation of the movie, like what happened with Fantastic Four (See Review), which I don’t think is the case here. As well as this, it’s not even the main problem with the film and detracts from the more important issues.
Passengers is set, actually, it’s not clear what year it is (unless I missed something) but it has to be at least a couple of hundred years in the future, where ships strike out from the Solar System at half the speed of light, on hundred year journeys to colony worlds. We join Passengers on the starship Avalon which is twenty years into its one hundred and twenty-year journey to the world of Homestead II (which is just a terrible name for a planet). However, disaster strikes when the ship flies through an unexpected asteroid field and strikes a larger asteroid leading to a chain reaction that wakes Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) up way too early. As far as a premise goes this is a really interesting start, as it allows us to look into what that does to a person, what happens when there is no hope for rescue, we saw a bit of this in The Martian (See Review) but Passengers takes it a bit further. What is life like when you are stuck to only eating the same thing every day when your only companion is Arthur (Michael Sheen) an android bartender that can’t comprehend what you are going through? It explores the notion that while food, water and shelter are important for survival, you need more to thrive. When the film is focusing on these issues, is when Passengers is at its best. Now this is the point where we start heading into potential spoilers, but in many respects, the trailers have already given this away, indeed simply stating the cast gives some of this away. However, just to be on the safe side there will be some minor spoilers going forward.
There are many things that Passengers gets right, and the first thing is the design of the Avalon. We don’t often see space ships that are reminiscent of cruise ships in Sci-Fi, but unlike The Fifth Element, or the Doctor Who/Futurama parodies of the Titanic that literally built a space cruise ship, The Avalon is instead a more complicated design. It combines elements a cruise ship in parts of its concourse, but also it combines it with ship designs that have to rotate to create artificial gravity, it’s a really interesting design almost like an elaborate corkscrew driving between the stars. As well as this, the internal sets are all wonderfully decorated in that Mass Effect futurism style, with a lot of beautiful curves and clean lines. One of the benefits of having a really small cast is that you can spend more money on getting these little details right and it shows. As well as this, the visual effects are really quite good, and the whole film has a wonderful musical score by Thomas Newman.
Where the film really shines is the rapport between Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, and Michael Sheen. When you have so few characters it becomes even more dependent that they work well together and here they really do, to the point where they elevate the movie above where it probably should be with their chemistry alone. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt’s characters have fascinating arcs which feel grounded in real emotion, that despair that comes from loneliness that leads to destructive thoughts, that rage that occurs when someone close to you betrays your trust at a fundamental level, all of their reactions felt real. However, while I do feel that the acting helped out Passengers, and glossed over some of the issues it had, there still were a lot of problems with it.
Now here we will be dealing with story issues including things that happen in the third act, so if you ignored it before please let it be known that SPOILERS are now engaged. Now some of the problems with Passengers are small annoyances, like the ridiculous notion that a society would create an Autodoc but not allow you to use CPR functions without a doctor present, or the absurdity that a company would have no procedures in place incase of an early wake up of a colonist, or how an experienced crew member who just had a bad wake up would not immediately go to the medical bay when they started to cough up blood. These and other issues are small but they do take you out of the film a bit, there are more structural issues with Passengers that really limits its potential. The first big issue is the third act, almost like a reverse Rouge One (See Review) instead of saving the film, the third act of Passengers actually is a real let down on all the build-up of the first two acts. We’d gone through the torment of being alone, the terrible decision to wake someone else up, the moment of joy as the two found comfort with each other, and then fury and rage of when the betrayal was made known. This is such a powerful story, to the point of Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) attempting to cave Jim’s head in he slept and you were like, yep that is a perfectly justifiable reaction. Then Gus (Laurence Fishburne) wakes up and all of that gets pushed to the side so we can have a standard ‘oh we need to team up to save the ship’ action set piece. It’s just such a missed opportunity to do something new and novel with the situation.
However, the problems with Passengers is more than this, the big issue is that the movie keeps hinting at a more interesting story out there. For example, there is a moment where Jim and Aurora start discussing the company whose ship they are own and how it is getting rich off the backs of labourers like Jim who give 20% of their income for life for a ticket on the ship. This is such an interesting concept, how does a company survive when it is going to be at least 200 years before they see any return on their investment. Also, there is a big question as to why is the crew quarters and other places closed behind impenetrable blast doors, the movie states that all the colonists were put to sleep elsewhere and then transferred aboard, and that the crew would wake up months before any of the colonists would, so there is no need for such precautions, unless of course, they were making sure no one stole their exclusive hold on the technology that powers the hibernation pods, fascinating, yet completely ignored. The biggest example of these missed opportunities is how right at the end we jump forward to the crew waking up to find an ecosystem has taken over the concourse of Avalon. Once again this is a much more interesting story that the one we ended up getting.
So, in the end, can I recommend Passengers, yes and no. If you go to see it you will find the cast’s performances to be compelling and there are a number of interesting ideas at play here, so if you like Sci-Fi or are a fan of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt then will probably enjoy at least parts of it. However, if you are not a fan of Sci-Fi or the cast I don’t think I can recommend you go out of your way to see it because in many respects it is a missed opportunity.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Morten Tyldum
Written by – Jon Spaihts
Music by – Thomas Newman
Cinematography by – Rodrigo Prieto
Starring – Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne & 20 seconds of Andy García
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; NZ: M; UK: 12A; USA: PG-13